Smooth Operator

I don’t know what jet-setting playboy Sade Adu was trying to write about, but she might as well be describing herself. Sade may not live the life drenched in diamonds and intrigue that her music implies, but we don’t know that. That’s what makes her so smooth. Sade’s career started in the 80’s and survived the cultural shifts of that decade and beyond. She breezed through the years when Madonna made it fashionable for female performers to reveal every inch of their bodies, then the decades when confessional singers like Sinead O’Connor made it seem necessary to reveal the deepest traumas. Sade did never did either. She revealed very little of herself, except her impeccable style. She has managed to keep herself in the public imagination for decades while keeping her private life private and making relatively little music. Her releases may be spaced far apart, but her music is trend-proof. Mystery and sophistication are in short supply, and Sade has been a main supplier, if stingy. That stinginess, though, is part of the appeal, part of the legacy. Sade shows how it’s possible to have a commercially viable and acclaimed artistic career without bending to what anyone else wants. Whether that may be musical trendiness, physical or emotional nudity, or just more and more albums, she’s not obligated to provide. She provides what she wants on her own schedule. That’s what makes her so smooth.

Smalltown Boy

It’s a near certainly that none of the people who rhapsodize about the wholesome superiority of small town life ever had to deal with being the only gay kid in a 50-mile radius. No who waxes sentimental about living in an environment where everyone knows all their neighbors ever dealt with being made a pariah by their own community. No one who has been taunted and made to live in fear by people they’ve known from childhood would be willfully naive enough to make a celebration of being geographically isolated and socially insular. Frankly, people who uncritically hold small town living up as being somehow inherently more wholesome make me sick. Sure, I grew up in a small town myself, and yeah, leaving your car and your front door unlocked is pretty great. But I didn’t have to be the gay kid going to a high school full of gun-loving hillbillies. I wasn’t the kid who had a mental breakdown and made suicide attempts. I didn’t have family members who did fucked up shit and went to jail for it. I wasn’t involved in any scandals or tragic accidents. I didn’t leave school to have a baby. I didn’t do, or fall victim to, any of the thousands of things that, in a small town, will get you labeled – forever – an outsider, an unwanted person, a object of derision, a designated victim. Things that, in any place with any degree of anonymity and freedom, a person can quietly move on from will stick to you for the rest of your life in a small town. You can’t even go have a drink with a person without everyone you know knowing about it. Forget the freedom to make, and not be defined by, mistakes. The implied violence of conformity is what allows small towns to feel safe, on the surface. To reiterate, there’s only one good thing about a small town: the feeling of leaving it the fuck behind.

Sisters

I know that this song is just a goofy sex fantasy, but there’s something weirdly progressive about it. I think I associate it with a real-life news story I found fascinating when I was a teen, although there’s more than a ten year difference. I’m reminded of The Barbi Twins, the identical former pinup models who revealed, sometime around 1997, that they ‘shared’ a husband. That was unheard of. Nobody really looks up to Playboy bunnies for radical feminism OR good healthy lifestyle choices, but those two apparently have strong progressive values thanks to a radical lesbian activist mother, and sharing one man seems to work for them, given that he is still married to whichever one he’s married to. It’s certainly an unconventional love story, and an uncommon one, despite douple-dipping it with twins being a fairly common porn fantasy. All that has nothing to do with this Sparks song from 1984, except inside my impressionable mind. It’s a love song for a novelty romance that turns out to be true love.

Silver

I started listening to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain a lot because I wanted to listen to The Killing Moon a lot and didn’t want it to look like I was listening to same song over and over again like a damn child. Good album, it turns out, even though its name sounds like a brand of spray-on deodorant. I’m always down for more 80’s music, and it’s nice to see that there’s actually still good 80’s new wave that I haven’t fully explored, because it did sometimes feel like I was scraping the bottom of the barrel. The era is over and there’s never going to be more 80’s in the world besides what’s already in the world. Luckily, there’s still a few relatively obscure bands to explore, so that should keep me busy.

Show Some Respect

Did any 60’s survivor enjoy the 80’s as much as Tina Turner? I don’t know that anyone did. Most of the icons of the 60’s entered the 80’s looking winded and out of ideas. Turner, newly minted as a solo artist, embraced everything about it, and was embraced in return. All of the excesses of the decade, she made her own: sentimental empowerment ballads with synthesizers, logos, spandex, blockbuster stadium tours with elaborate stage design, truly gigantic hair. She did it all so well, making herself one of the faces of the decade. She even made people forget that there had ever been a duo called Ike & Tina.

Sharkey’s Day

All you need to know about Laurie Anderson is that she is a very serious art person and her work is intellectually rigorous. You can tell those things because she wears all black and has a lesbian matron haircut. I’ve actually never listened to any of her albums besides this one. Too much intellectual rigor, I guess. Maybe my cutoff point for artistic seriousness is a lot closer to the easily accessible end of the spectrum than I care to admit. However, I do recommend this record. It was an unexpected success in the mainstream-ish music world, and I think it’s actually pretty accessible. It’s weird and ahead of its time, for sure. (And yet also very 80’s, because nothing screams “It’s the 80’s!!!” like a Peter Gabriel cameo.)

Seven Seas

Just when it seems like the 80’s have been thoroughly explored and there’s nothing left for a deep dive into, another great semi-forgotten band pops up. How is 80’s new wave such an inexhaustible wealth of wonders? I don’t know, but it must have been a great time to be alive. I bet you haven’t listened to any Echo & Bunnymen records in a while, and I think you should. Honestly, I’ve waited this long to start listening to Echo & the Bunnymen only because their name is stupid, something they really should have thought of. But superficial judgments aside, here is a band with one megahit to their name who have a body of work that isn’t entirely filler. So a deep dive is called for.