LISTEN: Joan Armatrading’s 1979 ode to drag queens is somehow even more relevant today

LISTEN: Joan Armatrading’s 1979 ode to drag queens is somehow even more relevant today

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Kittitian-English singer-songwriter and guitarist Joan Armatrading recounted a visit to New York City’s Times Square in the ’70s as the inspiration behind her drag-tastic song “Rosie.”

The track was included on Armatrading’s 1979 EP “How Cruel,” which was released everywhere but in the UK, and was far from a commercial success. But the way in which “Rosie” centered on a high-heeled man with “lipstick and rouge on his face” made it a cultural hit among LGBTQ+ audiences.

As Armatrading tells it in a Songfacts interview, she had just seen someone off to the airport when she decided to go for an extended taxi ride around New York. 

“I was talking to the taxi driver and he says, ‘Have you ever seen…’ whatever this place was in New York. And, I said, ‘No, I haven’t.’ So, he took me to this place, and it’s a view that I’ve never seen before because I don’t even know where it was, so I can’t even say to somebody, ‘Take me there again.’” 

One stop led to another, and Armatrading ended up around 42nd Street and Broadway where she saw gay men dressed up in their “Rosie gear.” 

“There were all these gay guys and they were in their little shoes and their little shorty shorts. And that’s where I got ‘Rosie’ from, watching all the young boys in their kind of Rosie gear. That’s how I came up with ‘Rosie,’” she explained. “And, I have to say, the taxi driver didn’t charge me any more than I paid for going to the airport.”

The drive was certainly worth every dime, and with warmth and melodic storytelling, Armatrading painted a very queer-centric picture of what it was like to be young and gay on the streets of New York City at that time.

“He has little red feet/His stockin’s in his shoes/Lipstick and rouge on his face/He has his hair piled high/Has a red umbrella/And carries his head in the sky,” she sings before launching into the chorus. “And I said ‘Awe Rosie, don’t you do that to the boys/Don’t you come on so willing/Don’t you come on so strong/It can be so chillin’/When you act so willin’.”

Over a decades-spanning career, Armatrading’s music has never gone out of style because of her eclectic point of view as a songwriter and a musician. Not one to chase trends, she has always chased feelings in her songs, and “Rosie” no doubt became a staple in her live performances for its ability to be both melodic and melancholy. 

A self-taught musician, Armatrading took up the guitar and began writing her own songs about love at the age of 14. Over the years, interviewers tried and failed to dig into her personal life, but in a 2003 interview she set the record straight about her personal and professional life. 

“My songs aren’t about me at all. They’re always about love, the pain and anguish of it. But the way I’ve always written is from observation. They’re about what I see other people going through” she said. “If the songs were about me I’d be so embarrassed I don’t think I’d be able to walk out the front door.” 

In 2011, it was publicly noted that she had entered into a civil partnership with artist Maggie Butler in the Shetland Islands. Although she would neither confirm nor deny that she is a lesbian, her music’s often queer point of view speaks for itself. 

Armatrading’s songs frequently don’t specify gender and tend to use “you” over gendered pronouns, which has somewhat contributed to the universal appeal and interpretation of her songs, including “Love and Affection,” “Down To Zero,” “Drop the Pilot” and “Me Myself I.”

Whereas the male pronouns used in “Rosie” made the song clearly about a man who dresses up as a woman, the lack of gender in her “Taking My Baby Up Town” (1978) earned her another cultural hit among LGBTQ+ people. The song is about a couple who are accosted for being proudly in love and walking arm and arm. 

“They were hooting and a hollering/They were saying I should/Never have been born,” the lyrics go, which still hit home for many queer people today.

In an interview with the Irish Times, Armatrading shared that her songs are for everybody. “Black, white, male, female, gay, straight, bi. They’re about people,” she said. “We’re not here to gaze at pretty trees or nice buildings.”

In 2021, she released “Consequences,” her 20th and most recent studio album, to positive critical reviews.

Watch Armatrading perform “Rosie” live below. 


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