HIV In The Mix: A Mix-Tape Playlist

Published 08, Jan, 2012

Michael Burtch, The Tattooed Activist, shares with you the songs he listens too when trying to cope with having HIV.


When I was first diagnosed as having HIV, I created a playlist on my i-pod of the most depressing songs imaginable. I’d stalk the streets of my downtown neighbourhood at night, doing a lot of mournful thinking, while passing under the glow of street lamps and neon signs with my head hung down and my hands tucked firmly in my pockets. I wanted my environment to match my mood, so I’d leave my brightly painted apartment and bubbly roommate behind, and follow the crumbling concrete sidewalks of Sandy Hill to Strathcona Park.

With ‘Calendar Girl' by Stars on repeat, I’d meditate on the lyrics of the song and feel sorry for myself while I processed how I was going to live the rest of my life with any sense of hope or normalcy. I’d stare at the polluted waters of the Rideau River that ran through Strathcona Park and think it looked inviting and romantic under the moonlight and stars. I’d feel incredibly sad I couldn’t swim in its filthy waters. I’d feel incredibly sad that no one would ever want to fuck me again. Eventually I’d tire of my music, or be chased out of the Park by By-Law Officers, and return home to an uneasy sleep, alone.

After all this time, in periods of difficulty, I still retreat to my ipod (though my night walks now are more likely to take me to the Goodlife Rideau gym then Strathcona Park.) More often than I‘d care to admit, I still worry about having HIV (though my concerns have changed from trying to cope with HIV to trying to thrive with HIV.)  After all this time, I’d like to think I’ve outgrown some behaviours that have served as crutches, replaced them with healthier alternatives, and become more resilient. More often than I’d care to admit, I still self medicate with Pot and alcohol, or sex (turns out lots of people still want to fuck me) or the latest power pop ballad by Snow Patrol .

Here are a few of my favourite songs that, for me, speak volumes about my experience of having HIV. Songs that have helped empower and embolden me over the years, or otherwise helped me process how I might be feeling at any given time about my status. Songs that I still escape too, and I want to share them with my readers. To paraphrase Stevie Nicks from the liner notes to her Greatest Hits collection ‘Timespace‘, I hope there is an answer in waiting for you  to be found in one of these songs. “I’d love that” she writes. I’d love that too. They’ve certainly helped me over the years process or soundtrack my own experiences being queer and HIV+.

Michael’s HIV Mix-Tape Playlist:

(We Are) Performance: Vandals. Contracting HIV can feel like getting tagged by graffiti. "Do you see what the vandals did to me? They have taken everything. You feel so dangerously close..." sings the band’s lead singer Joe Cross. His yelp at the 2:53 mark conveys everything else the song can’t in under 4 minutes.

Darren Hayes: Unlovable. "Are my lips unkissable? Are my eyes unlookable? Is my sex undoable? Am I unlovable?" This song is so relatable to being HIV+ and trying to date that I wasn’t the least bit surprised when I found out that Darren had re-recorded an acoustic version to benefit the Australian HIV/AIDS Charity 'Positive Kids'.

Madonna (feat. Lil Wayne): Revolver.  I’m not the first person on to think this song could double as a commentary on the criminalization of HIV transmission.

Barenaked Ladies: You Run Away   "I tried to be your brother. You cried and ran for cover. I made a mess, who doesn’t. I did my best but it wasn’t enough" Reminds me of my estranged sister who hasn’t spoken to me since being told I had HIV. Unfortunately, losing family over an HIV diagnoses isn’t the rarity you’d hope it would it be in this day and age. Having spoken to many HIV+ people from all over Canada, it is a painful, repetitive story that many have to tell.

The Fray: How To Save A Life.  Am I the only one who hears this song and thinks about disclosure? "Step one you say we need to talk. He walks you say sit down it's just a talk. He smiles politely back at you. You stare politely right on through..."

Ben Lee: Catch My Disease (Live). The live version (which you can find on the Grey's Anatomy soundtrack) is way better than the studio version, if for no other reason than Ben Lee name checks the Bangles in it. I have long made this whimsical track a mix-tape staple for potential suitors. Ether the guy gets the humour and laughs at its inclusion, or he acts repulsed and horrified, in which case, he’s a humourless douche and clearly is hung up on your status. Honourable mention goes to “Everyone has AIDS” by Team America. Nothing is more important than being able to laugh when facing adversity.

Death Cab For Cutie: What Sarah Said. A meditation on mortality and relationships.

Is there a song that you listen to that makes you think about your status, or sums up your experiences having HIV that isn’t on my list? Please share the song and artist in the comments section below!  All songs listed are available for purchase in the Canadian I-tunes store.