This is far from your typical pop song. It finds Hawkins yearning to set someone free and become that person's lover. A careful listen reveals that this person is a woman, and likely one who is being abused or neglected by a man. Hawkins, who wrote the song, sings about freeing her mind and easing her pain, and she makes it clear that her intentions are erotic.
Most listeners didn't pick up on the same-sex relationship Hawkins was singing about, but to the LGBT audience, it was clear. This was a pretty big deal because it was the first hit song so explicitly dealing with lesbian love. Melissa Etheridge, who came out the year after this song was released, kept her songs gender-neutral, and it wasn't until 1994 when she had a hit where she sang about being in love with another woman ("I'm The Only One
Hawkins, who has a large gay and lesbian following, describes her sexual orientation as "Omnisexual."
So who, specifically, is the song about? When Hawkins spoke with Songfacts in 2019
, she said: "I'm going to be very honest with you. There may have been a person that triggered the feeling, but I feel strongly that the most meaningful teachings come from our child self somewhere back in time when we couldn't express these incredible feelings. When we finally start developing as artists we find a way to express them. So, 'Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover' truly is my anthem and I'm learning things about it all the time. Only as I grow do I grow into knowing why I wrote it. And so, while I want to say maybe somebody triggered the song, that person is irrelevant and long-forgotten."
In a rather feckless programing decision, MTV rejected the original version of the video on grounds of erotic content. This original clip was far leas controversial than many of Madonna's videos, but Hawkins didn't have the clout to fight it, so a more mainstream video was produced where she is fully dressed and performs the song with a band. A portion of the original video is featured in the documentary The Cream Will Rise, which was made during Hawkins' 1996 tour.
Hawkins got into the industry as a percussionist: She studied with the Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji and landed a gig playing marimbas for Bryan Ferry. She was fired after two weeks, so she turned her attention to songwriting.
Around 1989, she made a demo of "Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover," recording it on a reel-to-reel machine she borrowed. Working as a coat-check girl in Manhattan, she handed out cassette copies to anyone who might be interested; one went to Marc Cohn, who told her she was probably a good singer because she had a nice speaking voice. One of her tapes landed at JSM Music, where the keyboard player Ralph Schuckett heard it. He worked with her to clean up the demo and helped land her a deal at Columbia Records. Along with Rick Chertoff, Schuckett co-produced the Tongues And Tails album.
"Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover" was the first single. It was tough sell because Hawkins was an unknown artist, but Columbia put their promotional might behind it and Hawkins dutifully did the press, appearing at radio stations and showcases to push the song. It worked; the song rose to #5 in the summer of 1992.
Hawkins came up with the chords for this song in a happy accident when her hand slipped on the piano. "That was the mistake I was looking for," she told Songfacts. "I almost shivered because I thought, Now this is the big song you've been waiting for. There was this strange sense. It was like something big was coming. You've never been able to do it before and now you have to do it. It was like a baby coming out. Now that I've had a child, I can sense it was like the feeling that you may not be able to do it or that it may go badly - just an indescribable fear - but also knowing that you can't do anything about it."
Once she had the chords, the opening line popped out: "That old dog has chained you up alright." The first verse quickly followed.
There had been songs with "Damn" in the title ("Give A Damn" by Spanky & Our Gang, "Chicago, Damn" by Bobbi Humphrey), but this was the first Top 10 hit to use the word in the title (although the Damn Yankees had a few hits around this time). It was hardly offensive, but still surprising to hear on pop and adult contemporary radio - some announcers sounded rather awkward introducing it.
The song opened up the "damn" dam, as many others soon emerged with that word in the title. Among them:
"Damn Thing Called Love" by After 7
"Mr. Too Damn Good" by Gerald Levert
"Damn!" by YoungBloodZ with Lil' Jon (a club-banger that made #4 US)
"Feelin' Way Too Damn Good" by Nickelback
"My Give A Damn's Busted
" by Jo Dee Messina
" by Taking Back Sunday
"The Best Damn Thing" by Avril Lavigne
"Damned If I Do Ya (Damned If I Don't)
" by All Time Low
Hawkins wasn't worried about using the word "damn" in the song, but she did have other concerns. "The part that worried me was the 16-bar bridge and the three verses," she said. "I thought, It's not going to fly. But I also thought it's integral to the story that I felt so emotionally attached to."
The song runs 5:21 and the vocal doesn't appear until 32 seconds in.
Hawkins' next single was a cover of the Bob Dylan song "I Want You
." It stiffed, and when her next single, "California Here I Come," failed to chart, she was in danger of becoming a one-hit wonder, but her next album produced another hit, "As I Lay Me Down
," which rose to #6 in the US in 1995. She didn't release another album until 1999 with Timbre
, which ended up being her last on Columbia. Her next releases were on her own label, Trumpet Swan Records.
Hawkins performed this song with Melissa Etheridge on the 1995 VH1 Duets special dedicated to Etheridge, who was one of the network's biggest stars. Hawkins was rather demonstrative during the performance, as if singing the song to Etheridge.
The tennis star Martina Navratilova interviewed Hawkins for a 1994 feature in Interview magazine. It's a terrible interview (Navratilova: "Tell me a joke"), but notable for the photos, where Hawkins appeared naked. She says the photographer, Bruce Weber, talked her into it.
The song was a topic of dialogue on an episode of the TV show Psych. When the TV couple Shawn (James Roday) and Juliet (Maggie Lawson) start discussing people born in 1967, they bring up Sophie B. Hawkins, and Shawn says "Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover." Juliet replies, "You are." We won't spoil it by telling them Hawkins was actually born in 1964.
When Hillary Clinton was running for the Democratic nomination in 2008, Hawkins recorded a new version of this song as "Damn, We Wish You Were President," to support her efforts. Sample lyrics:
You are everything America represents
You do such things to ease our pain
Free our minds and bring us home again