Saturday, November 5, 2011

Cultural Explication with Howard Jones

In this installment, we'll see what we can learn about the zeitgeist of early 1985 through the lyrics of Howard Jones' single “Things Can Only Get Better”. The song was the first release from Jones' Dream Into Action album, and the titles of both the single and the record album say a lot about the social mindset of the mid-80s. While Jones is a Brit, his music charted high in both Europe and the United States, so it's safe to say that he had his finger on the pulse of Western society as a whole. The title Dream Into Action melds the resurgence of spiritual exploration with the anything-is-possible drive of the corporate world into a zen-like power mantra urging us to get our dozing butts in gear.

Even though most things in Europe and the U.S. were moving along reasonably well, no one could say that the year leading up to Dream Into Action's release was all wine and roses. In 1984, the British coal industry began a year-long strike, the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Provisional IRA assassins targeted Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the British Cabinet in the Brighton hotel bombing, first world countries were finally noticing the Ethiopian famine that had killed thousands of people, and Michael Jackson's hair caught fire during filming of a Pepsi commercial.

Michael Jackson's flaming 'do wasn't such a tragedy, but the way he shilled for Pepsi certainly was. Plus the conflagration became his long-standing excuse for the string of reconstructive surgeries that transformed him from a reasonably attractive black man to...I don't know...something else.

But let's save Michael Jackson for another time.

Even though cheery newscasters reported financial growth in both Europe and the U.S., there was always enough bad news skulking in the back to make everyone a little nervous. “Things Can Only Get Better” could be read as a hopeful reminder that the clouds will part and the sun will rise, or it could be a reminder that the world was still a pretty crappy place for a lot of people.

Clever, Howard. Very clever.

Drop the needle on “Things Can Only Get Better” (or touch the play button on your iPhone if you don't have a record player) and Howard Jones will treat your ears to a perky synthesizer melody that practically screams mid-80s pop music, a solid (almost funky in a British-white-boy way) bass-line, and top-notch brass and vocal backup. The song is so peppy that I'm convinced psychotherapists should prescribe it instead of Zoloft to treat depression.

Seriously. Just try being sad while listening to this song. Go ahead, I can wait. It's not even 4 minutes long.

Now that you're ready to don your white blazer and spike up your mullet, lets see what the lyrics have to say.

We're not scared to lose it all.

OK so far. A healthy dose of carpe diem to start the day, although “we” could be anyone from high-rollers at the blackjack table, Wall Street traders, nuclear arms dealers or generally everyone. Like any good pop song, the message is applicable to almost anybody.

Security thrown through the wall.
Whoa! Whoa! Who-o-ah, Howard! Are you using your super synthesizer powers to fling helpless guards around the room?

Future dreams we have to realize.

Oh, I get it. More carpe diem stuff. Notice how efficiently Mr. Jones tells us to quit re-acting to our insecurities and act on our dreams.

Say it with me now. Dream. Into. Action.

A thousand skeptic hands

I have to confess that this is perhaps my favorite lyrical phrase of all time. This is what poetry is all about, folks.

Won't keep us from the things we plan,

Ignore those mutant skeptics with their thousand hands. We've got a dream to realize.

Unless we're clinging to the things we prize.

Wait. You mean I have to give up my stuff? Darn, that stinks.

Howard's really going out on a limb here, telling people in the middle of the decade of greed to give up their stuff. I don't know how many Wall Street investors actually listened to Howard Jones, but they probably turned off the radio at this point in the song. Still, the message applies.

Treating today as though it was
The last, the final show.
Get to sixty and feel no regret.

Have you ever been playing that thought game where someone asks what you would do if you knew you only had 24 hours to live? You come up with all these fantastic ideas for what you would do, but you never do them in real life because you have to go to work to pay for your Walkman or your Nintendo Entertainment System or a new pair of stone-washed Levis. Remember those “things we prize” from the previous verse? They may be more than stuff or money. Maybe we choke back the things we would say if we didn't worry what everyone is going to think about us tomorrow.

It may take a little time,

What happened to seize the day?

A lonely path, an uphill climb.

So that's what happens if you don't worry about what people will think of you tomorrow.

Success or failure will not alter it.

The koan-like ambiguity of this phrase has always bothered me. Is “it” the lonely path? The uphill climb? I like to think it's the no regrets, but I shall probably still be pondering this when I'm sixty.

All these wise platitudes are nice, but can we really put our dreams into action? I'm a little skittish about diving headfirst into my last-day-on-earth scenario.

And do you feel scared - I do,

Thanks for acknowledging reality, Howard.

But I won't stop and falter.

Why won't you stop? Lay it on me, guru Jones!

And if we threw it all away
Things can only get better.

It's so simple. Why couldn't I see it before? If I get rid of all my stuff, I can get better stuff!

I'm only half kidding. Howard Jones probably didn't intend for his lyrics to be interpreted as a capitalist manifesto, but this idea of tossing away the old to make way for more of the new was the motivational mantra of the mid 1980s. Sure, it's greedy and gluttonous, but it pulled the world economy out of deep recession.

Whatever people chose to hear in the words, the fact remains that, in less than 4 minutes, Jones has bestowed upon us the wisdom of the ages. Actually, he's not saying anything new, just saying it in a catchy way, but that's cool because plenty of other people have said the same thing in the years since “Things Can Only Get Better” hit the airwaves. And maybe Howard was right because later that same year the simultaneous Live Aid concerts in England and the U.S. raised over £50 million that went toward famine relief in Ethiopia. And who was on stage at Wembley Stadium playing Freddie Mercury's old piano?

Howard Jones.

Perhaps I should let go of some of my stuff and seize the day...

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