Thursday, January 28, 2021

Over: The Go-Gos, Head Over Heels

Purchase Head Over Heels--skip the middleman, buy from the band! 

I love songs that work in dichotomy. Particularly, when the upbeat melody and sound of the song in no way matches the lyrics. Some songs are so happy, so poppy, that it's hard to relate the sonic sensation that listening brings when you actually listen to what the singer is on about.  I recall this was a point of criticism in 2002, when Springsteen put out the September 11th response album, The Rising. Mixed into those soaring, elegiac and hymn-like sounds were songs of tragedy, pain and heartbreak. Some too-stiff typewriter trolls found that unforgivable.

But, then, music is meant to be a healing force, and I think that a sad lyric put to a bursting, energetic melody is the perfect combo. 

Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" never fails to uplift, despite the near-suicidal evocation in the lyrics. Springsteen's "The Rising" is a prayer of gratitude and awe for those who risk their lives to save others, and "Mary's Place" is a hell-with-it-all promise to the self, made at a turning point in grief and a personal decision to move on and find the beauty in life, a soul-fused, dance floor banishing of sorrow for affirmation of the fact that life goes on. 

Catharsis measured by sing-alongabiltiy, release in turning the volume up. There is just an ineffable magic about something sad that still makes you feel good. It's the magic of the music whispering the lyrics in one ear, and in the other, the gentle admonish, "Don't be sad..." 

I can't think of a better place to turn when I'm done than my record collection. 

I can write you a nice long playlist to help you out of emotional jams...

Which takes us to the song I've picked for the theme this month, which is 'over'. Over it, over done, overwrought, over and out? "Head over Heels," as done by the four album power pop, cute-punk California girls of my adolescent dreaming, The Go-Gos. A band that never got taken seriously, much to the "Doh!" of many of us who wrote them off as cream puff radio wannabes.

I love a lot of what the Go-Gos did, especially on their first album, where there was a lot of new wave grit to give the bubble gum some snap and sizzle. They made radio history with distinctly cool, distinctly genre leaning pop-punk tunes. There's glitz, and glam, but their music had a California vibe that would serve as the melodic precursor to your Green Days and your Blink 182s, abhorrent as it is to think punk could be pop, listened to by the masses and blared on commercial radio. Such is the way these things go--I mean, how many people who wear a Ramones t-shirt know the Ramones were a band? Music, as a cultural force, isn't exclusive to any one tribe, and the chameleon like appeal some bands carry is tribute to the universality of sound and the resistance we should all have toward arbitrary labels.

But, back to the Go-Gos.  They got short shrift for being the first Billboard charting, all female band to write all of their own songs, and play all of their own instruments. That sounds like a backhand slight, disguised as a compliment, but given the politics of pop music, and the exploitation that went along with so many of the hits that will forever be staples in our cultural history, the Go-Gos were a real band. With talent, and hooks, and looks.

"Head Over Heals" comes from Talk Show, their last album before they split up. It's the most commercial album they did, yet reflects the pressures of fame, and the lead single in particular speaks to the struggles the band faced with big label pressures, finances, substance abuse, and personality conflicts. Like any juggernaut pop band, the Go-Gos were put on a running cycle of touring and producing that brought fame very quickly. So many cautionary tales come from the world of pop and rock--young talent, driven by labels to repeat early flashes of magic, and then the trappings of fame, in the guise of sex, drugs and all the other glittery delights. It did the Go-Gos in, like so many other acts, but they managed four great hybrid albums in that run that reward listeners with fresh appeal, almost 40 years on. 

The Go-Gos certainly had a bright flash across the pop landscape, top 10 hits and fun videos. But, it came at a cost, as it did for so many bands, over the years. In a New York Times interview, lead singer Belinda Carlisle said "We were run ragged, we didn't know how to say no. ['Head Over Heels'] has an upbeat, cheerful melody and lyrically it really captures the darker side of fame and fortune - I had an appreciation for the lyrics then but not like I do now in hindsight." What make "Head Over Heels" such an interesting song--aside from it's confectionary of the opening piano riff to its tub thumping drums and static robot signal guitars, is the very dark nature of the lyrical content. 

Any song talking about head going over heels would most likely be about love, and while there is an intimation of romance here, "Head Over Heels" is a far darker, more plaintive song about being overwhelmed and out of control. It's a heavy ditty disguised as a light one, and the timelessness of the angst and the fear at being out of control has a universal appeal. You can tap your toes and snap your fingers to the song, but maybe it's a nervous tic rather than a signal of how into the groove you got. 

"Been running so fast
Right from the starting line
No more connections
I don't need any more advice
One hand's just reaching out
And one's just hangin' on
It seems my weaknesses
Just keep going strong..."

I know the song just went on repeat in your head--it's catchy, to say the least. But what I find most striking, again, is the dichotomy: here we have a dark confession of how fear and anxiety seem to rule the mind, and the lament that, despite best intentions, one's weaknesses are often stronger than our intentions not to be ruled by them. But, if there's anything to this song, it's the embodiment of hope and perseverance in the music. And music itself is sometimes just the thing we need to take one more step towards something better than the slow, sad moment we find ourselves in. Our weaknesses might be the only thing that has any strength, but keep working--you're doing fine, and it will get better.