Cruisin’ Music

I listen to music while I’m driving. The car is my favorite place to listen to music; it’s also frequently almost my only place to listen to music, but it’s not merely my favorite by default. As a former pop journalist, I should try to propagate an image of sophistication and deliberation, retiring to my study, brandy in hand, intent on contemplating the splendor of a virgin vinyl Pet Sounds played through a 5.1 surround stereo system that cost more than I made in twenty years of freelancing for Goldmine. And…no. To be fair, there are decent meals that cost more than I made freelancing for Goldmine, but that’s irrelevant. Pop music was meant to be listened to on cheap speakers, loud and distorted, as you’re movin’ down the highway at 500 miles an hour. 

(This example is intended as hyperbole. Always obey posted speed limits, even when The Ramones are on.)

And I won’t apologize for it. The unique experience of listening to rockin’ pop music in the car is magic, nearly an out-of-body rapture. It was true when I was a little kid, hearing The BeatlesThe Dave Clark Five, and The Bobby Fuller Four blastin’ outta WNDR-AM in my brother’s fragile Alfa Romeo. It was true much later, when my Dad gave me his ’69 Impala, and early ’80s AM Top 40 on Buffalo’s 14 Rock gave me Tracey UllmanToni BasilPrince, and Paul McCartney. It was true when the FM radio in my otherwise-crappy ’78 Bobcat allowed me to achieve my dream of hearing The Ramones on a car radio–thank you, WBNY-FM! It was true when cassette decks granted me the opportunity to customize my motorized listening, and when car CD players let me immediately immerse myself in an album I’d just purchased, right then and there on the drive home from the record store. Radio. Mix Tapes. Mini-discs (plugged in via a car kit). CDs. Satellite radio. My intrepid iPod. The wide world of pop music lives in my car. 

None of this is intended to downplay the impact and enjoyment I have felt in other listening environments. I would not have become the giddy, contented pop fan I am without all of the joyful hours spent listening to radio in my room, from Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and Badfinger through The Sex PistolsThe Go-Go’s, and…well, everyone. I can never forget the sheer thrill of the first time I heard “Porpoise Song” by The Monkees, courtesy of a girl in high school who let me borrow her copy of the Head LP. I retain the sense of transcendent inspiration from a neighbor playing Otis Redding‘s Live In Europe, or friends hooking me on stuff by David BowieThe O’JaysFingerprintz, and Anny Celsi, or hearing a Nada Surf CD playing in a record store and saying to the clerk GIMME!, or boppin’ around my dorm room or apartment or suburban house, exulting in the sweet sounds of Fools FaceChuck BerryGladys Knight & the PipsThe KinksThe FlashcubesThe Isley BrothersP. P. ArnoldThe Barracudas, a crunchy James Brown 45, a Bay City Rollers eight-track, a Gretchen’s Wheel mp3, all playing back on whatever home stereo equipment was/is available at the time. I wouldn’t surrender a second of any of that.

Still: music in the car. Irreplaceable. Windows down (or air conditioner up) in the summer, snow tires barreling forward in the winter, the music turned up LOUD. It’s a solitary experience, a communion; it’s not quite the same when there’s a passenger. When The Monkees released the digital single “She Makes Me Laugh,” the first tease from the 2016 album Good Times!, I was disappointed with it…until I listened to it in the car. Then I got it, and I loved it. Pop music is made for the car. Driving in nearly any weather, give me my tunes, and I’ll get there. The wind, the rain, the sun, and the snow are no match for the power of my music. Sunglasses on. Car stereo on. Let’s go.

Atomic batteries to power. Turbines to ROCK ‘N’ ROLL…!

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GUILT-FREE PLEASURES (A Defense Against The Dark Arts): “Freedom” by Wham!

There is really no such thing as a guilty pleasure in pop music. Unless you happen to love neo-Nazi ditties or glorifications of hatred or violence, I’d say it’s okay for you to dig whatever you wanna dig. Yes, even the hits of The Eagles. Why? BECAUSE THEY’RE POP SONGS! Guilt-Free Pleasures (A Defense Against The Dark Arts) celebrates pop songs. The guilty need not apply.


WHAM!: “Freedom”

It has never been cool to like George Michael. He sold something like, I dunno, a billion gazillion records, both solo and as the front face of Wham! (the latter alongside cohort Andrew Ridgely), so somebody must have thought he was okay. Critics grew to like him, too. 

But rock ‘n’ rollers hated him. I’m a rock ‘n’ roller. I think I’m supposed to hate him; loathing of teen-idol pop stars is listed in the rock ‘n’ roller’s job description, right between hoping to die before we get old and yelling for punters to get off of our cloud. Nonetheless, George Michael’s records never bothered me. I’d stop short of saying I was a fan, but nor were his songs an automatic prompt for me to change the station. It was, at worst, a peaceful co-existence; at best, it’s possible I may have tapped my toes a time or two.

My first awareness of Wham!–then referred to as “Wham! U.K.” here in the States–came in a Joey Ramone interview I read in some rock rag circa…1983? Maybe earlier. Joey dismissed Wham! as the sort of crap kids were listening to when they shoulda been diggin’ the rock ‘n’ roll. My loyalty to The Ramones was (and is) unshakable, so I had no reason to question Bruddah # 1’s distaste for this Wham thing, whatever it was. The first Wham! song I ever heard was “Wham Rap (Enjoy What You Do),” an inoffensive, slight 1982 single that I probably didn’t hear until ’83. I didn’t hate it, Joey’s admonishment notwithstanding. 

In late 1984, I started a job at a record store. Wham! became suddenly ubiquitous, with the # 1 smash single “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and the mega-selling album Make It Big. “Careless Whisper” gave the group its second U.S. # 1, and would eventually be named the top single of 1985. 

I objected to none of it, not the bubbly confection “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” not even the slick ballad “Careless Whisper,” with its much-mocked line “Guilty feet ain’t got no rhythm.” It was pop music, and to my ears it was better radio fare than a number of Wham!’s contemporaries. I mean, there were certainly dozens of other 1985 hits (and non-hits) that I preferred to Wham!, from The Bangles and Prince to Los Lobos and The Long Ryders. I remained neither acolyte nor dissident. Wham! was Wham!, and there were plenty of other things more worthy of my devotion or my derision, whichever one applied.

In the summer of ’85, I decided I needed to supplement my record store paycheck with part-time employment at McDonald’s. At the ripened age of 25, I was the oldest cook on the crew, but still energetic enough to work retail all day, work a closing fast-food shift three nights a week, and hit the bars after midnight before going home, showering, napping, and heading back to retail in the morning.

You could say it was a foolish slog. To me, it felt like a second shot at being a teenager. Freedom. And there just happened to be a song on the radio that bore that title.

“Freedom” was Wham!’s fourth single off Make It Big (“Everything She Wants” was the third), and the only one to miss the tippytop of the Billboard Hot 100, settling for a peak at # 3. Compared to the ’80s bubblechirp of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” the mournful regret of “Careless Whisper,” and the relative anonymity of “Everything She Wants,” “Freedom” was something else again: it was pure, over-the-top, capital letters POP, almost (if not quite) bordering on power pop. Its giddy exuberance exploded from cheap speakers everywhere, demanding volume, delivering the irresistibly agreeable swoon of hooks and melody cranked to a deep-red, blissful saturation point. The Raspberries could have done this song. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles could have done this song. The Monkees should have done this song. Any of those prospects would have been intriguing. And I doubt that any of them would have surpassed Wham!’s incredible rendition.

It was product. Sure. It was disposable CHR fodder with no pretense of grit or substance. It was the 1980s in microcosm, and I’m not terribly fond of the ’80s. It is all these sins and more. And yet, there are moments when I think it’s The Greatest Record Ever Made. I confess this transgression without apology.

The song’s title contrasts with its story. The lyrics tell us that the singer is madly in love with a hinge-heeled girl who thinks relationships should be open and free, non-exclusive, and she laughs and tells our besotted hero he should go out and try it. But he doesn’t want that kind of freedom; he wants commitment, trust, stability, an everlasting and monogamous meeting of hearts. I don’t want your freedom/I don’t want to play around. All he wants right now is her, not some other floozy de nuit. He wants the true love promised in pop songs. 

It was also what I wanted, and I got it. In that summer of 1985, I celebrated my first wedding anniversary. Brenda and I have now been married for nearly 35 years. We’re still in love. Just like pop songs always said we could be. 

Wham! itself wasn’t built to last. George Michael went on to a successful and well-regarded solo career; he called his second album Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. Guilt-free pleasure, right? I never again embraced any of his work to anywhere near the degree I exulted in Wham!’s transcendent pop song “Freedom.” But I respected him. He was one of the many casualties of 2016, a year which took away so many of our pop idols, a year that seemed crueler than any other cruel, cruel year. 

Before Michael’s death, I had already reconnected with my delight in Wham!’s wonderful pop song “Freedom.” The track’s a bit too long–pop songs sound best with running times of two to three and a half minutes, not over five–but its charm remains, and I love it without reservation or shame. It sounds great with some Motown and some Badfinger, some Aretha FranklinKai DanzbergDusty SpringfieldSqueezeThe Isley BrothersLisa MycholsHerman’s Hermits, and yes, even alongside some Ramones. Joey Ramone was wrong, at least this one time. But you know that I’ll forgive you/Just this once, twice, forever. Forever. Let “Freedom” ring. 

VERDICT: Innocent, not guilty.

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Smokey Robinson

Born on this day in 1940, in Detroit, Michigan, singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson. Robinson is one of Motown Records‘ most successful artists, both as a member of The Miracles and as a staff songwriter.