“It feels like several lifetimes ago…” Josie Cotton says with a laugh,about the early-80s when “Johnny Are You Queer?” hit airwaves. April 29thmarked Valley Girl’s forty-year-release anniversary, and though “Johnny Are You Queer?” had been out for two years by the film’s release in 1983, it’s unforgettable—and oddly ironic—placement in the final duel-for-the-damsel scene (where an 18-year-old Nicolas Cage “saved” his valley girl from a life of preppy ennui) cemented its status as one of the most ‘80s songs ever. (Like, totally!)
But could “Johnny Are You Queer?” be made now?
Goes without saying—a lot has changed since 1981. 2023 marked the release of Josie’s new album, Day of the Gun, on Kitten Robot Records, founded by Josie in 2018. “I didn’t hold anything back,” she says. “I tried very hard to be authentic on this record while never losing sight of my sense of the absurd.”
With the album’s first single, “Ukrainian Cowboy,” and its unapologetically camp ode-to-Spaghetti-Western video, we’d say she’s wonderfully, fantastically on point. Another single, “Painting in Blood” is another Spaghetti Western tribute, specifically inspired by legendary composer Ennio Morricone. “I’m someone who made a whole record of theme songs from exploitation movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s,” she says, referring to 2007’s Invasion of the B-Girls. “I’m in no way a purist–but the genius Morricone? I couldn’t get my head around it. I suppose the song came from me asking myself: ‘Why?’ It was funny to me. The answer, it turned out, was very simple. He loved ALL music. His influences ranged from Beethoven to surf music, jazz, Italian disco, Rosemary’s Baby, American Westerns etc. And I think I loved him even more after learning that, if that’s even possible.”
Throughout 2019 and 2021, she reissued her entire catalogue on her new label — the process of doing so brought up a lot of emotions. “I was relieved and excited that these records I had made and lost track of would finally get their day in the sun,” she tells me. “But it also brought up a lot of war wounds from the music business which I had to process. Mostly I found it extremely life-affirming… that I was doing the work. I liked this person who kept searching and re-inventing herself, falling on her face and then getting back up. I found myself rooting for her (me) like she (I) was a character in a movie. How’s that for dissociation?”
We’re rooting for you, too, Josie.
And if it looks like she’s having fun, well, she really is. “I’m doing what I love and am surrounded by friends who have my back and who are also sane. That’s new territory for me…haha!”
What was your life like when you recorded “Johnny Are You Queer?”
I was a singer just landed from Texas with a suitcase full of demo tapes and songs I had written, getting shown the door at record companies all over town, not really knowing where I fit in. “Your voice is too sweet” “Your songs are terrible” “You sing too many different styles of music” “You’re not ready” “You’ll never make it” etc etc.. And then the Paine Brothers walked into my life. They were the first ones in Los Angeles to take me seriously as an artist. They recognized something in me and I always remembered that.
How were you first introduced to the song and what were your reactions?
I had met [songwriter] Larson Paine in a bank line on Sunset and Vine in Hollywood and I became friends with him and his brother Bobby. One day they very casually played “Johnny Are You Queer?” for me and I couldn’t believe it. It was so outrageous to hear that word said out loud with absolutely no rancor by this innocent girl, dumb as a box of rocks.
I had grown up around gay men since I was a little girl, my stepfather being one of them. I also had a background in comedy and this was comedy gold. I didn’t know who The Go-Go’s were or that this had been their song. The Paine Brothers were just looking for someone to sing on a publishing demo for Warner Brothers. I immediately said “Let me sing it! I can sing the shit out of it!” And they were like, “No, it’s not for you.” Of course, that made me want to do it more. What harm could it do? It’s just a demo! (Famous last words!) IRS Records had offered me a record deal at the time if I would just drop the song, but it seemed like a lousy way to start a career. We then went to BOMP! Records who wanted to do a whole album but we decided to just give them “Johnny…” and wait for a major label. In retrospect, staying with BOMP! would have been the move. They had a much better grasp of what I was about and what “Johnny Are You Queer?” actually meant, in the [greater] scheme of things.
I was later told The Go-Go’s had walked out on a serious production contract with the Paines and they hadn’t parted ways on the best of terms. And so, The Go-Go’s were told they couldn’t perform “Johnny Are You Queer?” anymore. I have still never heard their version of it, but I understand it’s how they closed every show.
The Paines were renting a house in Hollywood with an old 16-track Stephens 2” 16 Track tape machine, which is what we recorded the song on. The oxide on the tape was shredding every time we did a take. So, the more we recorded the worse it sounded.
What was the reception when it was first released in 1981?
It was all about [LA disc jockey] Rodney Bingenheimer, who was the first to play me. At first people went crazy over it in the best possible way. They would scream. They would fall on the floor laughing — gay and straight alike. People went a little nuts.
There was a protest and counter protest at KROQ which became national news and eventually I was banned in Amsterdam. The gay community on the East Coast went after me as well as the televangelists and it was all quite surreal. But on the West Coast it was like an anthem for the gay community. Guys would come up to me crying, thanking me for recording that song. It’s how they realized they were gay or how they told their parents. And I still hear that to this day.
How did the Valley Girl opportunity come about?
I remember Larson Paine kept hanging up on someone who kept calling back. He was getting quite annoyed and yelling at the person to not call back again. He said it was a crank call, someone wanting me to be in a movie.
He finally answers and its [Director] Martha Coolidge. She was making a movie that would have many popular bands. She specifically asked if I would perform “Johnny Are You Queer?” in the movie, which I thought was pretty ballsy as I had been banned everywhere by then.
Any fun stories you’re willing to share about filming that prom scene?
God, I wish I had a fun story for you. My band and I were holed up for three days in what looked like an abandoned school away from the other cast members, waiting to go on stage for the prom scene. I remember it was pouring down rain. There were buckets everywhere because the ceiling was leaking and it was freezing cold with no heat and only folding chairs to sit on. Once we got on stage and the cameras were rolling it felt like a party. But there was no time to interact with anybody. It was guerilla-style filmmaking and it all had to be done in three weeks, including the editing, [and] in one take for no money and you brought your own wardrobe.
But everyone was excited to be making this movie including me. I don’t think anyone realized how iconic it would become.
How did Valley Girl(released in 1983) change the song’s popularity and add to its—and your—iconic status?
The song’s popularity didn’t really change. It had done what it was going to do for the most part. But I do think a lot of people came to know my music from Valley Girlwho wouldn’t have known about it otherwise. And I’m grateful for that. E.G. Daily and Heidi Holicker have become friends as we do these Valley Girlreunions together.
Do you think you’d be allowed to record this song today in this social climate?
I really don’t think I would be. There was something about that exact moment in popular culture that broke down barriers in this amazing way. New wave and punk were already androgynous and no one really cared in the music scene who was what. It’s like the “queer” word slipped in through the back door in a new wave dance song that ended up causing a sensation all over the world and just became a part of the vernacular. It was just funny enough to be non-threatening, but it was also a question girls were really asking at that time. They said all the cute boys were gay. And the Paine Brothers noticed. They called “Johnny Are You Queer?” a blues song for teenage girls.