An ambitious campaign from MGM Resorts and agency McCann New York is celebrating LGBTQ love—and increasingly tolerant attitudes towards same-sex marriage—by teaming up with top musical artists to re-imagine classic, traditionally heterosexual love songs as same-sex wedding tunes.
Titled “Universal Love,” the six-song recording includes performances from Bob Dylan, St. Vincent and Kesha, delivering fresh interpretations of familiar tunes—but swapping out “he” and “she” pronouns, and then pairing them with a same-sex voice.
Dylan, for example, brings his unmistakable croak and impeccable phrasing to “He’s Funny That Way”—a 1928 song performed by various male and female artists over the years using both “he” and “she.” The Nobel laureate, for his part, offers a version featuring a classic jazz orchestra arrangement that nods to the song’s roots—including an early Gene Austin version and a later similarly string-laden rendition by Frank Sinatra—but that also features an exposed-piano verse that pays homage to iconic Billie Holiday recording, blending the two into a gender-bending musical dialogue with the song’s own history.
Then there’s St. Vincent’s take on “Then He Kissed Me”—the jangling Phil Spector girl pop number made famous by The Crystals in 1963. Now it gets a grungy electro treatment as “Then She Kissed Me” as sung by the modern pop-rock goddess, complete with buzzing, screeching guitars, distorted yelping vocals, mechanical toy drum sounds, and a glitchy synth solo, turning it into a more tortured—yet irresistibly playful—uptempo rendition. (Incidentally, it also happens to drive home the similarities of the guitar hook from Violent Femmes 1983 single “Blister in the Sun” to the original riff).
The Temptations’ 1964 Hit “My Girl” becomes “My Guy,” thanks to Kele Okereke of Bloc Party in a modern plunky interpretation that feels like being wrapped in a warm blanket. The much-recorded 1932 standard “Mad About the Boy” gets redone as a bluesy “Mad About by the Girl” by Americana songstress Valerie June, which seems to honor aspects of Dinah Washington’s well-known 1952 version but sounds more like it might fit into the soundtrack of a contemporary James Bond flick.
The 1964 minimalist bongo-driven pop track “And I Love Her” by The Beatles becomes a dreamy indie trip, “And I Love Him,” by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service. Janis Joplin’s 1968 performance of “I Need a Man to Love” as front woman of Big Brother & the Holding Company gets a largely true to form cover as “I Need a Woman to Love” by Kesha.
In the video for Kesha’s track, we see real footage from a wedding the singer officiated herself on March 26, the anniversary of America’s first same-sex wedding license in 1975:
Overall, Universal Love is stunning.
In using classic songs to acknowledge and promote shifting norms—that is increased levels of public acceptance and institutionalized protections for LGBTQ couples—the campaign draws on deep musical historical references to help convey, in emotional terms, the importance of these cultural shifts. But ironically, it also acknowledges how they mark the inevitable logical progression of a free and open society—not because people didn’t fight, suffer and sacrifice to realize them, but because these types of love have always existed, and there’s no good reason not to afford them the same basic human rights that heterosexual couples have long enjoyed. Popular music—a catalyst for positive social change in the 20th century, and so often a reflection of humanity’s better angels—is the perfect vehicle for such a message.
It doesn’t hurt that Dylan, elder statesman of 1960s revolution that he is, serves as the headliner for the project. But in liner notes for the album, longtime Rolling Stone music writer Anthony DeCurtis also beautifully explores what he describes as the United States’ current “revolution of the heart” and acknowledges how, “What should be an open-hearted, collective search for self-creation and self-realization has often devolved instead into a grim battle, yet another explosive front in our seemingly endless culture wars.” In the end, though, he argues, “these performances make clear, above all, that all are welcome to love,” concluding that “making love is always always preferable to making war—and far more capable of shaping a world that welcomes us all, and that we all want to live in.”
In short, “Universal Love” is that white whale marketers are so often chasing—an irrefutably delightful and impressively substantial contribution to the cultural conversation. It builds on MGM’s prior LGBTQ advocacy efforts—the hotel chain is happy to tout a history of hosting same-sex ceremonies at chapels on its properties, even before such ceremonies were legal, as well as one of providing employees with same-sex-couple health benefits.
But more broadly, it’s a valuable lesson for other brands—as a New York Times profile of the campaign illustrates, the biggest, most influential, most elusive stars in the world might happily—eagerly, even—sign on to a campaign that seeks to actually gives back to audiences. All told, it could continue to push the world forward, lending invaluable gravitas and imprimatur—authenticity, and, as Okereke calls it, “currency”—to the whole endeavor.
Kesha Video Credits:
Magic Seed Productions
Director: Lagan Sebert
Executive Producers: Sandra Sampayo, Brandon Bloch, Lagan Sebert
Casting: Jenny O’Haver
Editorial: Chris Franklin, Big Sky Editorial
Color: Chris Ryan/ Nice Shoes
Audio: Rob Fielack/ Plush
Brand: MGM Resorts
Ad Agency: McCann NY
Wool and Tusk Music Production: Rob Kaplan, Executive Producer; Aaron Mercer, Executive Producer