Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Happy/Unhappy Couples: Voices Carry

’Til Tuesday: Voices Carry

If you watched MTV in its early days, you almost certainly saw the video above, of ‘Til Tuesday’s 1985 song “Voices Carry.” It was one of the most popular videos of that era, winning the MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist in a Video, and singer Aimee Mann won Best Female Performer at the American Video Awards. It has taken up residency on most lists of all-time great videos, and it likely propelled the song to a No. 8 slot on the Billboard singles chart. Despite positive critical reception, the band never again reached that level of popularity, broke up after its third album, and Mann went on to a successful solo career (managed by ‘Til Tuesday drummer Michael Hausman).

The video, directed by D.J. Webster, was unusual, in that not only was it shot like a movie, it included dialogue over the music. It tells the story of an unhappy couple—a man, played by actor Cully Holland, dressed and acting like a rich, obnoxious Wall Street guy, and a woman, played by Mann, with untamed, platinum blond hair, the bassist in a New Wave band. The man is controlling and dismissive, denigrating her music as a “hobby,” and trying to get her to act and dress like the arm candy that he believes he is entitled to. Meanwhile, we see Mann playing and singing with the band, and when she returns home, her boyfriend yells at her and, to the extent possible in a video shot for MTV in 1985, forces himself on her, while he fantasizes about a romantic lovemaking session with a brunette, neatly coiffed, version of Mann.

The final, iconic, sequence (based on a scene from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much) starts with the couple, dressed to the nines (if anything, the video shows that Aimee Mann can pull off hats), in the audience at Carnegie Hall, surrounded by similarly well-dressed people. The boyfriend’s smug superiority turns to disgust when he notices that Mann has a small rattail braid peeking out from her hat, and as his annoyance increases, Mann begins to sing along with the song, increasingly forcefully, as the audience begins (not at all without cause) to look askance. As the boyfriend becomes more and more agitated, Mann begins singing louder and louder, before finally standing up, elbowing him on the way, ripping off the hat, displaying her wild hair, and belting out, "He said, shut up! He said, shut up! Oh God, can't you keep it down?” And as the audience turns to watch, the boyfriend buries his head in shame. In so many ways, this song, and especially the video, was way ahead of its time. Add your hashtags here.

Interestingly, Mann originally wrote the song, and the band performed it, about a lesbian relationship. But the record company was not that progressive, so they changed it to an abusive heterosexual couple. Cully Holland, the actor playing the toxically masculine boyfriend, died in 1991, with only three other credits on his IMDB page, and a little Internet research turns up that he died either of AIDS or suicide, and that he was likely gay. So, you had a song about lesbians turned into one about heterosexuals, with the aggressive male member of the couple played by a gay man. The mind reels.

Although many of Mann’s songs deal with difficult and serious topics, she has a great sense of humor. I’ve seen it in her live performances, and it emerges in interviews. Understanding the place of the “Voices Carry” video in music history, she decided to parody it, in a video for her 2012 song, “Labrador.” It begins with a faux “Behind the Scenes” interview with director Tom Scharpling, played by Jon Hamm (who appears to be game for anything), suggesting that they do a shot-by-shot remake of “Voices Carry.” Mann states that she thought it was a stupid idea that she was tricked into doing when Scharpling claimed that the contract was a birthday card for his nephew, which she signed while on the phone, The video is, essentially, the same as the other one, although Mann, more than a quarter century on, and with long, straight hair and dark framed glasses, looks nothing like she did in the original, and the boyfriend is played by drummer Jon Wurster, whose high-pitched voice and little pony-tail mocks the Wall Street bro look of his predecessor. There are other fun bits in the “Labrador” video, which actually looks like it was shot in New York (Boston was the location of the original, except for the façade of Carnegie Hall), but I’ve written too much already, so just watch:

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