Sunday, May 26, 2019

Brenda K. Starr's "I Still Believe": The Final Aching, Dying Whisper Of '80s Pop

In his AllMusic biography for Rosie & the Originals, Richie Unterberger quotes another writer, Mark Sten, who provides the following description of the 1960 oldies radio staple "Angel Baby":
"... generating a robot mantra devoid of embellishment or variation, the perfect underpinning for Rosie's piercing, disembodied-siren vocal. With 'Angel Baby,' rock had regressed as far as it could, some nameless dread loosed within the collective Top 40 mind had run its course and spent itself in a lost mournful wail. 'Angel Baby' was the final moonlit flowering of rock's medieval phase, paean to a purity and innocence no longer possible in the real world."
"Rock's medieval phase"? So which phase are we in now? The Concentration Camp phase? I kid, I kid. But as "Angel Baby" served as the departing, plaintive, youthful sigh of its era, I believe there is a song from the Summer of '88 that embodies a similar spirit. In my humble opinion, there is a hit that captures that last flicker of '80s musical guilelessness, before the tide of '90s crassness would swiftly rush in and snuff out those faintly glowing embers once and for all. If there is a "final moonlit flowering" of '80s pop, a "paean to a purity and innocence" that would no longer be possible in the world of '90s Top 40 radio, it is Brenda K. Starr's "I Still Believe."

Allow me to explain, with a few handy links. In just a few short years after 1988, at least 75% of the R&B-flavored, drum machine-powered Top 40 ballads that, musically speaking, weren't terribly far removed from "I Still Believe," would feature lyrics such as these:
These lyrics were not controversial or unusual. These lyrics did not emanate from Prince and a couple of Prince's side projects. Oh no. This was the lingua franca of the day. If you weren't singing about fucking somebody for an impossibly lengthy duration, you didn't stand a chance. In just a few short years, the average listener of Top 40 music was basically going to need to put a condom over their radio in order to listen to it. Pop music went straight from the Disney Channel to Cinemax, and it went there fast. In summary, if Brenda K. Starr had come out with this song in 1993, she would have melted like the Wicked Witch.

Now, flash forward to the Spring of 1999. I am sitting in my freshman dorm room, which I share with my Vietnamese-American roommate (suffice to say, while we share a room, we do not share remotely the same taste in music). Suddenly he begins playing a new Mariah Carey song, and begins playing it more times than I deem necessary, but that's neither here nor there. I instantly recognize the track as a cover version of a song that had originally been an omnipresent hit in the Summer of '88. I recall, incorrectly, that the song had originally been performed by Debbie Gibson. All I can think is, "Why the fuck is Mariah Carey covering some old Debbie Gibson song?"

Was there a memo I missed where Debbie Gibson had suddenly become ironically hip and cool again? Ah, but my perennially flawless pop music memory had erred for once - although the error was quite understandable. You see, in my foggy recollection I conflated "I Still Believe" with "Foolish Beat." Both are melancholy break-up ballads that prominently feature the words "love again" in the chorus, both had been hits right around the same time (although "I Still Believe" only peaked at #13 as opposed to #1), and, according to Wikipedia, both songs merited inclusion in Rolling Stone's "50 Awesomely Bad Break-Up Songs." For several years I expressed confusion over Mariah Carey's covering of a dopey Debbie Gibson tearjerker, while somehow sensing that I was off the mark. Finally, in February 2011, I wrestled myself free from the shackles of Summer of '88 ignorance and learned the true identity of the original recording artist.

Here's the deal. Once upon a time, Brenda K. Starr (possibly a distant cousin to Ringo?) employed an unknown back-up singer named Mariah Carey. In fact, it was Brenda K. Starr who fatefully handed Mariah Carey's demo tape to Tommy Mottola. In other words, we owe Mariah Carey to Brenda K. Starr. Not really, but the point is, ten years later and sitting on top of the R&B diva Matterhorn, Mariah wanted to pay tribute to the singer who gave her that big break. From Wikipedia:
She explained that the song "reminds me of the fact that not long ago I was a teenage girl with nothing to my name but a demo tape, my voice, and my ability to write songs. Brenda K. Starr treated me like a 'star' and gave me a shot." ... "I'm really glad that I got a chance to remake the song 'I Still Believe,' because the album is called '#1's' and this is the first song that I sang as a professional singer. I would go on the road with Brenda. I was a little skinny kid with no money that she took under her wing and she was so nice to me. I auditioned to be her back-up singer and she hired me and she used to bring me clothes and food, and she really took care of me like a big sister. A lot of people wouldn't have done that. The main thing was that she believed in me and it's really hard to get people to listen to your tapes. [...] She was always real cool and helpful and supportive. I always loved this song. When I sing it now, it reminds me of those times."
Brings a tear to your eye, but personally, I feel like Mariah Carey's version of "I Still Believe," with its Brett Ratner-directed video (!), is a stellar example of how '90s pop lost so much of the directness of '80s pop in an effort to seem more "sophisticated." Mariah doesn't simply sing the song. She does all this "stuff." She slathers herself all over the intro, rather than simply letting it play as Brenda does. She constantly shifts from a creaky whisper to high-volume belting. I am not going out on a limb if I suggest that Mariah Carey is a more talented singer than Brenda K. Starr, but I hear so much calculation and decision-making in Mariah's vocal choices. Mariah sounds like she "really loves this song that helped her get her big break" and she wants you to know how much it means to her. Brenda K. Starr sounds like she just told the construction worker across the street who cat-called her to fuck off. There's nothing "off-the-cuff" about Mariah's version. It's too lush, too spotless, too professional to be the butt of blogger jokes. The Mariah Carey version knows that it's going to be "significant," that it's going to be "remembered" by her fans. No thank you. The Brenda K. Starr version, the one that was merely hoping to hang around on the airwaves for a couple of months before its three minutes and forty-five seconds of fame were up, is the one for me.

You see, Brenda K. Starr had one shot - one chance at pop music immortality - and she took it. This was her one spark of hope, and Brenda grasped it with both hands.

"I Still Believe" rises up from the bowels of the Hudson River on a sludgy wave of tinkling keyboard, synthesized bass, and ambient seagull sound effects. I feel like a '90s pop song would have gone to greater lengths to sound "state-of-the-art" and "high-tech," but "I Still Believe" makes zero attempt to mask its low-budget origins. It could have been recorded in some derelict office park in New Jersey by some guy whose day job was, I don't know, bouncer at a strip club (amusingly enough, it was produced by Eumir Deodato, the man responsible for every J.T. Taylor-era Kool & the Gang hit, which might explain the recycling of the seagull sound effect from "Cherish"). I'm sure there were exceptions, but why do I get the impression that Top 40 hits in the '90s couldn't simply show up off the street and walk right into the charts like this one did? To me, "I Still Believe" is the last of a dying breed, like an '80s pop hit sung by Marisa Tomei's character from My Cousin Vinny. (According to Wikipedia, Brenda is half-Jewish/half-Puerto Rican - she's like a walking borough.)

It's the little touches, the unintended moments, that elevate a track like this over more deliberately ambitious material:
  • 1:02 - I hear just the faintest whisper of mic distortion on the word "again," as if Brenda is straining at the boundaries of the technology in order to ensure that her pain can be heard
  • 1:55 - Were you afraid there might not be a sax? Of course there was going to be a sax. It announces its arrival with a stream of ascending notes in the middle of the second verse, just as Brenda lets loose with a rapid-fire series of "No-no-no-no-no"s
  • 2:03 - She reaches down into the depths of her Tri-State agony as she growls "Rrrrr-ah-still-buh-leave-that-we-can-be-to-geh-thuhhhhhh! Huh-ohhh!," before some double-tracking kicks in on "If we believe that true love," suggesting a momentary burst of inner strength. You're going to get through this, Brenda, you really are.
  • 2:28 - An army of overdubbed "back-up" Brendas enters and proceeds to sing the chorus, while the real, lead-singing Brenda waits until 2:31 to let loose with an intense "Yeah-eahhh"
  • 2:42 - The fade-out is really where Brenda kicks it into gear. First she emits a soulful "Oh baby yeah!" before jumping an octave on "I had a dream." Then at 2:52 she sings ever-so-slightly behind the beat, letting out a rushed "will-find-ourselves." She's so ... sensual. However, nothing may top the supremely New Yawk delivery of "Ooh-ooh baby oy do-woo!" and "Just gimme one mo' troy" that follows. You couldn't contrive that kind of attitude.

Brenda not only brought it in the studio, she brought it in the video (as if you had any doubts). First of all, she's wearing exactly the kind of outfit you'd imagine she'd be wearing: a leather jacket over a cropped white short-sleeve sweater and leather skirt, with giant hoop earrings. My guess is that she didn't even dress up for the video; this was probably just what she happened to be wearing that day. The video alternates between shots of Brenda dancing in an abandoned brick warehouse with rays of white dust being illuminated by the light from the windows a la "One More Try" and shots of Brenda strolling dejectedly along what appears to be the Brooklyn shoreline as she passes an endless stream of happy couples holding hands in the park. Can't anyone see her torment?

Let me say this before I go any further: Brenda's got the moves. I feel like she binge-watched every video from Janet Jackson's Control, came onto the set the next day, and said to her director, "I can do all that shit too!" Favorite moves:
  • 0:25 - At first it seems like she has tripped, or has forgotten where she is, but no - I think that's just her clumsy dance move
  • 0:35 - On "all this time" she spreads her fingers, raises her hands, and then drops them again. You've got to give Brenda's hands a "hand" in this video - they're never in the same place twice.
  • 0:55 - Initially she drags her hands along her skirt, but then points her right hand at the camera, only to open her fingers lovingly. It's like she's reaching out to every broken-hearted lover, everywhere.
  • 1:02 - She crosses her arms, and then proceeds to ... yawn?
  • 1:18 - While sauntering on the Brooklyn shoreline, without warning, she leans back, crosses her arms, and then reaches up over her head, exposing every inch of that well-toned belly.
  • 1:29 - After a shrug of her shoulders, she slowly drags her right hand through her hair, letting the curls fall flirtatiously
  • 1:39 - On "spark of hope," she draws her right arm across her chest, then clenches her fists and tugs them downward. I believe this is her visual representation of a "spark of hope"?
  • 1:48 - She tugs both ends of her leather jacket and begins shaking her jacket sexily as she bends and wiggles toward the floor. You do know it's supposed to be a sad song, right Brenda? And then she tops it off with the old "drag palm across the face" gimmick.
  • 1:57 - To coincide with her torrent of "no no no no no," she begins flailing her arms in the air desperately, in an effort to either swat away imaginary flies or keep those nice young men in their clean white coats from coming to take her away
  • 2:03 - Now in a skin-tight cocktail dress, Brenda clenches her fist and yanks her arm inward, as if she is hoping to physically pull the love that's escaping her back toward her body, fate be damned
And at this point all the twirls, fist clenches, back tilts, uncrossed arms, and palms dragged across the face just kind of blend together into one big ball of choreographic cheese and I can't even bother to give a play-by-play. Brenda, you've fatigued the indefatigable. Two more delectable details to highlight: 1) Check out the couple dancing in shadow on the stage behind "cocktail dress" Brenda (maybe they could have given her a few lessons?); 2) the requisite cameo of the sax player at 2:02 and 3:10 (odds that the sax player in the video also played the sax on the recording: 3.2/10).

Upon reflection, I think it's a bit of an insult to compare "Foolish Beat" to "I Still Believe." While Debbie Gibson's all-encompassing sense of grief lacks any perspective whatsoever, "I Still Believe" demonstrates a certain bittersweet maturity. Yes, the singer is breaking up with her lover in the here and now, but who can say what the future may hold? Or perhaps she is completely deluding herself and her ex-boyfriend is thinking, "Thank God I never have to put up with her crazy ass again." The point is: "Someday" is a long time. "Someday" they will find themselves in love again. Maybe they'll meet up in a retirement home in Pensacola. Maybe they'll pass each other in space ships hurtling toward Jupiter and beyond the infinite, and end up being reincarnated as giant star children. Hey, who the fuck knows? If Debbie Gibson's whiny, nihilistic declaration that she could "never love again" sounds like an overreaction, Brenda K. Starr's reflective, open-ended statement of magnanimity is like a deep sigh allowing the universe to take its course. Their relationship is probably as dead as the squirrel I saw on the side of the road this morning, but why kick a girl when she's down?

So, fare thee well, long lost essence of youth. "I Still Believe" is the slow, heart-tugging, trembling goodbye to the '80s, bringing its era to a poignant, yet hopeful close. It's the final cry of our collective '80s childhoods, floating away on the waves of time immemorial. Although I know that the '80s are gone forever, when the haunting wail of Brenda K. Starr washes over me, even I, sardonic blogger curmudgeon that I am, still believe that someday - although I could not say when or where - '80s pop and I ... will find ourselves ... in love again.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

"Something About You": Jazz-Funk Fusion That's Simply On Another, Ahem, Level

Countless '80s hits, from "Take My Breath Away" and "St. Elmo's Fire (Man In Motion)" to "Shattered Dreams" and "Hands To Heaven," could be credited to that legendary group known as "What's Their Name?" Quite a group they were, What's Their Name? - seemingly capable of churning out radio classic after radio classic. I don't know how they did it. Nevertheless, I am willing to go on record to state that "Something About You" might very well be What's Their Name's crowning achievement.

For years I heard a certain synth-pop nugget on the radio that featured the lyrics "You're only human after all," and assumed that it was the song "Human" by the Human League. Later I realized that "Human" is actually this song, and that the song I'd assumed was "Human" is actually called "Something About You," and was performed by a band called Level 42. Then, for a few years after that, I used to see the band names "Heaven 17" and "Haircut 100" in print and think, "Oh, those are the guys who did "Something About You"!

The point is: Level 42? Who the hell were Level 42?

Level 42 were the band that perfected the genre the '80s were hungry for, even if the '80s didn't know it yet: jazz-funk fusion.

Level 42 were like Chick Corea for soccer moms. Level 42 were like a Herbie Hancock burger with a helping of Tears for Fears sauce. While the rest of Britain's aspiring young musicians circa 1980 were gravitating toward the jagged, angular strains of new wave and post-punk, Mark King and Mike Lindup found their muse in ... instrumental jazz-funk fusion. But! The band soon discovered they possessed an extra asset that their other '80s jazz-funk fusion rivals lacked: vocal prowess. From Wikipedia:
Having considered recruiting a singer, the band eventually settled on giving King and Lindup the vocal role. The two men developed a complementary style, with Lindup's falsetto frequently used for harmonies and choruses while King's deep tenor led the verses (although Lindup would also sing entire songs on his own).
So the guy with the normal voice would do his thing, and then the guy with the funny high-pitched voice would come in and do his thing. This was Level 42's "shtick." This was their "gimmick." Hey, when it works, it works.

Honestly, I like Level 42 more than I like actual jazz fusion! I mean, Level 42 sang. They wrote lyrics. They composed pop songs. In the UK, they actually had hit singles, plural - twenty of them, in fact (but I'm not here to talk about those). In their home country, they were a jazz-funk fusion institution. In the US, they were the band who did that song that I thought was "Human" by the Human League.

The truth is, I'll bet even the Human League wished they'd been the band behind "Something About You," because, like "Don't You Want Me" before it, "Something About You" strikes me as one of those "perfect" British synth-pop singles. Nothing about "Something About You" would I alter in the slightest. It's got everything I need. Thumping dance beat. Continuous guitar riff on the right channel that sounds like a platypus wanking. Screeching guitar solo toward the fade-out. More hooks than a Peter Pan Broadway production's dressing room. Well, there's only one hook that really matters: it's the chord progression that kicks the song off and ultimately powers the chorus. Chord progressions like that are what the British synth-pop gods feast on, in vast mountain temples surrounded by bubbling cauldrons of virgins' blood. I'll take that chord progression any way they'll give it to me. I'll take it with a pile of descending "ooh"s. I'll take it with Mike Lindup swooping in like prime, pre-bedridden-in-a-bathrobe Brian Wilson as he belts out "Drawn into the stream of undefined illusion/Those diamond dreams, they can't disguise the truth." I'll take it with Mark King grunting his way through "Because there's something about you, baby, so right." I'll take it with a house. I'll take it with a mouse. The lyrics are, as far as I can tell, mainly romantic in nature, but with a vaguely philosophical and quasi-inspiring undertone? The verses are littered with unusual turns of phrase and bizarre imagery ("A love carved out of caring, fashioned by fate," "Fragile but free, we remain tender together," etc.), the line "We're only human after all" suggesting that the theme of the song is something along the lines of "Everybody plays the fool," but that doesn't quite jibe with the more nakedly positive statement that makes up the chorus and title. Who cares? Those hooks!

And yes, I know that "Something About You" charted in 1986, not 1988 (and was actually released in 1985), but for reasons unbeknownst to me, I feel like I didn't really hear the song on the radio until the Summer of '88. It seemed to linger in the air like exhaust from a red Corvette on a desert highway. I mean, you think I'd ever do a series called "Summer of '86"? What am I, crazy?

A long time back, the most popular YouTube result for "Something About You Video" used to be this clip from a French (?) television show, Super Platine, featuring the band performing in front of a black screen with a tacky white "tracer" effect hovering around their limber jazz-funk fusion frames. It was while watching this clip that I determined that Mike Lindup resembled Frankenstein's preppie Ivy League nephew. Nevertheless, my hunch that this was not the "proper" video proved to be correct.

Because the proper video is one of those genuine mid-'80s "mindfuck" videos that bears no relation to the song it's allegedly depicting and where the band must have stumbled into a meeting half-soused and told the director, "Look, here's the budget, just make it weird and incomprehensible and basically do whatever you want." Here, as far as I can gather, is the "plot": Mark King sits in a train compartment with his band mates, the video almost implying that they are strangers to him, and he begins to hallucinate that he is an evil vaudevillian clown-demon who is systematically destroying his other band mates' romantic relationships, which all happen to be with the same actress, and at the very end that same actress turns out to simply be some random stranger in the train station. I see.

Here is a noble attempt by one bold YouTube commentator to explain the various layers of meaning:
It's interesting that they would wrap this song with a video that deals with madness. The imagery and subtle body language of the characters tells the story of a young man on a train who is growing more agitated as the journey continues. The first thing we are shown is the "insanity" itself in the form of the very animated Clown figure who lives in a long hallway. When this figure appears, it serves as the surrogate to the young man as his visions of skewed relationships take shape. He periodically blurts out nonsensical words while sitting in the passenger car, much to the surprise and annoyance of the other passengers, eventually even needing to be restrained until he relaxes. As the journey progresses, he looks at the three young men sitting across from him (who are, in real life, the other members of Level 42) and, one at a time, imagines them in a relationship with a "dream" girl. You can see the young man furtively glance at the first one and then immediately start a dream sequence in which the Clown observes and reacts to a skewed moment of a relationship. The dreams are in color while reality is shown in black & white. This pattern continues with the other two passengers, each finding themselves uncomfortably the object of attention of the crazy young man sitting with them on the train while he imagines them with the Dream Girl. The Clown eventually gains full control in the young man's imagination, gleefully dancing until the madness swings to the other side of the spectrum and angrily lashes out at the dream girl. Fortunately for the other passengers, the train stops and the young man gets off, taking The Clown with him. But we also see the Dream Girl (still in color, and invisible to anyone else) ever-present in the young man's madness. Again, why they put this imagery with Something About You, I have no idea.
Make that two of us! I guess this video must exist on Level 42, and the rest of us are merely stuck on Level 41.