Pop ephemera? Yes. But I would guess you’ve heard this song at least within the last year, probably the last 6 months, or if you ever go within spitting distance of the depressingly recent-seeming ‘classic’ radio stations spraying 70’s, 80’s and 90’s hits 24/7 – probably within the last week.
Why? What has kept this seemingly innocuous song about a break-up in the pop culture heavens? I re-heard this song recently on my iPod and it became more clear – to me anyway.
First is the beat. It is metronomic, icily detached, and perfect. The bass drum lands with a decisive thud each, and, every, time. Twittery blips of a synth march in syncopated lockstep with artificial 16th notes played on a phantom hi-hat cymbal. It’s clear there is no living, breathing drummer behind this beat and that matters. More on that soon.
Then come the bass-y, waver-y, futuristic synths. Anything synthesized is (of course) synthetic, and therefore ‘not real’, and therefore distanced from feeling or, in this case, caring. I would argue that a structure is being put in place by the mechanized beat and technologically potent synths that foretell the doomed future of this relationship. This is all business. Manufactured soul. Groovy but calculating. Like her.
This song’s lyrics basically consist of a he said/she said, back-and-forth dispute over ‘what happened’ between two former lovers in what seems like letters, or maybe voicemails, which at the time would have been cutting edge.
He begins: ‘You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar / when I found you’. Ah. You found her did you? Well, we’ll see what she has to say about that. He continues to describe how her success was surely a result of his own Machiavellian maneuvers behind the scenes in the cutthroat music industry. It appears however that these efforts have been lavished upon an ungrateful heart, as the first verse concludes with a chilling final sentence, if not outright threat:
I picked you out, I shook you up
And turned you around
Turned you into someone new
Now five years later on you’ve got the world at your feet
Success has been so easy for you
But don’t forget it’s me who put you where you are now
And I can put you back down too.
Here’s where it gets interesting. We haven’t even heard her response yet, and already we are sensing his desperation. The first line of the next verse is ‘Don’t.’
This means both ‘please don’t do this’, and it is a stutter from someone who is petrified, meaning it can also be heard as ‘Don’t..don’t you want me?’ as though his disbelief is such that he can barely allow the words, the question, to exit his mouth for fear of hearing the answer. It is reminiscent of a devastated Roy Lichtenstein blonde reclining on a sofa, exaggerated tears coming from her eyes, barely able to speak so choked with emotion is she, her halting words captured in a cartoon voice bubble over her head.
And if he was desperate before, he’s terrified now. The song reveals this by amping up its volume and pitch to a cry: ‘Don’t you want me baby?’ followed by ‘Don’t you want me? Ooooh!’ It’s too much for words. This is a howl of despair. And millions upon millions of happy party and club goers over the last 30 years have rejoiced in the sound of an agonized man falling apart, joining him in the anthemic cry of this glorious chorus.
It is also a struggle to escape from the synthesized prison that is this song. His voice is the only human or natural substance in this environment, and he is drowning. The beat however, is uncaring. Just listen to it. There are no flourishes or pauses. It steamrolls forward in service of good times. There are people to entertain, dancers to inspire, good times to be fueled, so if you are suffering from a broken heart, that’s fine, but get the f*ck out of the way. Don’t think for one moment this dance machine is gonna stop before running you over.
It is, after all, the music business they’re singing about, not one another. That’s the revelation. These two lovers are not the subject of the song; it is the machine they found themselves caught within that torn them asunder. He doesn’t even realize it.
My candidate for one of the great lines in pop music is her response: ‘I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar – that much is true’. Ouch. In other words, nothing you said after that was true. She will not brook the argument that he had anything to do with where she is now: ‘But even then I knew I’d find a much better place / Either with or without you’. Her singing is flat, deadpan and dismissive, and that’s because she’s part of the machine now, and sounds like one. She isn’t really singing; it’s more like a robot dictating a goodbye letter; her tone reflects it.
She concedes ‘the five years we have had have been such good times’ but even in the ‘I still love you’ she can’t rouse any true feeling. It’s semi-sung in a ‘Well, ya, I guess so’ tone. She’s throwing him his last bone before she says goodbye forever, in which she concludes: ‘But now I think it’s time I live my life on my own. I guess it’s just what I must do’.
And again, from our protagonist (Can we call him that? Who are we cheering for here? That’s one of the great questions in this song): ‘Don’t’. And of course, ‘Don’t you want me?’
We never hear from her again. I said up top and believed my whole life this was a back-and-forth song, but it isn’t. She has exactly one verse and then she is gone. He, however, spirals down in an endless loop of disbelief and pleas, repeating over and over again ‘Don’t you want me…Ooooooh!’
I usually don’t refer to videos when contemplating songs because it can ruin your own personal interpretation. This video however is pretty good. The performances by the artists are frozen, detached and best described as mannequinesque. It’s a marvelous vision realized by the Director, whoever that was.
The best and most appropriate shot is the final one, where the camera retreats from the set of a video shoot and swings over to get one last shot of the girl in front of the makeup mirror. Except, of course, she is gone. So for a moment we get the camera looking at itself, gazing into a mirror at it’s own reflection, trapped in a self-referential and existential loop, just like our poor hero, doomed to cry in eternal sorrow for his hastily departed betrothed, unable to escape, even 30 years on.