February 28, 2011


Do Not Want

It can be difficult for those of us who lived through the '80s to realize that there is now an entire generation of pop musicians for whom that era only exists as a set of cultural signifiers from old movies. I saw all the big movies of the '80s when they came out, so Atomic Tom's video for their cover of the Human League's 1981 hit "Don't You Want Me"— from the soundtrack to the forthcoming movie Take Me Home Tonight— should scratch all my nostalgic itches. Instead, it pushes all my buttons.

The premise of the video is that the Take Me Home Tonight cast restages iconic shots from several dozen '80s movies: water splashing down on Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, the kiss above the birthday cake from Sixteen Candles, Meg Ryan faking an orgasm in When Harry Met Sally, and so on. Atomic Tom's arrangement of "Don't You Want Me" revs up the tempo to punk-pop speed, switches its instrumentation from the Human League's huffing-and-puffing analog synthesizers to crisply flickering guitars, and has the band's frontman Luke White singing the whole thing (and switching a few pronouns in the second verse). "Don't You Want Me" is a terrifically catchy song, and emblematic of its decade; in its original incarnation it was one of the first full-on new wave records to hit #1 on the U.S. charts, beaten to the top only by a couple of Blondie songs.

The Human League's version of "Don't You Want Me" is a much darker song than you'd guess from its party-time revival. It was originally conceived of as a totally nasty piece about sexual politics for Philip Oakey to sing.

At some point, the Human League had the brilliant idea of getting 17-year-old backup vocalist Susan Ann Sulley to sing the second verse from the perspective of the character who's the subject of Oakey's first verse: a rejoinder to him, and a counterpoint to his accusations. The moment when the band emerges from the chorus and all of a sudden Sulley rather than Oakey is singing ("I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar, that much is true...") is still a genuine jolt.

Once the song pivots over to her, Oakey's character comes off looking like a jerk, because he is. ("Don't forget it's me who put you where you are now/And I can put you back there too"? Ouch!) To give all the lyrics back to a single male singer makes it a much meaner, more retrograde song—a song about a man sour-grapesing over a woman who's dumped him, and not about her celebrating her freedom and assessing their relationship.

Even the sound of Atomic Tom's "Don't You Want Me" is a little reactionary. The new wave scene that the Human League belonged to was all about futurism: synth-pop represented a movement away from individual instrumental virtuosity, and toward the clean perfection of machine noises (which, of course, was meant to form a contrast with human imperfection). And the Human League, in particular, were hardcore left-wing futurists: their first record was an instrumental EP called The Dignity of Labour. They downplayed acoustic and electric instrumentation as a matter of philosophy—the only audible instruments in their "Don't You Want Me" are synthesizers.

To turn it into a guitar-driven rock song (with a little bit of burbly synth bass), as Atomic Tom do, is to embrace a technology—and an associated ideology (male-centered, "heroic," tied to the punk era)—that its songwriters and original performers were rebelling against. (It also means that the minor-key riff that opens the Human League's version of the song, serves as its bridge, and offers a contrast to its major-key verse, falls out of Atomic Tom's version: it's a melodic keyboard part that wouldn't make sense on guitars.)

Which is to say that Atomic Tom's version, deliberately or accidentally, abandons the historical context of the Human League's music: its meaning beyond a chorus hook, a nifty melody and a few lines about somebody who has something to do with a cocktail bar. You could say the same about the new video, in which a string of movies (with characters and plot and visual style) are reduced to five-second allusions, invoking a sense of "oh yeah, that one—that was the '80s, all right!" rather than a sense of what it all stood for.

The Human League's video actually recapitulates a (single) movie idea too, if a bit more deeply: it's a variation on the central conceit of the thrice-filmed movie A Star Is Born, in which a rising young star rejects the older man who plucked her out of obscurity and started her career. Perhaps new wave itself is now playing the role of Oakey's character— a half-forgotten relic of history whose only utility is to provide a boost to young artists and then fall away. But the Human League's "Don't You Want Me" was a desperate leap toward the future; Atomic Tom's only gestures hammily toward the past.