I really have to be careful with youtube – one video leads to another to another to another, and next thing I know it’s four hours gone by with nothing to show for it but a brainful of 80s music.
But anyways, I wasn’t really thinking about what makes a pop music “hook,” but when I stumbled into the Sheena Easton section, I rediscovered this funky [per/con]fection, which in my opinion really is a nearly perfect example of a great pop tune, no matter what year it is.
Sure, it starts with and heavily features that most 80s 0f musical conventions, the triggered percussion sample, but there is little else here which is dated by the ensuing years, partly because in its own age, the song was also anachronistic, with the horns lifted straight out of some 60s soul record, and the funky sound of slap bass has yet to wear out its welcome. Well, ok, Sheena’s hair and earrings are pretty horrific as well.
What I find really interesting, though, is the relative complexity of the lyrics, and how this manages to enhance rather than get in the way of the flow, which is syncopated as fuck – unless you’re too hip to dance, this should fill you with the urge to engage in some earnest bootyshaking. Anyways, the verses consist of long sentences, a single rhyming pair with a setup in the first and a payoff in the second:
He said, “Baby what’s wrong with you? Why can’t you use your imagination?” (oh no, oh no)
“Nations go to war over women like you, it’s just a form of appreciation.”
It’s not really hard to successfully do this, if the vocals are done with a good sense of rhythm, which is definitely the case here, but have a quick listen to the FYC song linked above – it’s got some musical hooks, to be sure, but the lyrics are both simplistic and overused; indeed, the singer could be replaced with another synth track, and the song would lose nothing for that. Anyways, I don’t know if Sheena had any input into the vocal delivery or if she’s simply reciting someone else’s melodic lines, but either way she hits and rests and holds in all the right places, dancing over a set of complicated set of floating footprints.
More interesting still is the subject matter. This track was from A Private Heaven, the album in which Easton reinvented herself in a more sexy and provocative mode than her Morning Train days. Note that it was called 9 to 5 in the UK, presumably changed to avoid confusion with Dolly Parton’s smash from the movie of the same name. I’ve always been more partial to her cover of Mule Skinner Blues. Dolly Parton with a whip, yo…
But I digress. This Sheena Easton album also included the then-controversial, now-quaint Sugar Walls, which made the PMRC‘s rather silly top 15 list. Speaking of the PMRC, I still maintain that it was Tipper Gore’s erstwhile attempt to appoint herself moral censor of the nation, and not any failings on her husband’s part, that cost him the election in 2000. Like Obama this year, Gore in 2000 needed the enthusiastic engagement of young people to win, and I believe that it was the long memories of my generation that couldn’t stomach the thought of Tipper living down the hall from the oval office.
But I (haha) digress. We were discussing the fact that on A Private Heaven, Sheena Easton came back on a strong tide of lyrical innuendo, playing up the sexy, and musically speaking, Strut is pure aphrodisia in that very mold. But if you look a little closer, the lyrics subvert that very image, revealing a female protagonist who is fed the fuck up with her body being used as a canvas for creepy men to paint their boring and cliche’d production line sexual fantasies:
Come on over here, lay your clothes on the chair, now let the lace fall across your shoulder
Standing in the half-light, you’re almost like her, now take it slow like your daddy told ya.
And while I obviously can’t tell women what songs they should use when they want to feel emancipated from the patriarchy, I personally think that Strut fills that role much better than Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, especially when it comes around to the chorus, which is defiant and cutting and way way way more in your face than Gaynor’s narrative:
Strut, pout, put it out, that’s what you want from women
Come on baby, what you takin’ me for?
Strut, pout, put it out, all takin’ and no givin’
Watch me, baby, while I walk out the door…
See, now, let’s just look at that for a second. Easton’s protagonist finds herself in a situation where she’s briefly fallen for a shallow and hyperbolic “compliment” in the first verse, but then finds that his game is all about his own gratification, and his interest has nothing to do with her at all – she is literally a blank canvas to him, ideally with an empty head who will do as says so he can get his rocks off, most likely before she even gets fully turned on. So, rather than allow herself to be used like a
girl for hire prostitute, she points out just how pathetic the guy really is, and then invites him to indulge his voyeuristic leanings for a few last seconds as she leaves him to his sad little life. Sheena = winner.
Gloria, on the other hand, has some serious flaws in her narrative. No matter how emancipated she may feel at the moment, the story here does not speak well to her strength of character. Rather than a strong woman with good critical thinking skills like Sheena, Gloria is a recovered victim clinging to her tenuous and uncertain freedom. She’s been wounded, and badly, and laments that she didn’t change her stupid lock, and indeed one has the sense that her freedom and emotional well-being is definitely threatened by the looming presence of her ex-whatever he was. Sure, she shows some strength when she sends him on his way, but what’s she got to look forward to? “As long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive?”
Come on, dammit, you can do better than cling to the hope that you’ll meet someone nice and merely survive. Sheena’s gonna walk out of that dingy little flat and go become a fucking CEO of a major corporation or some shit. She’s gonna go kick some ass, is what she’s gonna do. Gloria’s gonna make some chamomile tea, mentally go over her litany of greivances, and hope that someone better comes along, because it’s only by loving a man that she’s gonna be complete. Now really, ladies, which one do you want your daughters to emulate?
And if the respective subject matter of the two songs doesn’t convince you, you could also take into account that while I Will Survive was written by two men (hardly surprising, that), Strut was co-written by an obscure but rather excellent singer and songwriter named Charlie Dore – she had a hit in the late 70s called Pilot of the Airwaves (the harmonies on this track remind me of a more pop/country version of Fairport Convention), and is still writing for some rather famous singers as well as recording her own material. She has a MySpace page up here with some of her tunes. Highly recommended, and I’m going to bed.