Valentine's Day approaches, and for many folks, that means a day of loneliness, contempt, and ennui. But never fear! For decades, queer pop stars have captured all those negative feelings (and many others) in song.
Why suffer quietly on the world's crummiest holiday when you can crank up these tunes, belt out lovelorn lyrics, and sashay away the pain?
From new wave to R&B, folk to pop, here are 14 Homo Heartbreak Hits to get you started.
1. Culture Club, "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?" (1982) From the moment Boy George sang his mournful opening plea, "Give me time to realize my crime," listeners knew they were in for something special. Reggae beats, tinkly synths and the Boy's trademark blue-eyed soul meshed to form the perfect torch song for the new wave era. How did a bitchy British drag queen rise to the top of the American pop charts in the Reagan '80s? Talent. He also wore his heart on his sleeve, as evidenced by a half-dozen U.S. Top 10 hits -- every one of them love songs. Some of those tunes, including this one, were about the band's drummer, Jon Moss. The two were in a tempestuous secret relationship for years.
2. Sam Smith, "I'm Not the Only One" (2014) By now, everyone knows 22-year-old British crooner Sam Smith, winner of a recent Grammys sweepstakes. This song, the fourth single from his debut studio album, In the Lonely Hour, is another one of Smith's hits inspired by boys who break his heart. The production here is stripped down and elegant. With just a slow-shuffling beat and a bit of piano accompanying him, Smith sounds sublime. "You say I'm crazy / 'cause you don't think I know what you've done," Smith sings. "But when you call me baby / I know I'm not the only one."
3. Dusty Springfield, "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" (1966) Dusty Springfield became a legend by being the fabulous forerunner in a decades- long string of white British soul singers. Her sultry voice infused all her material with drama, but "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" is the clear winner in the devastation department and, no surprise, it was Springfield's biggest hit. Springfield, who came out in the early 1970s, happened to see the original songwriters performing the tune in Italian. Though she had no idea what the words were, she knew the song was for her and had it translated.
4. Frank Ocean, "Swim Good" (2011) Sure, it was Ocean's brazen boy-loves-boy song "Forrest Gump" that stunned audiences when the R&B singer performed it at the 2013 Grammys, but "Swim Good," released two years earlier, is even more sorrowful. The story is told in Ocean's signature style, chock-full of strange details and nuances. A romance has ended badly, and now the narrator drives around aimlessly, wanting to disappear. "I feel like a ghost, no Swayze / ever since I lost my baby," Ocean sings. As he nears the water, the chorus sweeps in, punctuated by plaintive piano. "I'm about to drive in the ocean," he sings. "I'mma to try to swim away from something bigger than me."
5. k.d. lang, "Constant Craving" (1992) In March of 1992, androgynous Canadian chanteuse k.d. lang released Ingenue, her most successful pop album, scoring a bona fide hit with "Constant Craving." That June she came out in The Advocate, shocking very few. So naturally when the world's most recognizable lesbian sang the lyrics to this song, complete with all the references to a "darkest phase," and "skin" and "craving," the entire planet believed she was singing about two women making love. Except she wasn't. A devout Buddhist, lang wrote the song to lament the karmic struggle with samsara, the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Long story short: One of pop's most lustful, yearning songs is actually about what a bummer it is to be a lustful, yearning person.
6. Erasure, "A Little Respect" (1988) Near the tail end of the new wave era, British synth-pop duo Erasure released its tenth single and it was a stunner. My take? This was the gay man's R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Singer Andy Bell pleads with a more closeted paramour, "What religion or reason could drive a man to forsake his lover?" The duo smartly added acoustic guitar flourishes to Vince Clarke's subdued synths. The chorus finds Bell singing in falsetto, driving home the song's sentiment.
7. Me'Shell NdegeOcello, "Fool of Me" (1999) When the album is called Bitter, it's a safe bet a breakup has gone down, and indeed it did on NdegeOcello's third solo record. The R&B musician is ruminating on every tune, but it's this one, slow and meditative, that's most poignant. A slow slap of a snare drum, a few piano keys, some cello, and not much else accompany NdegeOcello's hushed vocal. She's pleading, why did you do this to me? When she tosses aside that "I feel so dumb," the ache is palpable.
8. George Michael, "Cowboys and Angels" (1990) By this point in Michael's career, he had more than redeemed himself for the pop fluff of his earlier act, Wham! His first solo album, Faith, was a monster success filled with dance club gems. The follow-up Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, was a more nuanced affair that took musical chances. This song, written in waltz time, found the still-closeted Michael pining for his ex-lover, right down to a scar on his face ("that beautiful face of yours"). Many years later, the singer revealed that the song was about a real-life love triangle he was in with a man and a woman. The woman fell for George. George fell for the other fella.
9. Tegan and Sara, "Call It Off" (2007) Canada's beloved lesbian twin duo mined their own pain for maximum pop perfection on The Con, their fifth and best studio album. They were famously undergoing intense turmoil, with one of the sisters processing the breakup of a longtime relationship, as evidenced on the album's sweeping title track. On the spare "Call It Off," however, the subject is what might have been. The chorus's setup is pretty simple. Tegan Quin plucks an acoustic guitar, sings in a gentle call-and-response with sister Sara, and then, momentum building, she slyly delivers one of pop's most devastating lyrics: "Maybe I would have been something you would be good at."
10. R.E.M., "Country Feedback" (1991) By 1991, the members of R.E.M. were pop superstars, having already scored mega success, both critical praise and a string of hit songs. This tune, off the band's seventh album. Out of Time, gave fans a glimpse of singer Michael Stipe we'd never seen before. It finds the still-closeted singer grappling with a tumultuous relationship, admonishing his lover, "You wear me out." They've been through "fuck all" and now Stipe's looking back, putting the pieces together. "I was central, I had control, I lost my head," he recalls. The clincher is the devastating fade-out lyric, which Stipe repeats over and over for maximum chills: "It's crazy what you could have had."
11. Indigo Girls, "Blood and Fire" (1989) Who wasn't shocked by this lesbian folk-rock duo's sudden pop success in the late 1980s? The band's debut album, bolstered by the success of the single "Closer to Fine," broke the Top 30 and nabbed the Indigos a Grammy. But it was this haunting tune that perfectly captured Amy Ray's rawness. Those of you who have been to the duo's concerts know the power of Miss Ray's wailing, "And I am calling you, calling you from 10,000 miles away."
12. Elton John, "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" (1983) "Don't wish it away," Elton croons to his lover on this early 1980s masterpiece. "Don't look at it like it's forever." He's singing about the agony of their separation. "Time on my hands could be time spent with you," he laments. From John's Too Low for Zero album, the song is just one in a long string of 1980s hits for the singer-pianist, but for my money, it's his best of that era. What makes the song such pop perfection? Gorgeous melody, doleful lyrics (courtesy of Elton's songwriting partner Bernie Taupin), and, oh yes, Stevie Wonder on harmonica.
13. Melissa Etheridge, "I'm the Only One" (1993) Folk-rocking Etheridge belts out her agony on this tune, which appears on her bravely confessional fourth album, Yes I Am, and shot right to the U.S. Top 10. Grieving over a lover moving on to "some other woman," Etheridge stomps through the song's bluesy beat, screaming to be heard in the song's big hooky chorus. More mournful is the quieter verse that finds the singer knowing her lover is leaving, not because the lover genuinely cares for someone else, but because she's got issues. "Her eyes and arms and skin won't make it go away," Etheridge sings of her lover's pain or void or whatever it is that makes lovers so restless.
14. Mika, "Grace Kelly" (2006) According to British singer Mika, this song, named for Hitchcock's most famous leading lady, is about trying unsuccessfully to please a record exec. But it works fabulously as a parody of a love song. And, since Mika is an out gay man, it suits our purposes. The singer lists all the personalities he's tried on to nab someone's attention: wholesome, loathsome, brown, blue, hurtful, purple -- but nothing's working! He tries to act like the demure former princess of Monaco, but the effect is more Freddie Mercury. Mika begs, "Why don't you like me?!" over and over throughout the tune, but such a desperate lyric, paired with that infectiously upbeat melody -- cribbed from Rossini's famous "Figaro! Figaro!" aria -- is ultimately silly and fun. Watching Mika sing it is a lesson in adorability -- and a perfect reminder that at the end of the day, everything's going to be all right. Really.