You Owe Your Whole 80s to Bonnie Tyler; Or, The Importance of Being Earnest

I played Saints Row: The Third, which is crass, juvenile, vulgar, and violent. It’s also a lot of fun. One of the things that makes it fun (besides running errands for pimps, escorting tigers in convertibles, and participating in a Japanese-style game show called “Super Ethical Reality Climax” in which you shoot people dressed as mascots in sketchy warehouse) is the awesome soundtrack. For the most part, the music is delivered to you by virtue of the radio station you choose when you’re driving around the city in your car. The selection is quite good, and it’s where I found out that Talk Talk recorded “It’s My Life” well before No Doubt did. I can also report that, as much as I like No Doubt, Talk Talk’s version is superior. I am biased here–I’m an unabashed fan of all things New Wave. But I’ll let you be the judge.

While most of the music is delivered by your choice of radio station, there are two moments in which the creators of the game take artistic license and interject their own vision musically: first, when you’re parachuting over a cityscape into a penthouse party from a helicopter late at night, guns blazing, they play Kanye West’s “Power.”  It was perfect.  And secondly, near the end of the game, where you have a tough decision and a tough road ahead of you, they play Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For A Hero.”  And it’s perfect. You really can’t understand how perfect unless you play the game. But as a standalone, this song goes in and it goes hard. It was originally on the Footloose soundtrack, but I’m a proponent of working this song into any soundtrack…ever. Probably should have put this in The English Patient and The Color Purple. I kid. But in a world where the word epic is overused, consider the fact that the lyrics to this song start off like this:

Where have all the good men gone
and where are all the gods?
Where’s the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds?
Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed?
Late at night I toss
and I turn
and I dream of what I need

And the background singers are giving me life. They are working, I tell you.  The song never lets up. And then you realize: this song represents the best of what pop in the 1980s was about. It takes itself earnestly, but not too seriously. This is the decade that gave us Weekend at Bernie’s, a movie about people driving around with the body of their dead boss and convincing people that he’s alive. AND THEY MADE A SEQUEL.  This decade gave us The Last Dragon, about a Black martial arts master in Harlem named Bruce Leroy who had an arch nemesis named Sho’Nuff. The eighties gave us E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, where Drew Barrymore was able to hide an alien from the government and Gremlins, which, you know, was crazy. So the fact that the film that featured “Holding Out For A Hero,” Footloose, was ultimately a movie about a small town in which dancing and rock music have been banned, makes sense. It makes more sense when you remember that it’s loosely based on a real story.

(TRUST ME: the link is worth it. The money quote:

No good has ever come from a dance,” thundered the Rev. F.R. Johnson of the United Pentecostal Church in nearby Hennepin—the father of two teenage daughters. “If you have a dance somebody will crash it and they’ll be looking for only two things—women and booze. When boys and girls hold each other, they get sexually aroused. You can believe what you want, but one thing leads to another.”)

Now, people like to talk about the power of music, but the premise of this movie has to be the dream of every musical theater actor. A chance to actually beat back the authorities with the power of song and dance?  You can imagine all the fanboy and fangirls of Glee step-snapping their way into town with rolled up skinny jeans and strategically-placed bandannas. It would be like a one-sided West Side Story or like Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video! We’d solve our differences with song and dance! (Actually, I wish gangsters in Chicago really would have dance battles to settle their differences like the guys in the “Beat It” video. Then we’d just be treating people for tendinitis and back strains instead of burying children. Somebody get on that. You there, the guys with the Glee t-shirts on. Wanna go to the South Side of the Chi and challenge the Latin Kings and Gangster Disciples to a dance off? No? But I digress. As usual.)

 

The 80s were a time where synthesizers had come in, but people still knew how to play instruments, still knew how to arrange, still got classical training. Synths and software were tools, not crutches.  Stevie Wonder and Vangelis may be the exemplars of the form. But in “Holding Out For A Hero,” you hear it all on display, with all the earnestness, excess, and drama that only the eighties could bring.  It’s the same energy that Survivor brings on “Eye of The Tiger” or that Europe had on “The Final Countdown.” And Bonnie Tyler brings it again–on “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” I can’t call it cheesy, although a lot of people do. It’s too earnest to dismiss as cheese.  And it’s actually dope. It sold something like 9 million copies, so to treat it as a throwaway now is a little disingenuous.

I think the thing that makes this song special is that it’s difficult to conceive not only of someone writing this song, but a song like this today, and then seeing it reach the level of popularity it did. Not only does it have several different phases and ignore traditional popular song structure,  but it’s just earnest. Transgressive music can be incredible, but transgression for transgression’s sake is lame.  For example, one of the most beautifully transgressive pieces of music I’ve ever heard, and just got through listening to, is Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. People appreciate it today, but at the time, people hated it. There was an episode of the Dick Cavett show where Jimi is giving an interview, and Dick Cavett reminds people that before they send their nasty hate mail to the show for having Jimi on,  to remember that Jimi had served his country in the 101st Airborne. When asked about how unorthodox it was, Jimi just replied that “All I did was play it.I’m an American.” There’s also the argument that the Jimi’s version was actually a protest against the Vietnam War, as his distortion represented both the distorted perspective the nation had in Vietnam and to represent the gunfire and bombs. Whatever the case, Hendrix wasn’t trying particularly hard to be transgressive. He was just creating his art. He’s being earnest, just as Bonnie Tyler is.  Hard to imagine this level of earnestness, with this level of drama and virtuosity, today. Panic! At The Disco is a great band, but they have the drama without the sincerity. Muze is incredible; I love those cats. But they’re too cool. This kind of earnestness comes from a strange and seemingly contradictory mix of self-confidence and vulnerability. Today, pop stars’ images are carefully manufactured and maintained, so much so that the music industry seems to forget that Chris Brown beat the poop out of Rihanna and welcomes him back to the Grammys as a featured performer–even while he has a tattoo of Rihanna’s beaten face on his neck. So much so that people are surprised when they find out the Beyonce cusses or realize that Carly Rae Jespen is actually four or five years older than Adele or that 2 Chainz and Plies actually went to college. It’s hard to be vulnerable and earnest. But when you are, magic happens–as is the case with the aforementioned Adele. Sometimes people only see that earnestness and vulnerability as a golden goose that lays platinum records, forgetting that there’s a person behind it who is actually revealing that there’s a problem (RIP, Amy Winehouse).  And nobody wants to see that side of it. So handlers and PR people and A&Rs and managers keep the image going, and we get another song about the club or drinking or superficial love and physical attraction, or we get somebody trying too hard to be edgy when in truth, they’re talented and could be making really, really good music. Releasing a video of yourself twerking in a unicorn onesie might be the epitome of crying out for attention (and I’m not mad).

There are a lot of things I don’t understand.  One of these is why Bonnie Tyler changed her name from Gaynor Hopkins or had the stage name Sherene Davis–both of those are definitely more memorable than Bonnie Tyler. But maybe the first thing I don’t understand is part of the second thing I don’t understand: why is Bonnie Tyler less famous in the United States than the success of her songs would imply? Maybe because there are probably a half million Bonnie Tylers in the US. But there’s got to be more than that, especially when you consider that Tina Turner’s song “The Best” is not really her song. Who sang it first? You guessed it–Bonnie Tyler. Now, there are singers that snatch your song away from you and make it theirs. But in this case, Bonnie Tyler actually did a great job the first time around. It’s not that Tina didn’t do an incredible job both versions are great, and Tina is at her Tina-est on the track. Tina didn’t make people forget about Bonnie’s version; they never knew about it to begin with. To wit: Tina’s got 7.7 million views on her version. Bonnie’s version? Seventeen thousand.

 

I don’t think it bothers Bonnie; she’s a Tina Turner fan and I’m sure she’s pretty rich. But I’m sure that there were a lot of people who saw the title and said, “Who is Bonnie Tyler?” And it’s too bad, because she’s done great work. If you’re from the U.K., you probably said, “Oh, Bonnie Tyler.” I don’t know why she’s big in Europe but not in North America, other than the fact that she’s Welsh. But now you know. Now you can go fall down the YouTube rabbit hole, as I did, and transport yourself back to 1984, a time when singers still said it with their chest.

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