Friday, May 6, 2011

Cultural Explication with The Go-Go's

What can we learn about a culture from it's lyrical artifacts?

Today we'll consider The Go-Go's 1981 hit "Our Lips Are Sealed". The track heralded their Beauty and the Beat album, the title of which riffed on the Beauty and the Beast faery tale. Turning the Beast into the Beat makes listeners wonder, who is the Beauty in this album? An idea underscored by the album's cover photo of the band members clad in nothing but towels and "beauty mask" facial treatments hinting that the girls are taking a spa day. Still, the ambiguity lingers--if the girls provide the beat, do they also provide the beauty, and if so, why are they so consciously careless about their appearance on the cover?

The concept seems heavy-handed, but when you consider that the Go-Go's were an all-girl band who prided themselves on remaining independent from a high-powered manager or producer, and that they rose from the late-70s rock scene laden with the echos of punk rock and Gloria Steinem's feminist manifesto, perhaps the album's title and cover arose from necessity.

On first listen, "Our Lips Are Sealed" blends jangly guitars, driving base and angelic vocals with hook-laden lyrics. Looking back at the song, it's clear why it sold so well, packaging all the elements for a hit in a lean tune that holds up fine 30 years later, especially beside offerings from Ke$ha and Katy Perry.
Putting aside discussion of the instrumental arrangement, the lyrics of "Our Lips Are Sealed" cover a vague territory that could as easily be high-school girls' locker room or high-powered corporate board room.   

Can you hear them
They talk about us
Telling lies
Well, that's no surprise

The lyrics contain no explicit reference to gender, so "they" could be anyone from bitchy cheerleaders to philandering middle managers. The opening lines throw out a line of understanding between rocker and listener: I know what you're dealing with. The third person point of view bolsters this connection, asking the listener directly:

Can you see them
See right through them
They have no shield
No secrets to reveal

Almost immediately, the lyrics swerve from Mom's standard advice to ignore gossip, instead encouraging you to look at them so hard they become insubstantial. They not only have no secrets--presumably this is why they talk about us, so they don't have to face the reality that their lives are so vapid in comparison to the people they gossip about--they also have no defense for this hyper-awareness that disintegrates rumor and lie.

We'll come back to the chorus in a moment.

There's a weapon
That we must use
In our defense

This zen-like advice could have come from Ghandi. At first listen, it sounds like we're going to stoically suffer the slings and arrows, but notice how silence is a weapon, not a wall or a shelter. This echos the previous sentiment that they have no shield, their verbosity makes them vulnerable while our silence fortifies us. The lyrics command us, we must use this weapon.

When you look at them
Look right through them
That's when they'll disappear
That's when we'll be feared

Yeah, baby! We've vaporized those slanderous hussies with our x-ray eyes, and everyone else will cower before us in fear that they might be next to feel the power of our indomitable gaze!

Maybe the intent isn't quite so dramatic, but it sure feels that way.

It doesn't matter what they say
In the jealous games people play
Our lips are sealed
Give no mind to what they say
It doesn't matter anyway
Our lips are sealed

I used to think that the chorus was the point where "Our Lips Are Sealed" falls down; I mean, after the empowering stanza about annihilating our enemies with a cold stare, this motherly platitude seems so banal. Recently, however, I've considered a different angle on the sealed lips idea. I'm sure I'm not the first person to think of the double (possibly triple) entendre in those sealed lips. Are we silent because we're taking the high road, or can we not talk because we're too busy snogging?

Why else are they so jealous?

In a distinct departure lyrically and vocally, the final verse takes a transcendent turn, evoking both celestial bliss and childlike innocence in it's nursery-rhyme rhythm.

Hush, my darling
Don't you cry
Quiet, angel
Forget their lies

Despite its simplicity, "Our Lips Are Sealed" bears repeat listening (which could explain why the track on the album I found in the Goodwill was nearly unplayable), and rewards us with more than just a top-ten pop single. The concepts of equanimity, passive resistance, and transcendence all run counter to the stereotypical perceptions of everything 80s with it's "greed is good" ethos, but the song's art of silent devastation did presage the spate of American Ninja movies that packed the cinemas through the end of the decade.

Perhaps connecting "Our Lips Are Sealed" to ninja cinema is a tad flippant, but it is true that the Go-Go's entered the slick new decade after shedding the rough skin of the late 70s, and I believe their lyrical optimism reflected the cultural zeitgeist of the United States summer of 1981 when Ronald Reagan survived an assassin's bullet, the shuttle launch returned us to space, and the first DeLoreans rolled off the assembly line (in four years Doc Brown would turn one into a time machine!).


Spook The Scribbler said...

Wow, that's one insightful little post you got there! I love how you've managed to read into the lyrics with such intuitive knowledge of the time and subject matter!
I want to go listen to this song now xD

Girl Friday said...

Bravo Mr. Smith, Bravo.

Black by Pearl Jam is playing in the background after a glass of wine, bravo.