The 80’s saw a dark, modern edge come into pop music. Some of it was
intense and brooding, some of it was stalker-ish, and some of it was
downright threatening. The tunes were danceable enough, but now that we
look back on the lyrics of some of them, it sounds like a few of these
writers needed to sit in a romantic time-out chair for a little while.
For some of the artists of the 80’s, relationships were less about
tender feelings and more about psychological instability. Listeners
thought that was awesome.
The Human League’s “Don’t You Want
Me Baby,” released in 1981, was a great example of love turned into
creepy infatuation. The girl wants out of the relationship, the guy
wants her to stay out of gratitude for all he’s done for her. He warns,
“When you think you’ve changed your mind, you’d better change it back or
we will both be sorry.” Ooo, sinister!
What is perhaps the theme song of stalkers everywhere was a big hit in
1983. Of course, I’m talking about “Every Breath You Take,” by the
Police. A mellow and pleasant tune, but the lyrics had an understated
desperation that made us wonder if Sting was really as clean cut as he
looked. He sees his beloved lie and break vows, but he’s still
determined to have her. And watch her. And watch her. And watch her...
John Waite’s “Missing You” hit number
11 on the 1984 top 40 charts. I remember being so confused by his
venomous tone and scowly face in the music video. What on earth was he
so upset about, if he didn’t even miss her? Clearly, the
innuendoes were lost on me. This one’s less about stalking than about
genuine longing, but the crazy factor’s there in the singer’s
schizophrenic lyrics: “You don’t know how desperate I’ve become, and it
looks like I’m losing this fight,” while, over and over, he tries to
convince himself and us that “I ain’t missing you at all.” Now
I get it.
In 1985, we were nodding our heads and bopping along to Animotion’s “Obsession,”
a somewhat monotonous song about, well, obsessive love. With lyrics
like, “Your face appears again, I see the beauty there, But I see
danger, stranger beware!” and “My need to possess you has consumed my
soul. My life is trembling, I have no control,” these kids clearly just
needed to take a break from each other. The singers in the video were
menacing and angry-looking (did they take a cue from John Waite?) and
looked like they really needed a snack.
Robert Palmer’s red-lipped, matchy, modelesque dancers sum up the vibe of
the psychologically unstable love songs of the 80’s for me. Their blank
faces screamed of blase’ sexuality. Love for those glamorous, beautiful,
interchangeable Robert Palmer girls was all about compulsive and
impersonal sex. I love you! You’re crazy! You make me crazy! I hate
you! No, wait, I love you! “Addicted to Love” and “Simply
Irresistible” taught us that sexual love was like a disease. It was sort
of painful and couldn’t be helped, but it had some sort of dark
1988’s number 18 pop song, “Wild Wild West,” from the Escape Club, could
have been about one of Robert Palmer’s Simply Irresistible girls: she
was so mean, but he just didn’t care. Ditto that for the Fine
Young Cannibals’ late 80’s hit, “She Drives Me Crazy.” Poor guy: “I
can’t get any rest, People say I’m obsessed... Things go wrong, they
The songs had infectious modern beats that stuck in our heads and had us
singing blithely about off-kilter love that just might turn into
violence. Was it the ever-present cold war that helped push these songs
into the mainstream? Did we feel like we’d better grab love by force if
we wanted it? Did we need to just put up with weirdo lovers if they made
us feel good, since the Bomb might go off any day? Did we enjoy the
thrill of acknowledging that we, too, sometimes had these dark romantic
yearnings for domination instead of a gentle, sweet give-and-take?
Love it or leave it, the obsessive angle is there in 80’s pop music. As
for me, I LOVE it. I think I’ll crank up some Fine Young Cannibals right
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