Sunday, October 23, 2011

Mad About Her: In Praise of Belinda Carlisle

She was one of the last women to really turn me on.

I'm not completely sure what got me thinking about Belinda Carlisle. It may have been something by Terence Trent D'Arby (speaking of great singers who never got their commercial due, which is what I intend to do in a future post) that my iPod shuffle selected while I was in the gym yesterday. I don't know why, but for some reason, D'Arby's "Wishing Well" always reminds me of Belinda.

I remember watching the Grammy Awards in 1989 -- he was hot with Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D'Arby; she was on fire with "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" and its string of follow-up hits -- and she was raving about him on the red carpet. For some reason, the image stuck. I love a good pop catfight, but sometimes it's nice to hear artists say genuinely nice things about each other, too.

Most of her fans probably would hate me for saying this, but I was never much into the Go-Go's. Some 30 years later, "Our Lips Are Sealed" sounds as fresh as it did the first time I heard it on Casey Kasem's Top 40 countdown, but aside from that debut hit, the best of the Go-Go's never really did it for me. I like my pop a little darker and with an edge, and songs like "We Got the Beat" and "Vacation" are a bit too sunshine and light for my taste.

Yes, I know that despite its upbeat title and peppy beat, "Vacation" is a break-up song, which I suppose is kind of subversive for early '80s pop, but not enough so. Imagine a song called "Vacation" with lyrics and music that contradicted the title. (Dido started to go there, but she ended up calling her 2004 single "Sand in My Shoes.") Now that would be a song I could sink my ears into!

Belinda got a rise out of me for the first time since "Our Lips Are Sealed" with her 1986 debut solo single, "Mad About You," in which she emerged from the Go-Go's slimmer and sleeker, a grown-up beauty. (Guitar solo by Duran Duran's Andy Taylor aside, it sounds surprisingly undated today.) On a casual listen, the song would appear to have a lot in common with her Go-Go's hits, but dig deeper. The opening riff is kind of dark and sinister. That's the sound of love sneaking up on you.

And as anyone who has ever allowed himself or herself to fall into it well knows, love isn't all sunshine and light. Remember what the Queen said: "Grief is the price we pay for love." Whether or not it's worth it, is up to you, but when love walks in, it always seems to arrive wearing cryptic and desire bordering on desperation as accessories. It's there in that opening riff (cryptic), and in the way Belinda's husband Morgan Mason looks at her at 1:42 in the music video (desire bordering on desperation). "Mad about you, lost in your eyes," she sings, urgently and convincingly. But I always thought her desire bordering on desperation sounded a little sad, a woman on the verge of losing control with no power to stop the madness.

A college friend once complained that Belinda sings like a billy goat, and although I could hear where he was coming from, I didn't care. Apart from "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" (her biggest solo hit, which, tellingly, was the only one that was 100 percent sunshine and light), I loved her entire string of Top 40 singles, from "Mad About You" to "Summer Rain," her crowning musical achievement, and even some of her later work, like the 1991 UK hit/U.S. flop "Live Your Life Be Free," which was remixed to mid-'90s perfection several years later by Van da Mar.

I first heard the track -- credited to Belinda Carlisle Vs. Van da Mar -- in a basement bar in London, and I was so taken by what I hoped might be her U.S. comeback, doing for her what DNA's reworking of "Tom's Diner" had done for Suzanne Vega a few years earlier and what AutoTune would do for Cher, via "Believe," several years later, that I spent the entire next day trying to track down a 12-inch vinyl copy. Though the bid for renewed interest in the U.S. failed, my search didn't.

I spent the '90s disappointed that Belinda's solo fame in the U.S. lasted only two and a half albums. (She would remain an international star, though, particularly in the UK and Australia, for most of the decade.) By the early '00s, I'd gotten over it. The turning point was when I spotted her in the lobby of the Sunset Marquis in Los Angeles in 2002. She was still stunning. All those years off the U.S. charts had been kind to her, and she had the Playboy pictorial to prove it.

I'm thrilled that she's still active with the Go-Go's, but I'm ready for a full-blown Belinda revival that has nothing to do with '80s nostalgia. That disastrous stint on Dancing with the Stars in 2009 was so beneath her. As much as I love Paula Abdul's kookiness, I often wonder why her and not Belinda? Here's an idea: Get Nicole Scherzinger off of the U.S. X Factor (apart from Pussycat Dolls, she just never quite worked in America) and give her judge's seat to Belinda. Are you listening, Simon Cowell (who already worked with her on Celebrity Duets in 2006)? Maybe then I'd feel more compelled to actually tune in.
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