“My cousin and her girlfriend got married maybe a year and a half ago,” singer Valerie June says in a thick Tennessee accent. “We danced for hours and people were dripping in sweat and there was lots of champagne going around and then I noticed, as I was listening to the music, there’s nothing for them. Everything was people talking about their man or their woman, and I was like, ‘You know, they need a song.'”
Now June has recorded the standard, “Mad About the Boy,” which Dinah Washington made a hit in the early 1950s, with all the cinematic schmaltz and power of the original but with new lyrics as “Mad About the Girl.” It’s one of six songs on a new EP, Universal Love, that recasts the genders of wedding classics and love songs in an effort to be more inclusive for the LGBTQ community. The other artists who participated in the compilation are Bob Dylan, Kesha, St. Vincent, Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Bloc Party frontman Kele Okereke. MGM Resorts International in Las Vegas compiled the EP as part of a new marketing initiative.
“If definitions of love and marriage are changing and becoming more inclusive, maybe it’s time love songs caught up,” says Tom Murphy, the chief creative officer for ad agency McCann who served as executive producer for the comp. “MGM Resorts’ new advertising campaign, ‘Welcome to the Show,’ launched this year, and a central line of copy in the TV commercial is, ‘We invented MGM to entertain the human race.’ We wanted to make sure that these weren’t just words in a commercial, but that the campaign included actions in the world that would literally make entertainment more inclusive. That’s where this idea [for Universal Love] originated.”
It was a message that dovetailed into the company’s brand ethos. “At MGM we do not consider equality to be a political issue but rather the foundation of our company culture,” Lilian Tomovich, MGM’s chief experience and marketing officer, says.
With that concept in mind, Murphy and his associates reached out to artists that they thought would offer something unique to the project, giving them a list of songs and asking them to pick one that resonated with them. St. Vincent recorded an electro-rock redux of the Crystals’ “And Then She Kissed Me,” Okereke turned “My Girl” into the guitar ballad “My Guy” and Gibbard did a straightforward cover of Beatles’ “And I Love Her,” save the lyrics.
A few of the artists picked their own tunes. Dylan, whom Murphy says was the quickest to say yes to the project, decided to rework “She’s Funny That Way” (which originally was written for the movie Gems of M-G-M and sung as “I’m Funny That Way”) into the Sinatra-esque “He’s Funny That Way”; Billie Holiday made it a hit with those lyrics. Kesha selected Big Brother and the Holding Company’s hard-rocking Cheap Thrills track “I Need a Man to Love,” which hadn’t been on Murphy & Co.’s radar. “If most of the songs were wedding/first dance songs, Kesha’s was more of a wedding night song,” he says.
Song publishers have to approve any requested lyric changes, but Murphy says the publishers that control the copyrights to the songs didn’t object to any edits and each artist offered something different to the project. “Dylan obviously brought this incredible, iconic personal history of being at the forefront of social and musical change,” Murphy says. “St. Vincent brought her track record of artistic boundary-pushing. Kele brought a beautiful and powerful sincerity to his song. Kesha brought her voice of individualism and perseverance. Benjamin Gibbard’s melodicism made his reworking of the Beatles effortless and poignant. And there is a timelessness to Valerie June’s voice that made the added lyrical twist all the more powerful.”
“It was so hard for me to learn how to sing it like Dinah Washington, so I just said, ‘I got to do it my way,'” June says. “But it was really interesting to just listen and try to match her inflections and the different things that she was doing with her voice. That’s the reason she’s the queen because nobody is ever going to be able to hit those notes and bend and break exactly like she did and the places where she did with the lightness of breath and the heaviness of breath that she had. It’s such a great song.” The song’s composer, Noël Coward, was gay and wrote a ‘lost verse’ of “Mad About the Boy” that alluded to homosexuality.
But it was the sound of the song as much as the message that resonated with June. “As soon as I heard the music, I was like, ‘This is going to be so different from my normal folk, blues and rock & roll songs,'” June says. “And I’ve been listening so much to Billie Holiday and a lot of older jazz singers and big bands lately that I was like, ‘Oh, my God. I’m stir crazy.’ As soon as you start focusing on something, then opportunities come in that direction. So when I heard the music then I was like, ‘Yes. I love it and I want to be a part of it.'”
Now that the compilation is coming out (the album will also be available on vinyl as part of April 21st Record Store Day), Murphy is excited to explore other ways to continue the message of inclusivity. “We love the idea of adding more songs,” he says. “We also hope it serves as a catalyst for people to record entirely new songs; we’d love it to open up new ways of thinking about what a love song can be. We also think it could go beyond music. Could you apply this same thinking to other art forms?”