Sylvester confused me as a kid. Correction: androgyny confused me as a kid. My concept of gender identity as a kid in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was that there was a very specific way boys were supposed to act and a very specific way that girls were supposed to act and anyone who didn’t act in the manner that was generally ascribed to their gender was weird. So, along with Grace Jones and Prince, Sylvester didn’t totally make sense. And in retrospect, that was scary and intriguing. That intrigue didn’t lead me towards any particular path in terms of my own gender (I’ve never not felt like a guy, and I’ve never had a particular interest in anything that would be considered gender play like drag or even painting my nails), but it gave me a ton of respect for those that do (once I realized there was nothing to be afraid of) and at least an initial understanding that the lines were not as clearly delineated as I was taught they were, and that was OK.
“Do Ya Wanna Funk?”’s title suggests a question. The way Sylvester sings indicates that the question has already been answered…or at least that if Sylvester’s asking, he’s not really considering the answer being “no” as an option. Sylvester may be singing in what some might consider a fey falsetto, but make no mistake-this is his car and you are just a passenger. He’s only asking if you wanna funk to be polite. ‘Cause y’all gon’ be funkin’.
The futuristic synthesizers on “Funk” are played by Patrick Cowley, a San Francisco musician/producer who was set to follow in the footsteps of dance music synth pioneers like Giorgio Moroder and Prince. Unfortunately, Cowley was also the popular music world’s first AIDS casualty, passing away just as “Funk” was becoming an international hit. Check out this awesome Gawker article on Cowley’s legacy. Sylvester himself would die of AIDS-related causes six years later.
Despite the tragic end both artists met, “Do You Wanna Funk?” is celebratory, delightfully sleazy, a celebration of carnal pleasure and lust that took on an almost subversive meaning as AIDS continued to decimate the ranks of out gay men throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s (traumatizing several generations of queer men and sexual adventurers). Openly fucking for the fun of it was almost a form of protest for a while, and I’d like to think that Cowley and Sylvester were both okay with this song being used as a soundtrack for it.
Weirdly, I think my first exposure to “Do You Wanna Funk?” came via the Eddie Murphy movie Trading Places. Given the virulent homophobia and AIDS-phobia that Murphy was known for at this time (which-no shade-was a view shared by almost all of the world at this time and Murphy shouldn’t be held up as a sole scapegoat for) , it’s kind of ironic that a key scene in one of his best known movies features an unapologetic ode to queer sex.