Melissa Etheridge was on her tour bus when she heard about the Orlando shooting. In the early-morning hours of June 12, a gunman opened fire at gay club Pulse, carrying out a deadly rampage that ultimately claimed 49 victims and wounded 53 more. Many of the specifics were still vague that Sunday — there were reports of hostages and a police standoff — and soon the suspect’s father would publicly speculate that his son targeted Pulse after seeing two men kiss. All of this deeply shook the 55-year-old singer-songwriter, who’s married to writer-producer Linda Wallem, particularly the cruelty of an LGBTQ safe space recast as a mass-murder scene.
Later that night, after she’d returned to Manhattan, Etheridge sat in her lower Manhattan apartment, staring at the Freedom Tower’s rainbow-spire memorial, and confronted the swell of sadness and confusion the best way she knew: She wrote a song. The result, “Pulse,” is both an elegy and a rallying cry, an ascendant power-folk appeal to humanity’s grace.
Below, Etheridge tells Billboard about the Orlando shooting’s resonance.
What moved me to write “Pulse” was thinking about what a horrific situation this was. As an LGBT person, I grew up in places like Pulse — dark clubs with the beat pumping — and I know what it’s like to have a sanctuary where you could be free. Juxtapose that with such horror — all my brothers and sisters in there, in that macabre reality — and it’s almost too much to bear.
That Sunday night, I was in New York, alone, looking at the Freedom Tower. I’d woken up with a deep sadness. I grabbed my guitar, which is how I deal with most things, it started flowing and then I had a song. I recorded it with [producer] Jerry Wonda the next day. I’ve performed it live — and it’s not easy. I have so many emotions. It is a cathartic release. It’s a prayer. The last refrain when I say, “Hands up if you are alive” is a spiritual moment. I am grateful for those who have been sharing it with me.
To be poetic — or corny — this moment feels like a civil war between love and fear. It’s as if we mixed in one place, at one time, with a gun, all our misunderstandings: Our misunderstanding of gun-control issues, gay rights, homophobia, the Islamic religion and a presidential election that’s unheard of — it’s like we shook up a big bottle of Mentos and Coke.
I believe this is a turning point, where we turn away from the dark and the cold and the fear. I’m sticking my neck out and saying that. I am: These 49 people will not have died in vain. These 49 beautiful souls will be forever remembered as changing the world.
In [the LGBT] community, we have to help the guy in the closet who’s having trouble living that double life. That is where it starts: knowing that it is not just an individual’s problem, but our society’s problem. It is about seeing that dark and stopping it before it can buy a gun.
—AS TOLD TO CAMILLE DODERO
?This article originally appeared in the July 2 issue of Billboard.