You Belong on the Radio - 1981 Edition [1981 Week]

No theme week without songs. The leitmotif for this week seems to be “detachment”, so let’s see how the popular songs of 1981 join the detached chorus.

Kim Carnes – Bette Davis Eyes (US #1, UK #10, GER #1)

This is one of the most successful songs of 1981, which actually was written in 1974, but since it was successful seven years later, we can still its relevance here. It is one of those “look at her” songs which describes a particular person, often a woman, from a certain distance.

And she’ll tease you, she’ll unease you

All the better just to please you

She’s precocious and she knows just

What it takes to make a pro blush

 She’ll let you take her home, it whets her appetite

[…] She’ll take a tumble on you, roll you like you were dice

Until you come out blue, she’s got Bette Davis Eyes

 She’ll expose you, when she snows you

Off your feet with the crumbs she throws you

I generally don’t really like those kinds of songs as they portray this nameless woman as some kind of mysterious predator who just lives to “eat up” man with no specific reason other than that’s just what she does. There are songs like this about men, too, but… I don’t know. There is just so little substance here, no real characterization or anything, just this vague cliché of the praying mantis/black widow/man eater. It’s a bit tiresome and free of emotions.

Phil Collins – In the Air Tonight (US #19, UK #2, GER #1)

Again, one of these songs everyone knows, but I don’t think I ever really realized what the lyrics are about.

I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh lord

And I’ve been waiting for this moment, for all my life, oh lord

Right, that’s probably a love song then. He’s been waiting for this moment of romance or whatever, for sure.

Well, if you told me you were drowning

I would not lend a hand

I’ve seen your face before my friend

But I don’t know if you know who I am

Oh, wait, wait, that’s not a love song. So, he has been waiting for that moment all of his life when he can let someone die? He sounds more like a serial killer now. Collins has stated that he doesn’t know what the song really means, but no matter what it could be, it’s dark.

So you can wipe off that grin, I know where you’ve been

It’s all been a pack of lies

That’s all ambiguous enough but still a testament of its time full of cold detachment and disillusion. It’s fascinating and not really problematic, but the darkness really surprises me for a song I’ve clearly misunderstood. But it fits very well in 1981.

Olivia Newton-John – Physical (US #1, UK #7, GER #4)

There is less of a surprise here because the title is pretty straightforward and the lyrics don’t leave room for interpretation.

I’m saying all the things that I know you’ll like

Makin’ good conversation

I gotta handle you just right

You know what I mean

I took you to an intimate restaurant

Then to a suggestive movie

There’s nothing left to talk about

‘Less it’s horizontally

It’s a slightly more poetic version of any “Let’s fuck” song you’ve ever heard, nothing else. Which is fine, but here is the weird thing. It sung by a woman, so it’s actually pretty cool to have such a powerful “I get to decide” female perspective. But the song was written by two men and intended for Rod Stewart, which would have made it a standard sexist song. Does the fact that a woman sings it change that? Is it still sexist? And if it is, is it a “better” kind of sexist? I’m not sure what to think, but it fascinates me nonetheless.

Blondie – Rapture (US #1, UK #5, GER #40)

As always, my interpretations are just that, not facts but a point of view. Rapture by Blondie seems to be a surprisingly critical song for a charts song in 1981.

Face to face

Sadly Solitude

And it’s finger popping

Twenty-four hour shopping in Rapture

Those are pretty cool lines, I think, describing the advent of 80s capitalism and the dehumanizing effect it has pretty well.

This is followed by a rap part (revolutionary for its time because of its use by a white group) that describes a “man from Mars” coming to Earth and eating everything, consuming consumer goods like cars and eventually people as the rapture that brings judgement upon humanity. The song paints a bleak picture of the world in 1981 while being enjoyable and danceable nonetheless. I'm really amazed how it is possible such a song existed and was popular, mixing genres in a relative new way, being critical and still simply being a good song.

Queen & David Bowie – Under Pressure (US #29, UK #1, GER #21)

For a song that was “only” no.1 in three countries (UK, Netherlands and Argentina) it’s a song that basically everyone knows.

Pressure, pushing down on me

Pressing down on you, no man ask for

Under pressure that burns a building down

Splits a family in two, puts people on streets

It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about

Watching some good friends screaming ‘Let me out’

And yet again, there is another song bursting with frustration and anger at the world and society. It’s almost depressing to see this scream, considering what this decade would bring.

Turned away from it all like a blind man

Sat on a fence but it don’t work

Keep comin’ up with love, but it’s so slashed and torn

Why, why why?

So much disillusion, such a bitter song. Sure, it ends with a plea for more love and caring, but one of the final lines also is “This is our last dance.” There is really not much hope and you can see the desperation very clearly. The emotion here is raw and real and unfortunately gets lost in the billions of radio repeats of the song. But looking at the cover makes it hard to deny the darkness within this song.

The Specials – Ghost Town (UK #1)

I want to finish with this song, that I have used in class before to show the state of the British mind at that time.

This town is coming like a ghost town

All the clubs have been closed down

Bands won’t play no more

Too much fighting on the dance floor […]

Why must the youth fight against themselves?

Government leaving the youth on the shelf […]

No job to be found in this country

Can’t go on no more

The people getting angry

It’s an almost apocalyptic vision of life in Britain, after two years of Thatcher. People, again, are desolate, angry and have no hope anymore. It is a good way to end this overview as it seems so symbolic for everything that was happening 1981 and would continue to happen until today. Detachment might not be the connecting theme here, only a part of it, but hopelessness and disillusion is very strong and people still express it in 1981. There is not much left of the rebellious passion of the previous decades but we see some remnants left in the charts.