If you were around during VH1’s countdown-show heyday when series like “I Love the ’90s” aired on heavy rotation, you may recall D-list celebrities waxing poetic about their favorite songs from the era (read: exchanging snarky remarks about every tune).
It’s on a show like this — I haven’t mentioned the title, because I can’t, for the life of me, remember which one it was — where Sophie B. Hawkins’ mercurial music video for “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” came up on the dial. The commentators fawned over it, with good reason.
It is an arresting, animalistic 4 1/2 minutes of Hawkins writhing around on the floor in a cloth material perfectly haltered around her chest and cut as a bikini bottom. The music video also features a blending of ethereal bodies all while the singer-songwriter belts out raw, passionate lyrics about lust:
“If I was your girl believe me / I’d turn on the Rollin’ Stones / We could groove along and feel much better / Let me in / I could do it forever and ever and ever and ever.”
Then, in a literal record-scratch moment, one of the commentators says something like, “I think the song is about a woman.” The camera pans to another commentator, flashing one of those don’t-look-at-me faces, before they abruptly move on to another subject.
They didn’t know what to do with that information. Queer songs were, at best, largely ignored or met with such awkwardness through the intensely heteronormative ‘90s (though not much has changed today). But “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” was inescapable, spending 21 weeks on the 1992 Billboard charts and getting fans singing along to Hawkins’ lyrics.
And those lyrics boldly declare the object of Hawkins’ affection. “When I say ‘making love to her with visions clear,’ I’m completely aware — how the hell did I get away with this?” Hawkins said during our recent video call. “What was I thinking that I could actually write a song about what I really was feeling and then get it into the world?”
It was the very early ’90s, though, as Hawkins pointed out to me. She, Nirvana, and other musical acts like them were descendants of an era when musicians like The Beatles and Janis Joplin (whom Hawkins actually played in a 2012 musical) could sing about whatever they wanted as long as it made the studios money.
“We slipped through,” Hawkins said. “Nobody told us we couldn’t say what we were saying.”
Surprisingly, though, it wasn’t her clearly singing about a woman that Sony, her record label then, took issue with at the time.
“It challenged me on the word ‘Damn,’” Hawkins said. “But they never challenged me that I was going to do this wild third verse after a 16-bar bridge. It was so insane what I was doing and so strong. I would go to the studio every day like a soldier: I’m not letting anybody talk to me.”
On the day we spoke last month, Hawkins was on the San Diego leg of her 30th anniversary concert tour celebrating her groundbreaking debut album “Tongues and Tails,” which “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” helped catapult. She was also invigorated by the fact that she will soon release a new album, led by the cheerful first single, “Love Yourself.”
But we were reminiscing about the time she cut through heteronormative pop radio with “Damn.” The song has been on her mind a lot lately since she’s been singing it every night on tour. And she finds herself just as excited to sing it today as ever.
In fact, the very mention of it brings Hawkins back to the moment the song came to her. She was deep in the local performing arts scene in her native New York City in the late 1980s and early ’90s, frequenting spots like Dixon Place and Wild Cafe and watching queer artists like Holly Hughes.
“It was, like, goddess time in terms of people’s creativity,” Hawkins recalled.
She was desperate to immerse herself in this space where people would be free and do this “wild dance noise,” as she described it. “I was really looking for people to crack me open on the emotional and mythological level. So, these women were who I went to creatively.”
That led to a night when Hawkins sat at her piano and the words to “Damn” spilled out of her.
“I honestly knew that this was the moment I had been working for,” she said. “And I was so scared that I wouldn’t be able to follow it through because I knew it was going to be the story of my life and it was going to be big and I had to carry it.”
She still finds herself stirred by her own words today. “Last night when I was singing ‘Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover,’ then there’s that moment after the big long note, I go down on the floor backwards and then I come up and I pretend to be this person coming out of the sea or however you want to interpret that.”
In the ’90s, this kind of performance moment wasn’t as much interpreted as it was maybe just experienced. Many American radio listeners, including some who attended Hawkins’ concerts, were vibing to her videos and taking in the rhythmic beats of her powerful, heartfelt songs and her almost hypnotic voice.
“I think the people who showed up at the shows were innocent a lot,” Hawkins said.
But much like the music of her queer contemporaries Meshell Ndegeocello, k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge, it felt like Hawkins was exploring the depths of her soul and liberating herself — spiritually, emotionally, metaphysically, sexually and certainly professionally.
And she was doing it through the music industry’s narrow prism that would eventually dissolve into a cesspool of white female pop contrivance and sexuality as primarily defined through the hetero male lens (think: Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Mandy Moore).
But those who got Hawkins and her music — like, really understood its complexities and the fact that “Damn” in part details an abusive relationship — rocked with her and it. Those who refused to do so signaled a shifting culture that would soon overlook, stifle and try to criticize her honesty.
That came from a lot of directions. For instance, radio had no shame. DJs, as Hawkins recalled, “would try to make fun and cut you down” whenever she tried to talk about herself in full context. Like many people at the time, radio hosts might have been curious enough to ask, but never truly interested in her answer.
And that eye-catching original music video for “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover”? It was banned and she had to do another one, a remarkably subdued 4 1/2 minutes with a fully clothed Hawkins performing beneath a subway. That’s a fact that seems to fill Hawkins with as much annoyance as nostalgia.
“Are you ready for this?” She begins one of many interesting stories she’ll tell me.
“When I was making the video, the first one, we didn’t know it was going to be banned at the time,” she continued. “And I used all those East Village friends. There were dancers, artists and different kinds. It’s wild. I’m wearing a jungle outfit, and I’m falling around.”
This is around the time when female artists were expected to funnel through the same branding ecosystem as all the others on the radio. And Hawkins refused. In fact, she recalled taking an enlightening meeting with Arista mogul Clive Davis, who helped launch Whitney Houston’s career, before signing with Sony. She knew right away that it wasn’t a fit.
“I walked in there with my same pair of blue jeans and the same shirt that I wore at every meeting and probably every day that year,” Hawkins remembered. “And he said he was going to make me a huge star. But I walked out thinking he would destroy me.”
For one thing, she wasn’t a pop star. She had a voice, a message that people, particularly young queer listeners, wanted and needed to hear. She was open about being an omnisexual, which she first stated during an interview in ’92, and wanted to reach out to other queer people.
But it was demoralizing having to contend with parochial, queerphobic radio gatekeepers. Hawkins recalls being “read” by a young female listener she met following a particularly brutal early-morning radio interview.
“Why did you let him put you down like that?” Hawkins recalled the young woman saying. “You are an artist, you are a woman, you are a songwriter. Look at what you’re writing about, and this guy belittled you and he led you down these garden paths and you went there. What is wrong with you?”
It was a lot to have to deal with all the time, but a lesson she quickly absorbed. “She was unbelievable,” Hawkins said. “I learned, in that moment, everything from this woman. She was so mad at me for allowing it, but she was right. Talk about the beginning of a Me Too movement.”
Hawkins gave that more thought before confessing something else. “Those were the things that made me ashamed,” she said. “Not anything I said in songs, not saying I was omnisexual. It was those moments where they would have you and then suddenly you didn’t know what you were, even the subject matter you’re talking about.”
“And you were betraying yourself. I think that’s awful.” It’s a candid reflection by an artist who was, by her own account, empowered by the sense of her own control. While her die-hard fans of many different identities uplifted her, she still felt moments of inadequacy.
“I was like, oh, they must think I’m so weird,” Hawkins recalled thinking.
But the reality at the time, as much as Hawkins fought against it, was that there were too many more people who didn’t want to hear her story. There came a point when her record label didn’t want her to talk about it. “When I said in ’92 that I was omnisexual, Sony wanted to drop the whole record,” the musician said.
That’s where her toughness, which Hawkins speaks about often throughout our conversation, had to come in. She would then go to the studio, run mostly by older men at the time, and stand up for herself.
“You can hear that toughness on the album,” she said. “And that helped me protect myself from these older men. I was like, ‘I’m not going to listen to what you’re talking about. Don’t even talk to me about that.’”
So, she would perform onstage with women, doing “these wild, slightly cabaret, S&M things,” inspired by German films they had been watching at the time. “And oh, my God, I can’t even tell you how mad they were at me,” Hawkins said.
She acknowledges that she was certainly not the only person to identify as omnisexual at the time, but perhaps the one who would most often talk about it with the press. She had a natural curiosity about other people, which led to a 1995 conversation with Lauren Hutton where the two riffed about the “numerous sexualities” that exist.
When Hawkins brought up those kinds of conversations in the media, though, it was a whole other story. Interviewers weren’t ready for it, or rather were unwilling to be. And not enough people challenged them on that.
But these were the kinds of things that mattered to Hawkins, and what also isolated her in many spaces. In another ’90s radio interview, she started talking about transgender author Kate Bornstein’s book “Gender Outlaw,” and was quickly mocked for it.
“I was ridiculed on the radio property for doing that stuff too,” Hawkins said. “But I really thoroughly believed this was a topic that kids would appreciate.” That was true, though it would take many years for people to come around to that fact.
This was also a time when issues were very black and white and not given the nuance they deserved. As Hawkins notes, not even within the queer community, particularly among her friends in Manhattan, was there a full acceptance of who she was.
In essence, they felt she wasn’t “moving their cause forward,” as she put it, because she kept saying she was omnisexual.
“I really was trying to answer honestly,” Hawkins said. “And I thought, well, I’ve had a few significant relationships with men and women — and how do I answer this? I don’t want to say bi because I don’t want anyone to think I’m trying to make a choice. It’s not a choice for me.”
This kind of statement is more widely embraced today by an audience that Hawkins was trying to reach back then. Looking back now, she remembers what it felt like to have to fulfill yet another person’s expectations on an unreasonable to-do list ― even at the same time that her hella queer song had been taking up good real estate on the Billboard charts.
“The gay mafia of the ’90s was really mad at me that I wouldn’t just say I was a lesbian,” Hawkins said. “I said, ‘But wait, what more can I do?’ I’ve said, ‘making love to her’ in a pop song that’s a huge hit. And no one else has ever done that. Guys, cut me a break here.”
Hawkins talks a lot about having a sense of freedom — and what that looks like today versus in the ’90s, when it all seemed like it had to be a compromise. It’s what makes “Love Yourself” so enchanting, because it sounds like the voice of a woman who has arrived at the conclusion that pleasing everyone else is an impossible exercise.
Self-love and liberation had been her goal all along. “Not just emotional freedom, sexual freedom, spiritual freedom or creative freedom,” Hawkins explained. “But the sense of, you’re connected through the past and the future to something so empowering. You can feel confident, comfortable and not a prisoner of someone else’s ideas.”
This feeling “wasn’t timely” for the ’90s, Hawkins concludes. She thinks about that final moment in 1991’s “Thelma & Louise,” when the title characters (played by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon) drive their car off a cliff, as an indicator of when things began to go off the rails in the ’90s. And when artists like her started to lose their grasp on their own independence.
“In my head, I said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s what’s happening,’” Hawkins said. “We’re going off the cliff. There’s this moment of freedom of them holding hands, then they go off a cliff. I thought, ‘That’s what’s happening to society right now. We’re about to lose everything we’ve gained.’”