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Guitars, Cadillacs and AIDS

[Originally published 1994 |
Updated here 1999.06.20

Late in February I had occasion to visit New York, and one balmy afternoon I sashayed down to the offices of the Red Hot Organization, the people who gave us those uneven AIDS benefit albums, Red Hot & Blue, Red Hot & Dance, and No Alternative. (Strangely, Red Hot has apparently never investigated a cross-licensing deal with sex-kittenish living eponyms the Red Hot Chili Peppers.)

In Red Hot's cramped, spartan, bustling office – outfitted with hand-me-down furniture, cruddy old computers, and doors without knobs – president John Carlin offered Queer in Your Ear a superexclusive briefing on what's rolling down the condom for 1994. Red Hot has upped its release schedule from one album every 15 months to three every eight months, with the next two projects identified as Red Hot & Country (guess which genre?) and Red Hot & Cool, which, in its planned fusion of jazz and hiphop, could be the most musically sophisticated Red Hot album yet. (Also look for a Red Hot & Cool special on PBS come fall.)

Sophistication, however, does not necessarily translate into sales, which in turn translate into royalties, which become grants for AIDS organizations – US$4 million so far, with another $2 million to be disbursed this year (operating costs are $20,000 to $30,000 per month, which Carlin can't always cover). "It's always the balance between, 'Do we want to be esoteric? Do we want to be commercial?' " Carlin says. "And it's hard to find that balance of pragmatism. Or, you know, maybe this thing has run its cycle and it's like, we've done enough of them and we've done our part."

Indeed, "the general population" may have gotten tired of hearing about AIDS, period. One theory why: So many angles have been covered by the media (AIDS and cops, lesbians with AIDS, AIDS on native reserves, straight guys with AIDS) that it's become "old hat." And like all intractable problems – Kuwait's rebuilding, the war in Sudan, water pollution, even everyday events like car accidents – it's hard to maintain people's attention. Perhaps Joe and Jane Record-Buying Public are thinking, "Oh, no, not another Red Hot album. I just finished buying one three years ago." (The overuse of the awkward, notice-it-a-mile-away title construction "Red Hot &" hasn't helped much.)

"I want the world to come back and tell me what this entity, this vehicle, should do," Carlin explains. "Should I make more records? Should I branch out into other areas?" One moneymaker might be fitness videos, of all things: "Maybe a workout video with supermodels - that'll make money," Carlin muses. "Then we'll do one with boys, then one for HIV-positives…." Or both: Marky Mark could spot Magic Johnson on bench press, or perhaps help him into a Lycra unitard.

Meanwhile, Red Hot & Country producer Brian Hanna – who, like other Red Hot producers, gets paid a nominal one-time fee – is looking forward to the release of what could be called a concept cover album, likely in July. The record, whose American proceeds will likely be directed to rural AIDS education, will offer up Nashville stalwarts (Dolly Parton, Kathy Mattea, Johnny Cash, even icky pricky Billy Ray Cyrus) performing songs that inspired them early on. It's incestuous to some extent – Brooks & Dunn sing Johnny Cash, Billy Ray Cyrus sings his own song – but Mattea will ante up with a Jackson Browne number, of all things. However, don't expect a radical reworking like Salif Keita singing Cole Porter on Red Hot & Blue.

"It's funny, because when we set about doing this project we really wanted to involve the Nashville community," Hanna recalls, "but it was really sort of clear that we were being these urban New Yorkers doing this project. So I think we always came off as outsiders in a way. And that's as it should be, because we wanted to bring Red Hot's point of view to another form of music, and not really turn it into Red Hot at all. What we wanted to do is put our twist on it.

"But if we made a really wacky, irreverent album, then it was not going to reach the people we wanted to reach with this. So it's very respectful, I think, in the way that it looks at various genres of music and adds unexpected things that you might not normally find." Now let's hope it rakes in the cash.