3. Peter Gabriel, So (1986)
If you are one of the people who still thinks that the film Say Anything… (sic) is a sweet flick about true love, you have either not seen it in 20 years, or you are a sociopath. For those of you who want to defend this flick for which you have rosy remembrances and nostalgic feelings, let me re-introduce you to it. First of all, the central plot device of this romantic-comedy is John Mahoney’s embezzlement trial. Remember that whole riveting episode? The tragic fall of James Court? Second, the premise of the movie is this: An over-achieving daddy’s girl is harassed into an on-again, off-again relationship with an aimless, 19 year old, kickboxer who develops a pathological obsession with her. Not as charming a story as you remember? Say Anything… (sic) culminates with the kickboxer following the princess to England where she will ambitiously pursue a highly coveted scholarship while he will, presumably, spend his time not purchasing anything sold or processed, nor processing anything sold or bought.
The character of Lloyd Dobler, brought to life by a mouth breathing John Cusack, is often cited as the main reason for Say Anything…’s (sic) success. In an era where Hollywood was beginning to find careerism to be acceptable in a woman, the virile but emotionally capable John Cusack made manifest what film studios assumed were the the fantasies of a new era of film going females.
The fantasy that Say Anything… (sic) presents is that of an impossible collection of attributes. Dobler is a manic-pixie-dream-boy who is somehow able to safely spill affection from his mouth in the form of constant compliments, but who is also a kickboxer, able to defend and protect, if necessary. He is smart enough to be paraded around dinner parties, but not smart enough to overshadow his lover’s career. He is needy enough that he desperately seeks approval, and he isn’t so needy that he’ll be a burden.
In reality, Dobler exhibits the anti-social behavior consistent with that of a serial killer. Yeah, Say Anything…’s (sic) hero, your hero, Lloyd Dobler, is almost as creepy as James Gumb. All Dobler talks about is his complete lack of ambition other than Diane Court, he records his thoughts and conversations onto cassette tapes that I can only assume he obsessively catalogs, like Kevin Spacey’s marble notebooks from 7, and he wears a frigging trench coat for half the movie. What does a trench coat communicate, in film parlance, other than violent bounty hunter, flasher, or disturbed potential maniac? And in the most iconic scene in the film, yes the boom box scene, he is patrolling the outside of her house, holding the stereo over his head, frowning and glaring, not like he wants to romance her, but like he wants to eat her alive.
“In Your Eyes” is, of course, not only the song that blared from Cusack’s boom box while he wooed the “I’m too good for you,” Ione Skye, but is also a choice cut from Peter Gabriel’s insanely popular 1986 record So. The song forever binds the film and the record, and just like Say Anything… (sic) is mistakenly credited with being a sweet and genuine love story, So is credited with progressing pop music with its lush production, tight songcraft, and liberal incorporation of elements from world music. And just like the film is far from being sweet, or genuine, the record is far from progressive. It is cynical, and capitalistic in the most regressive of ways.
It is everything that is wrong with music. The gleaming synth. The canned horn blasts. The computer generated funk. The mid-career reach for chart success. And just like Dobler presents himself as thoughtful and unique while he is actually planning his “assault on the world” (which begins now, by the way), Gabriel presents himself as passionate and insightful, while he is actually calculating and exploitative. The record appropriates from various sources, and it then aggregates the exploited parts into a meat grinder so that a slick, gleaming link of chart topping sausage can be pooped out. Chunks of the original material still remain, like the gospel style turnaround on the piano in “Don’t Give Up,” like the African drums that thump across the record, like that stupid fucking Shakuhachi that may as well become the symbol of colonialism.
And through it all, Gabriel has the audacity to present himself as somehow socially conscious. “Biko” was bad enough, a Caucasian pop star appropriating the struggle of Africans, moaning for the man with the same faux concern shown by anorexic celebutants RIPing Mandella via twitter, but he also has something to say about Stanley Miligrim’s experiments? At least, mercifully, “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” is less a song, and more an ambient pulse with a title slapped on it. Gabriel commands us to think for ourselves moments before the groove dissolves and he is consumed in a cloud of self-righteousness. There is more liberation, more freedom, more understanding of what it means to be a free thinking individual in one Black Flag song than in Peter Gabriel’s entire fucking catalog. There is something disgusting about his moralizing. There is something hypocritical about any stance he takes, as if a record that pushes 18 million units could ever be a protest of anything.
Now. Let’s talk about “Sledgehammer.” I think I am ready. So, “Sledgehammer” is the worst song of the 20th Century. Gabriel has claimed that the song was inspired by Stevie Wonder and Otis Redding. “Sledgehammer” is, I guess, what Gabriel thinks Innervisions sounds like. But the most offensive thing about the song is that Gabriel misunderstands those musicians. He does not see them as lusty and indulgent lovers, or crooners of rich poetic verse. He does not see the soul music of the 70s as lushly and lovingly orchestrated. He imagines Redding, Wonder, and anyone associated with Motown, to be merely the Walt Whitmans of their own phalli. Gabriel writes an ode to his own penis, and completely misses on the levity and the joy cultivated by the artists he is supposedly mimicking. The lyrics don’t posses any kind of humor, charm, subtly, or whimsey, they are instead strange, and menacing. Somehow “Fuck the Police” is offensive, but this piece of calculated theft built in the shape of a cock, is pumped through the speakers of every supermarket, every minivan carting kids to school, onto every top 10 videos list. Gabriel wasn’t really inspired by Stevie Wonder’s and Otis Redding’s music. If Gabriel wanted to mimic anything about them it was their ubiquity. And he somehow did it with a song about his dick. MC Ren never said anything as disgusting and offensive as, “open up your fruitcage/ where the fruit is as sweet as can be.” But somehow when gross Peter Gabriel sings it, it’s clever, and fun! “Sledgehammer” was made by a man who fundamentally misunderstands soul music. This is evidence by the cool monochromaticism of Gabriel’s sonic palette. The song sounds like what you would hear were there a Sega Genesis fighting game from 1991 featuring the legends of Motown recording. “Sledghammer” would be the entrance music for when you picked Jr Walker as your character.
And the worst part is that he did it twice. No one else has noticed that “Sledghammer,” and “Big Time” are the same fucking song? No one? They even have the same stop-motion video. Gabriel smirks his way through “Big Time,” like a college kid reusing his eleventh grade compare / contrast paper on the Scarlet Letter and The Crucible, for his American Literature 101 course. You’ve been fooled, America. Not once, but twice. Shame on you.
Not unlike the film that will always be associated with it, So is an impossible combination of disparate parts. A synth-soul record with a promotion budget bigger than the operating costs of a professional sports team, featuring a middle-aged, prog-rock front man singing songs about his own penis. It’s more impossible than a sweet, damaged , articulate, boyish kickboxer who will accompany you to London after your father disappoints you.
Listen to this Instead: Graceland by Paul Simon
Song I would listen to if Peter Gabriel held a gun to my head: “Sussudio,” mother fucker. Now pull the trigger you son of a bitch.