Don’t snicker. They weren’t always mainstays of your local light jazz radio station. Okay, perhaps they were, but they were also much more. In a period when hair was getting bigger, jeans more stone-washed, and bands younger and younger, a couple of cool customers from Britain created a bubble of astonishing calmness and maturity.

After breaking fans’ hearts around the world by dissolving the Police, Sting knew he had better have a really good reason for doing so. Continuing to play the same reggae/ska-inflected rock that was the band’s stock-in-trade would have folks scratching their heads and whining, “Bring back Stewart Copeland!” So Sting took a page from Paul Simon’s book and started assembled some people of color. Unlike Simon, he manages not to sound like he’s anointing himself world music messiah. This is pretty amazing, considering that a number of the tracks on his first solo album, THE DREAM OF THE BLUE TURTLES, have incredibly serious subject matter, like nuclear war (“Russians,” anyone?). BLUE TURTLES also includes what might be the most beautiful, complicated song Sting has ever written, “We Work the Black Seam,” which musicalizes the UK miners’ strike of 1984 (you know, the one in BILLY ELLIOT). Mixing together strains of Celtic folk and jazz, it is a song that could make you forget that Sting would go on to record “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You.” Even more insane, the album went triple platinum and had four singles in the Top 40. If you haven’t listened to BLUE TURTLES in a while, dig it out and give it a spin: is it even conceivable that “Fortress Around Your Heart” would be a hit single today?

Sade is like the inverse of Sting – black singer, white band, female, starting in jazz and progressing to pop. I used to listen to her PROMISE album back-to-back with BLUE TURTLES on those weekends when my parents dragged me out to their campsite by a man-made lake in Jersey, which I spent primarily talking on the phone long distance with my friends. We achieved 90 minutes’ peace and togetherness with the one-two punch of Sting’s smooth tenor (which is practically an alto) and Sade’s cool alto (which is sometimes a tenor). Most folks remember her first (and biggest) US hit, “Smooth Operator” (“No need to ahhhsk…”), but there’s a community of like-minded people out there – most of them members of university Afro-Am organizations – who hold a special place in their hearts for “Is It a Crime,” a lament for lost love at once artful, classy, messy, and immature.

Time marches on. The Cold War ends. The music industry gets greedier. Bands get angrier. Sting goes through male menopause. Sade gets a nasty divorce. The kids who are seeking something less MTV-oriented and slightly more musically challenging with a helping of diversity on the side start listening to Dave Matthews. But no matter how many fiftysomething couples may be getting it on while listening to “Fields of Gold” or “No Ordinary Love,” I’ve got S&S’s backs.

Saving All My Love for You (Single)

Saving All My Love for You (Single)

They don’t know, girl
The young ones

For all they know
You’re just the crazy lady
Married to the dude
Who puts butt cream under his eyes
(Not on his butt)

Or they might catch you
Making out with Kevin Costner
On the Oxygen Channel
And making another thousand bucks
For Dolly Parton

But I know

Legs that were longer
And straighter than flagpoles
If not especially endowed with rhythm

At least fifteen extra teeth

And songs that may or may not
Have made any sense
On topics like adultery
And first love
The magic of childhood
And masturbation

Next time I see you sweat
I hope it’s because
You’re holding that long note
And not because
You’re jonesing.

Peter Cetera

Peter Cetera

You know, I started to write this installment of the only-slightly-regular blog, and through a careless click of the mouse pad, lost the whole thing when I was almost done. A roaring flame of idle middle-class rage quickly engulfed my brain. It was enough to make me wonder whether my unconscious was trying to send me a message – maybe this particular subject was just not – GASP! – important enough to put out there in cyberspace for people to see. But evidently, I am just that good at ignoring my unconscious.

The fact of my (literal) Freudian slip is especially curious, considering that my subject is one I take on with some amount of shame. As those of you who know me in the real world are aware, I am ashamed of very few things, especially those that involve corny and/or trashy pop culture treasures from my formative years. It just goes to show that even the bravest among us have moments of weakness of which we may or may not be proud. Mine? Facing the fact of having had the same unreasoning, obsessive fondness for Peter Cetera’s “The Glory of Love” as did every newly-ovulating American girl the summer it was released. It wasn’t simply that I was denying this feeling to others, but even to myself: when an acquaintance bemoaned the fact that the hit tune, immortalized as the love theme from “Karate Kid II,” is not available on iTunes, I privately sneered. However, if I’m honest with myself and you, I must cop to having had plenty of “knight-in-shining-armor” daydreams while listening to Cetera warble, “I am a man who will fight for your honor” – yeah, right, you and how many other middle-aged tenors?

Perhaps it’s the appalling unsexiness of Cetera – especially to those of us young enough to be his daughters, or sons – that makes it so difficult for some of us to own our uncritical fixation on his solo slow-jams, the second-best of which is clearly “Next Time I Fall,” a duet with the personality-free gospel star Amy Grant. (Later he tried to get funky by singing with Chaka Khan and Cher, but no amount of unmanageable hair can camouflage Cetera’s blinding blondness.) The best antidote for this poisonous cowardice comes, in fact, from Cetera himself, specifically from his earlier rock ballads with Chicago. I suppose he must have believed he could seduce even more married women in the Midwest without the rest of the band holding him back, but even the Ralph Macchio-inspired grandeur of “Glory” pales in comparison to the sensitive machismo – or is that macho sensitivity? – of “You’re the Inspiration,” “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” and “Hard Habit to Break.” Listen to them one after another, and it’s like a mini-song-cycle; add in the videos that got this unphotogenic group on MTV – populated by girl next door blondes shot in soft focus – and you’re as heartbroken as you were when Andie chose Blane instead of Duckie on prom night.

No one individual had a more profound effect on 80’s pop than Vince. In terms of synth pop, he is Zeus, Apollo and Dionysus rolled into one. A large portion of my adolescent soundtrack – and those of other high-energy, low self-esteem members of the northeastern elite – was created as a result of his genius.

Clarke was a founding member of all three members of the Brit electro-pop trinity – the doomtastic Depeche Mode, the ever-so-soulful Yaz, and the passion-soaked Erasure: three great tastes that can be enjoyed separately but taste even greater together. His progress through these world-changing groups reflects the cultural changes of the 1980s: post punk to post disco, anti-war to pro-gay, leather to spandex. Though the singers – Dave Gahan, Alison Moyet, and Andy Bell – get most of the attention, without Vince, all three of them would probably be waiting tables at some London yuppie pub or teaching music in the Midlands. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)

My summer camp peer group introduced me to all three groups in 1987. Significantly, that was the first summer I spent at ECCC (ask your friends who grew up in Connecticut, they’ll know) during which I did not feel as if I were being punished by God – or the lion’s share of my fellow campers – for being black, precocious and unathletic. During rest hour, instead of lying on my bunk watching other girls whisper secrets to each other, I sat with some other oddballs, listening to “Bad Connection” on cassette. When I was browbeaten into going on an overnight canoe trip, “Black Celebration” was the accompaniment for my ever-increasing antiauthoritarian hostility. And when “Victim of Love” was played at our Friday-night dances, I stopped caring whether the boy I liked was paying attention to the way my shirt was tucked into my jeans. I was no longer a mere misfit…I was a member of the Church of Misfit.

Soul…I hear you calling
Oh baby please
Give a little respect to me

It took me about an hour to realize that VH1-Classic had programmed the videos in alphabetical order (cut me some slack, I’m coming down with a cold), but the juxtaposition of Kool Moe Dee and Kraftwerk was a powerful wake-up call…so to speak. This must have been what Mike Myers was watching when he came up with the “Sprockets” sketch. Speaking of disturbing, what’s up with only one Kool Moe Dee clip? No “Wild Wild West”? For heaven’s sake, even the Kinks got two!

No commentary required. Just watch:

Earlier this evening I was out at a bar. For reasons I can no longer recall (probably because earlier this evening I was out at a bar), the conversation turned to how Radiohead, once an “alternative” band, has in recent years become popular with frat types. I then began reminiscing about the days when They Might Be Giants was a band no one outside of the northeast had heard of, in spite of having recorded three albums and playing live almost constantly, and bemoaning the fact that their shows are now overrun with douchebags.

“Are you a music snob?” my companion asked me. A snob? I thought. Not at all. After all, on my way to the bar I had been listening to Mariah Carey on my iPod. (C’mon now, you know “We Belong Together” is irresistible.) In spite of everything, I still like Madonna. I just don’t like asswipes…so when they show up at the same venues I frequent, I am quite reasonably distressed. However, later in the evening, when I expressed my delight to hear old chestnuts by Erasure and Big Audio Dynamite, the aforementioned companion nodded. “Music snob,” he remarked once more, with a smirk.

What? I’m a snob because I like music you have never heard of? Oh woe is me. Jesus, having owned a copy of “The Innocents” is hardly a sign of erudition.

Okay, what?  Before today, I had never seen more than a basic-cable moment or two of the Tom Hanks K-9 buddy comedy Turner and Hooch, but, like many of you, I had laughed at it (I mean, Hanks bellowing “Hooooch!” at the top of his lungs is a cheap and easy laugh, right?).  Earlier this evening, I happened upon it playing on Comedy Central – and was shocked to find myself watching as Hanks lifted an injured Hooch out of the back of his car and rushed him into vet Mare Winningham’s office.  Imagine my horror as the camera revealed a deep, bloody wound in Hooch’s chest!  It looked like a gunshot – had the butt of so many Hollywood jokes actually taken a bullet for his A-list partner?  As the vet tried to stabilize him and Hanks’ character stroked his head and reassured him he would be going home, the jowly co-star looked up at them with wet, sad eyes, which eventually closed.  Winningham pronounced Hooch dead, Hanks broke down…and I shrieked “No!” in disbelief.  What kind of sick, demented people end a man’s best friend comedy with the best friend in question going into rigor mortis?  Even out of context, this is easily the most sadistic plot twist imaginable.  Even Haley Joel Osment’s death in Pay It Forward makes more sense.

Teena Maries Lady T (1980)

Teena Marie's Lady T (1980)

Ask me what I need…I need Teena Marie.  There are so many things for which we must thank Rick James (“Superfreak,” the Mary Jane Girls, Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time”), but chief among them is certainly his mentorship – wink nudge – of the curly-haired, juicy-lipped Lady T.  Not that she was some kind of shrinking violet waiting for a man to help her find her voice – the woman writes, sings, plays guitar, and twirls around in sequins.  Bow down, mortals.

Add Teena to the list of “white” singers who probably have some chocolate in their family recipe (Joan Osborne, anyone?  And that sexy-ass folk singer Amos Lee?).  I’ll grant you that there are fully Causasian people who do have the funk, but Teena looks like every nineteenth-century portrait of an “octoroon” I’ve ever seen (I’ve seen more than one?  Yes.  I did a paper).  At any rate, whatever DNA she may be harboring, Miss Marie shares the fate of most performers of black-classified music – only sporadic appearances in the Top 40, with plenty of time spent on the R&B chart.  Hip-hop may have crossed over to the mainstream, with pop-oriented black singers in tow, but honest-to-God funk is still in the ghetto, aside from occasional popular successes like “Car Wash” and “We Want the Funk.”

Middle America clearly prefers the lighter, sillier side of the funk universe; Teena’s songs aren’t exactly what you would call “deep,” but they are confrontational, whether coming on strong to a man – “Phase two: Me, you/Dancin’ on a cloud” – or…well, that’s more or less the storyline.  Teena wants, needs, and demands love, whether at the beginning, middle or end of the relationship.  However, she expresses those demands oh-so-creatively, with shout-outs to Shakespeare, Sarah Vaughn and Nikki Giovanni and turning lame pick-up lines into funk gold – “Coffee, tea or me baby, touche ole” (itself a reference to the woman of color inside her milky exterior?).

Teena’s 1980 record Irons in the Fire is dedicated by the singer to her “Daddy,” with a framed photo of the beloved parent in question on the inner cover of the album jacket.  Perhaps not so unusual, except for the juxtaposition of this image with the cover picture of Teena herself, wrapped suggestively in a length of satin, seated in front of just the kind of roaring fire lovers of the 1970s would get busy in front of after coming home from the disco.  I’m sure her relationship with her father was not the scandal one might infer from the above information (though he does look like a guy who might pull a shotgun on someone for giving his daughter a hickey), but it’s curious that a woman so entirely focused on giving, and getting, intense, sweaty, funky love names the “first man in her life” as her strength and inspiration.  Ask her what she needs…she needs some therapy.

George Michael

George Michael

This installment of Gen-X-cavation was thrust upon me, as it were, from a few different directions.  First came word of my Hollywood playa friend jetting off to Vegas to see the big GM himself live in concert.  Meanwhile, here in the East, I overheard one of my 18-year-old coworkers blithely singing “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” (duet with Aretha Franklin), a song that was released before she was even born.  And of course, it’s Pride.  What better time to celebrate the career of a man who was the last one on earth to know he was in fact gay?

I admit, I was kind of slow on the uptake on the subject of George’s orientation, but I think I can be forgiven.  First of all, I was eleven when Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” was released in the U.S. (I can still remember a friend’s slumber party and the screams of joy that erupted every time they played it on the radio).  My gaydar was not yet switched on.  Secondly, I was actually more into Andrew Ridgeley (to the point of trying to make out with the TV when the video for “Everything She Wants” came on).  Most crucially, George did a hell of a job playing it straight – when he growled, “You’re my lady/I’m your fool,” you could sense he meant business, highlights or no highlights.  Then again, the next big Wham! hit, “Careless Whisper,” is suspiciously gender-neutral (perhaps those feet were guilty in more ways than one).  Maybe if American fans had been more aware of the band’s earlier work, they might have had more suspicions about George’s interests:

Young guns
Having some fun
Crazy ladies keep ’em on the run
Wise guys realize there’s danger in emotional ties
See me, single and free
No tears, no fears, what I want to be
One, two, take a look at you
Death by matrimony!

One man’s “Bros before hos” is another man’s “On the down-low.”

Listening to later Wham! songs and the Faith album, one can now sense the desperation with which George tried to keep the bad thoughts from taking over.  As his lyrics become rougher and dirtier (“You know I wouldn’t hurt you/Unless you wanted me to,” for example, or “Huh! Sex! I’m not your father”), he just looks and sounds more and more like a leather daddy.  The identity crisis reached its peak with “Freedom ’90,” whose video George could not even bring himself to appear in, substituting fashion models and a leather jacket going up in flames:

I think there’s something you should know
I think it’s time I stopped the show
There’s something deep inside of me
There’s someone I forgot to be

If that’s not a coming-out letter addressed to one’s parents, I don’t know what is.

Sadly, since coming out (or rather, since being caught soliciting a hummer in a men’s room), George’s musical output has been somewhat lackluster.  Perhaps the drama of the closet lit a spark in him that the bright light of day (or is that Doris Day?) could not recreate.  Even worse, being honest doesn’t seem to have improved his personal life either, unless multiple arrests for public lewdness and/or DUI are signs of emotional growth:

To the heart and mind
Ignorance is kind

Hopefully, GM will dance again.