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Pop Music: Streets of Philadelphia

Public health in pop music

By Arti Virkud

Published February 28, 2013

While this Academy Award- and Grammy Award-winning song never explicitly mentions H.I.V. or AIDS, the music is bound to the film it was written for, “Philadelphia.” The 1993 movie, starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, was the first mainstream film with an H.I.V./AIDS plotline. The evocative language aptly portrays the harrowing experience of H.I.V./AIDS in a time where treatment for the disease was even less sophisticated than today.

The song was officially released in 1994, a year when a vaccine for the disease appeared to be “as far away as ever.” The lyrics tell the story of a “bruised and battered” victim who has lost hope in the final stages of his disease. The listener is left to determine whether the injuries Springsteen sings of are inflicted by the disease (skin lesions of the cancer Kaposi’s sarcoma are a telltale sign of AIDS) or from the discrimination H.I.V./AIDS patients endured in this era.

Springsteen writes, “I heard the voices of friends vanished and gone,” capturing the gloomy future that awaits these patients in a time where there is no salvation for their condition and honoring the tens of thousands of people – particularly the many gay men highlighted in the film – who had already died. The failure of the song to explicitly mention the disease itself seems to achieve an anonymity that H.I.V./AIDS patients of the time were deprived of, as many of the gay men were unable to keep their sexuality private from the world as their symptoms progressed to more physically apparent conditions.

Read our introduction to the PopMusic series, The 2×2 Project’s compilation of some of the most iconic songs tackling topics of public health. Come back to see new songs posted every Thursday.

Edited by Jordan Lite. Additional research by Lauren Weisenfluh.

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The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the authors and do not represent those of the Department of Epidemiology, the Mailman School of Public Health, or Columbia University.