Tag Archives: Culture

MICHAEL JACKSON AT HIS BEST: POST THRILLER

Michael-Jackson-The-Jacksons-VictorY-Tour-1984-michael-jackson-17890123-547-800Imagine the pressure an artist feels attempting to follow-up the success of a lifetime. Imagine: You’re Ralph Ellison trying to write the next novel after Invisible Man. You’re Orson Welles planning your next film after Citizen Kane. Now imagine it’s late 1983 and your Michael Jackson. You’ve just recorded and released the most successful pop album of all time. What do you do?

No one would have blamed Michael if he had taken a very long hiatus to enjoy the spoils of his great success. But something tells me Michael didn’t have a choice. OF COURSE he was immediately back in the studio writing, producing, recording and performing; inevitably generating some of the best singles of 1984. I think the most interesting thing about Michael’s post Thriller output is the fact that so many of his recording were collaborations. At one point I thought he was going the way of Prince and creating a family of protégés. But Jackson’s prolific collaborative phase was primarily confined to 1984, the year immediately following Thriller’s chart domination.

To commemorate the sad anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death this week I’m going to countdown my 6 Favorite Post-Thriller releases from 1984.

Coming up  . . . the 6th Best Post Thriller Song by Michael Jackson. And the 5th Best Song. But first, let’s look back at the album that set the standard. Below you can check out earlier posts about Jackson’s seminal album, Thriller:

Michael Jackson’s Thriller: Let the Truth Unfurl: Part 1

Michael Jackson’s Thriller: Let the Truth Unfurl Part 2

Calling on all Michael Jackson fans

mj84I’m planning a small tribute to Michael Jackson next week, throughout the week, to commemorate the anniversary of his death ( I can’t believe it’s been 5 years). I’m looking for some MJ fans to participate by sharing their thoughts on a few of the specific songs I’ll be posting about (WHICH songs? Ah – that’s a secret for now)

Please leave a comment or shoot me an email if you’re interested.

Thanks!

JIMMY SOMMERVILLE: NOW & THEN: REVISITING “SMALLTOWN BOY”

sommervilleI recently posted about the impact of Bronski Beat’s first single, “Smalltown Boy.” The record is everything a great pop song should be – danceable, meaningful and unique.

In order to celebrate the 30th anniversary of this single, Bronski Beat’s lead singer, Jimmy Sommerville, has posted a video of a live, acoustic performance of the song. The result? Let’s just say that everything has stood the test of time. Sommerville’s voice still sounds amazing. His miraculous high notes could give Mariah Carey a run for her money! And the song feels just as poignant now as it did in 1984. Enjoy his new performance and then take a look at the original video.

SCREAMER OF THE WEEK: BRONSKI BEAT’S SMALLTOWN BOY. THIS WEEK IN 1984.

small town boyJimmy Sommerville and his band Bronski Beat are the most significant LGBT figures in the history of pop music. Although they haven’t sold nearly as many records as Elton John, or won as many Grammys as k.d. lang, or sold out stadiums like Queen; they are the first band I can think of who were openly gay from the very beginning of their career. Not only were they OUT, but they wore their sexuality like a badge of honor and made it an integral part of their persona and their music.

In 1984 there were a number of pop stars who were challenging hetero-normative standards in different ways. Boy George was unapologetic about his appearance, but coy about his sexuality. Other artists challenged gender norms – either for fashion (Nick Rhodes, Larry Blackmon) or for artistic expression ( Annie Lennox). But in June of 1984, Bronski Beat was the only band I knew of that wrote songs explicitly dealing with gay issues. In their second single “Why,” Sommerville sings the line,

. . . I turn to kiss his lips.

Did you hear that citizens/subjects of Reagan and Thatcher? “HIS. LIPS!” That simple lyric, sung by a man about another man, seemed almost revolutionary!

bronski beatDuring the third week of June in 1984 , WLIR’s listeners chose Bronski Beat’s first single, “Small Town Boy” as the best new song of the week. The song tells the story of a young,  ostensibly gay, man who is bullied and misunderstood. In an act of self-preservation he flees the confines of his hometown. Where is he going?  Far away. Somewhere to be himself, somewhere to find himself.

It’s heartening to think that thousands of teens in NYC and Long Island listened to this record and decided to embrace it as their favorite song of the week. Did the majority of listeners truly hear the lyrics and understand the message? I’d like to think so.

Of course the message doesn’t mean anything if the music isn’t great. Like many bands of the 80’s, Bronski Beat placed drum machines and synthesizers at the forefront of their sound. But more than other bands they seemed to be saying, “Sure – we’ll dabble in New Wave but we’re not done with Disco yet.”

And of course you can’t discuss Bronski Beat’s music without talking about Sommerville’s voice. That soulful, ethereal soprano floats on top of the dance beat and reaches heights that don’t seem physically possible. He is the ‘son and heir’ to the great disco singer Sylvester. Can someone please invent a time machine in order to allow Sommerville and Sylvester to perform a duet together? At very least I need to hear a mash-up dance mix of “Small Town Boy” and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).”

age of consentIf Sommerville is Sylvester’s direct offspring on the openly gay pop singer family tree – then think of the branches that sprout from Bronski Beat: Antony and the Johnsons, Frank Ocean, Scissor Sisters, Ed Droste (Grizzly Bear) Adam Lambert, Tyler Glenn (Neon Trees). Here’s an idea – each of these artists should cover a song from Age of Consent and release the collection as a Bronski Beat tribute album.

Bronski Beat deserves that tribute. They should be honored for being pioneers. They should also be honored for making some really great pop music.

Check out Jimmy Sommerville: Now & Then to see him deliver a beautiful performance of this great song 30 years after its debut. He still NAILS those high notes.


Additional Screamer of the Week posts:

The Psychedelic Furs – Heaven

The Thompson Twins – You Take Me Up

Prince and the Revolution – When Doves Cry

R.E.M. – Pretty Persuasion

Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time: Number One this Week in 1984

In early 1984, even if you loved her first single, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” you couldn’t have been blamed for suspecting Cyndi Lauper might be a one hit wonder. But her second single, “Time After Time,” presented the promise of a great pop performer/songwriter with staying power. The song spent two weeks at the top of the pop charts in June 1984, it was nominated for song of the year and is considered to be one of the most beautiful ballads of the eighties.

Joining me to discuss Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” is Nathan James, the author of one of my favorite blogs – The Relative Cartographer. Check out his blog for great short fiction, genealogical investigations, honest observations, wit and warmth.

Sean:  Nathan – thanks so much for joining me to discuss Cyndi Lauper’s Number one hit, “Time After Time.”

Nathan:  Oh, I’m happy to do it. Something about 1984 nostalgia makes me happy.

Sean:  Me too! I’d love to start by asking you about your earliest memories of hearing, “Time After Time.”

tatdogNathan:  My earliest memories of “Time After Time” were hanging out at my neighbor’s house across the street. My parents would never pay for cable. So I had to go over there to watch videos. We’d get together after school and I’d help her with her house chores and then we’d turn on MTV and watch the videos. I remember “Time After Time” was her favorite song because she loved the plaster dog doll Cyndi has in the beginning of the vid!

Sean: I had forgotten about that plaster dog until I recently re-watched the video. I think there were many things about Cyndi Lauper that were attractive to kids and teens. Her image was kind of child-like. So how did you feel about Cyndi and the song?

tatwaffleNathan:  You know in the video when she takes off her hat at the diner? And she shows off that waffle iron pattern shaved in her scalp?

Sean:  Yes!

Nathan:  I’d never seen a girl (or a guy for that matter) with drawings in her hair like that. I completely thought she was a weirdo!

Sean:  You were just like her boyfriend in the video! You judged her and caused her to flee the diner!

Nathan:  C’mon Sean, it was hard not to judge her. Her album is named, “She’s so Unusual” for a reason. And that bright red hair and her fever dream skirts in all those colors and glitter. She was a lot to take in.

Sean:  I mentioned in an earlier post that she seemed to almost be a novelty act – I couldn’t figure out if we were supposed to take her seriously.

Nathan: I don’t think we were supposed to take her seriously for “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” I think that’s what makes “Time After Time” so special. I think the powers that be made “Time After Time” her follow-up because it showed her range. She has some SERIOUS range, that Cyndi.

Sean:  And it really is impossible to separate the image from the music.

Nathan:  Yes! But Cyndi’s image always felt genuine to me. I LOVE Madonna. But we all know she would reinvent herself to get attention. Cyndi was real. Case in point: did you catch her on The Today Show last month for the She’s So Unusual 30th anniversary? Two hosts were interviewing her, and she was just a goofball with them. She’s endearing. You can see it in the “Time After Time” video too. You know that was her real mother and boyfriend in the video? Another case in my point that she’s not putting on a character.

Sean:  So what’s your favorite moment of the video (Besides the waffle haircut reveal)?

tatcryNathan:  I’d like to say some poignant moment between her and her mother. That image fade in the vid is laughable now, but back then it was decent. But really, my favorite part of the vid is at the end when she’s on the train. The director of the video wanted to put a tear on her face using a dropper. But Cyndi was confident in her ability to cry on the spot. So that tear is hers. And I think it drives the point that “Time After Time” is a relatable song.

Sean:  Is it too late to give her an Emmy?

Nathan:  Hah! Only if the Emmy has a bright emerald wig and about 1,000 necklaces on it.

Sean: So how does the song age for you?

Nathan:  Since it’s about deciding to move on, I think it ages really well. I think most of us have been in points in our lives where we either had to carry on a long distance relationship or break it off and start over again. So any teenager/college student can identify with the words.That’s why the song is still all over the radio and why so many artists have covered it. I have to say I was surprised when P!nk covered it at her concert and the audience was singing the words over her.

Sean:  It’s nice to know Pink and her fans appreciate the classics! I think if you’re a female performer – who feels a bit different  – a bit ‘unusual,’ shall we say – Cyndi is your muse.

Nathan:  Oh, I think some guys have been influenced by her too. Neon Trees? Absolutely.

Sean:  I really need to check those guys out.

Nathan:  Yes, get back in your music time machine every once in a while and check out some current bands, Sean!

Sean:  Ha! I do love some new music – really I do! Ok – pop quiz – if you’re at a karaoke bar and “Time After Time” comes on – do you get up on stage and sing?

Nathan:  Uh. No. Sadly, I am not a fan of the spotlight. But my cats get extravagant stage shows on a weekly basis! I’m a megastar in the shower or in a room by myself.

Sean:  Ok – now we will all have an image of you reenacting the “Time After Time” video with your cats! It’s an image we like!

Nathan:  Haha! Not a bad idea for a new blog feature, Sean!

Sean: Yes! That would be guaranteed to be ‘Freshly Pressed’. Ok – one more question for you. I am such a fan of your fiction, so may I ask you to create a sequel to the video? Tell us what happens to Cyndi Lauper’s character after the train pulls off at the end of the video.

Nathan:  Oh, she travels the country to find more WWF superstars to play her family members in future music videos, of course!

Sean: That’s a beautiful ending. Now I have a single tear rolling down my cheek.

Nathan:  Ooo! I see what you did there! Nice.

Sean: Thank you so much for taking the time to journey back 30 years to revisit “Time After Time” with me.

Nathan: It’s been a pleasure talking Cyndi with you. Especially about this song. It’s a simple song really. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s catchy and dramatic, but tangible. She’s so good at those ballads. And it definitely paved the way for “True Colors” to explode a few years later!

Sean:  Yet another classic from Cyndi. Well thank you – this was fun!

Nathan:  So fun! Invite me back anytime! Maybe I’ll have cat pics next time!

Sean:  In red wigs please!

Nathan:  I’m heating up my waffle iron now!

Letter Never Sent. Message Received.

REM_1984_96128665_213310bIn high school I had a compulsion to figure out the meaning of the lyrics of all of my favorite pop songs. I would read and re-read liner notes with great reverence (hey – if Pearl S. Buck, Shakespeare, and George Orwell were worthy of that attention – so were Sting, Simon LeBon and Larry Blackmon). The act and ability to decipher the vaguest, most surreal lines was empowering. Wrestle the meaning and make sense of the world.

So much has been written about Michael Stipe’s indecipherable lyrics, but it never mattered to me whether I could understand some (most) of the words he sang. I cared less about the meaning and more about the feeling the words, and the sound of the words, evoked.

Heaven is Yours, Heaven is Yours

That may be the only line I’m completely certain of when I sing along. But I still ‘get’ the song.

Loss. . . Regret . . .

But, like so many R.E.M. songs, there’s also hope. That line from the chorus is the first of so many direct, uplifting declarations from the band (You are the everything, Everybody Hurts, No one can see you cry, Every Day is Yours to Win, You’ll be fine).

Who needs a life coach when you’re an R.E.M. fan.

Additional R.E.M. posts:

R.E.M – Pretty Persuasion

Screamer of the Week: Thompson Twins: Sister of Mercy: This Week in 1984

Unless you are/were a die-hard album buying, b-side listening, concert attending Thompson Twins fan you may not know or remember the song, “Sister of Mercy”. Thompson Twins’ 1984 album, Into the Gap, produced three international hit singles, “Doctor Doctor,” “You Take Me Up“, and of course,  “Hold Me Now.”

Thompson-Twins-Sister-Of-Mercy-358260But it seems my favorite radio station, WLIR wasn’t content playing only those three songs from the album. Each of those singles were nominated for, and won, the station’s Screamer of the Week competition (each week listeners voted for the best new song of the week) in the winter of 1984. In the first week of March, “The Gap” became the fourth song from the album to win Screamer of the Week. And finally, “Sister of Mercy” won the competition in the second week of June. I’ll need verification from a Screamer of the Week scholar – but I’m pretty sure 5 Screamers from one album has to be some type of record. i don’t think R.E.M. or Depeche Mode or OMD or U2 ever came close to that achievement.

So what caused Thompson Twins to dominate the modern rock and pop airwaves in 1984 ? I think my answer may come in one word – their songs were incredibly, “CATCHY”.  I fear some may think that calling a song a catchy is a back handed compliment – but I use the phrase as major praise. “Yellow Submarine” is catchy. “Beat It” is catchy. “Ode to Joy” is catchy. So when I say that Into the Gap is filled with some of the catchiest tunes of the year, maybe I’m coming close to calling it a perfect album. Maybe.

I always interpreted “Sister of Mercy” as the band’s attempt at gravitas. It falls within what is a surprisingly large category of pop songs written about domestic violence. 10,000 Maniacs’ “What’s the Matter Here,” Janet Jackson’s “This Time”, The Pretenders and Annie Lennox’s respective covers of “Thin Line Between Love & Hate” are some of my favorites in that genre.

Thompson Twins were such a positive band – I always thought they might record a sequel to the song in which the female character is released from prison and goes on to counsel other women who have suffered a similar fate. Or maybe she sees the Thompson Twins video for “You Take Me Up” and, inspired, engineers a prison break.

I like a happy ending.

Additional Screamer of the Week posts:

The Psychedelic Furs – Heaven

The Thompson Twins – You Take Me Up

Prince and the Revolution – When Doves Cry

R.E.M. – Pretty Persuasion