Monday, February 23, 2009

“The One I Love” / R.E.M.

"Modern Love" / David Bowie

"Addicted to Love" / Robert Palmer


Oy, sorry I'm posting this late -- got distracted by the Oscars. (Yay, Slumdog!) So it's appropriate that today's post, which was supposed to be yesterday's post, is all about videos -- specifically, a trio of 80s vids from the Golden Age of MTV, representing three songs that were absolutely inescapeable in their day -- and virtually impossible for me to get out of my head once they're in.

If MTV hadn't already existed, they'd have had to invent it so that David Bowie could re-charge his career, with perplexing visuals further mystifying his already mystifying songs (kinda like Bertolt Brecht goes disco). When I first heard Modern Love, on his 1983 album Let's Dance, I couldn't believe that he was actually singing "I catch the paper boy / But things don't really change / I'm standing in the wind / But I never wave bye-bye" -- but there is the Thin White Duke himself on screen, gaily waving bye-bye. This video is teasingly non-literal -- instead of acting out the song (too boring), it's a (staged) stage performance, shot in super-saturated colors. I keep trying to extract his "message" about the travails of modern love, from that plummy spoken word opening ("I know when to go out / I know when to stay in / Get things done") through the slightly anguished yelping of the verses ("There's no sign of life / There's just the power to charm"). Then I give up; whatever modern love is, it's too discombobulated to pin down. The second half of the song collapses into a call-and-response villanelle, Bowie free-associating against his back-up singers, "modern love" morphs into "church on time" into "god and man," going from Dionne Warwick to My Fair Lady to Milton to Sartre and back again. (My favorite line: "Church on time / Makes me par-ty"). The real purpose of this piece? To watch David Bowie jiving around in his beautifully cut suit, darting mascared glances, his cheekbones as divine as ever.

Then in 1985 Robert Palmer out-Bowied Bowie with this iconic video for Addicted To Love. Funny to think that now sex addiction is an acknowledged psychological condition (hello, David Duchovny!); when this came out in 1985 it just seemed like a joke. “Your lights are on, but you’re not home / Your mind is not your own / Your heart sweats, your body shakes / Another kiss is what it takes” – and there’s Robert Palmer in a suit and slick long hair, surrounded by a phalanx of the sexiest possible French models, with glossy scarlet lips and lithe hips, jiggling seductively behind their electric guitars. At first you think he’s singing about his own addiction, but no, he’s singing about how he’ll get this woman hooked on him – “Your heart beats in double time / Another kiss and you’ll be mine.” It’s all about the groove, of course, that prowling syncopation and the harsh, relentless electronic pulse of this song. “Whoa, you like to think that you’re immune to the stuff, oh yeah / It’s closer to the truth to say you cant get enough, / You know you’re gonna have to face it, / You’re addicted to love.” It’s a pitiless piece of magic.

As far as MTV went, it was all downhill from there -- directors started using music videos as career springboard and songwriters paid more attention to their storyboards than on making a tight radio-ready track. R.E.M. may have started out as a Southern jam band, but then Michael Stipe got delusions of being a Serious Artist and Social Critic -- witness the surreal montage of this bloated rock anthem (cue up The One I Love, from 1987's album Document). How Stipe wrings so much passion from such weird, off-kilter material, I don’t know. If you just listen to it, it seems a haunting middle-of-the-night highway driving song, with that opening line – “This one goes out to the one I love”--evoking every disembodied song dedication you’ve ever heard on late-night radio. That minor-key melody is so melancholy, I’m aching already for these separated lovers, as he repeats, “This one goes out to the one I’ve left behind.” But when you get past the apocalyptic grandeur of those guitar riffs, what’s the scenario here? A musician on the road? A trucker? A college student on a road trip? A soldier’s lament (that would explain the chorus, where Stipe bellows “Fire” over and over, though for ages I was convinced he was singing the name “Diane”). One thing for sure; this doesn’t work as a love song – except that it does. If you’ve ever been separated from someone you’re involved with, Stipe's tortured wail captures exactly what it feels like. Who cares what the lyrics say, when you can confound your audience with an arty video?


Nite Owl said...

Hey Holly!
Good post... I always thought Bowie was saying, "I don't WANT to go out, I want to stay in... and get things done." But who knows? As you said, it's all "arty" gibberish anyway, right? It's all so "post-modern" and all...

Loved Robert Palmer... that song was probably my first real intro to him, although I also knew his earlier tracks like "Doctor Doctor" and "Looking for Clues," but didn't realize it at the time. He was an underrated artist (even if he put out a couple of stinky records near the end). I think if you don't sing about "Serious" (GRRR! Furrowed brow!) subject matter, then you can't possibly be a "serious" artist, can you???? HORSE PUCKEY.

Oh, and don't forget Roxy Music's "Love is the Drug" ten years earlier... kind of covers the same territory, thematically.

And "The One I Love"...good song, but isn't it about a guy who treats his woman like garbage? And it became a "love" anthem for the indie set. Go figure. Oh the irony of it all.

Keep up the good work.


Anonymous said...

Robert Palmer was a serious artist, knocked back the chance to join Little Feat

Holly A Hughes said...

Indeed. It's kind of poignant, how actual talented artists like these guys used MTV to their advantage in the early days, before it went south. I remember sitting in front of the TV for hours in the mid-80s, like it was a radio station. You'd expect Bowie to be ahead of the curve, he's always been media savvy, but Palmer and Stipe knew how to capitalize on it too. Palmer had such a smoky voice, this video just translated that quality into a witty context. It was really a brilliant little bit of art.

Mark said...

Modern Love is one of my favorite Bowie songs, but I will freely admit, I have no idea what the hell it's about either! But it's so catchy!