Tears for Fears: Sowing the Seeds of Love

It’s difficult to write about a song that I genuinely dislike, especially one I dislike as much as Sowing the Seeds of Love. Certainly, I have said some harsh things about the songs discussed herein, but the truth is that I do enjoy all of those songs to some degree; there’s some nostalgia at play, but I wouldn’t still be singing along with them after all these years if I didn’t on some level want to be listening to the song at all.

I do have, to be fair, some warm memories of Sowing the Seeds of Love; it played at my prom, so whenever it comes on I do think of my prom date, a handsome redhead in a bell-bottomed tux, saying “never has a song used more words to say less,” and I appreciate anew the warm wisdom shared by a slightly older man, before moving on to remember how In Your Eyes is not quite the ideal slow dance jam you’d think it would be.

It may be a fool’s errand to try to discuss lyrics I know to be meaningless, but we’re in this together, you and I; we’ll get through this, I assure you.

(I kid! I know I’m the only one reading this. Still, one must press on.)

Sowing the Seeds of Love has loftier goals than the majority of love songs from the ’80s. It does not trifle with romantic love, the simple yet confounding attraction between a man and a woman that dominated the airwaves back in the day. Instead, it attempts to traffic in capital-L Love, that strikes not out of the blue but a deliberate love that can be cultivated and harvested; a love that pervades the universe. Like the Force, only slightly more granular.

That the song has lofty goals cannot be held against it. Everyone, I’m sure, living through troubled time (which, if history is anything to go by, will always be all of the time) imagines that they will be the one to write the next Imagine. What can be held against Sowing the Seeds of Love is that it absolutely fails. For example, consider the very first line:

It’s high time we made a stand and shook up the views of the common man.

Whereas Imagine begins by inviting the listener to alter their own beliefs, even if only momentarily, Sowing the Seeds of Love asserts that the first step in reaping love is to assure your own correctness by defining an other who needs to do all the changing. Which, I guess, is solid; you probably won’t finish a project if you think you’re wrong for doing it – that’s why I abandon so many posts half-way through. In this case, the target for this enforced self-improvement is the “common man”. Not this one, presumably, as you don’t get a look that smooth without having figured a thing or two out. No, Tears for Fears is referring to the everyday man going about the ’80s trying to live his life and not understanding that he’s doing it all wrong. Sting’s father, who spent his life building the ships that would one day kill him – he’s probably who they’re talking about. If he hadn’t been killed in that industrial accident, the love of Tears for Fears would have set him free, surely.

Of course, it’s not only the little guy that Tears for Fears is unafraid to face; later in the song, they do speak some truth to power:

Politician granny with your high ideals

have you no idea how the majority feels?

I have to admit that this is the first time it occurred to me that Tears for Fears might be a British band. But even I know that “Politician Granny” is a burn on Margaret Thatcher, even if I don’t know specifically why everyone seems to have hated her, although, as a contemporary and ally of Reagan, I can certainly make a couple of guesses. None them, though, have anything at all to do with high ideals; indeed, given the current state of things, where we’re really scraping the bottom of the intellectual battle, it’s peculiar to think of high ideals as a bad thing. Even in terms of the song, it’s an odd slight: isn’t love the highest ideal of all? Can we really hope to cultivate it without the highest expectations in all arenas?

Furthermore, does it really matter that Granny has no idea how the majority feels when they are so in need of having their views shaken up that it’s the very first line of the song? Unless there’s a difference between the majority and the common man, but I believe the primary way to become common is to be plentiful, which is definitely what the majority is, so I think they’re probably the same.

Tears for Fears thinks it’s a problem, though.

So without love and a promised land

we’re fools to the rules of a government plan.

Kick out the Style

Bring back The Jam!

There’s nowhere in the song those last two lines wouldn’t be a complete non-sequiter, but of course Tears for Fears is the guy who tells you which bands you have to like. In fact, this whole song is less an ode to the power of love than it is to teen-aged petulance. Because, regarding the first part of the quote, the notion of a promised land has caused a lot of problems over the years, so I’m not sure what the lament is here, unless it’s like when a child wishes he was adopted because his real mom wouldn’t make him do anything uncool like wash the dishes or follow the rules of their government. Which is not to say there are not many horribly oppressive regimes in the world, but if you think that God has fewer rules than the government. . . I mean, I don’t even know how to address that. Except maybe to point that the very first rule that man broke is the reason everyone isn’t already living in the promised land in the first place.

That same high school attitude can been seen elsewhere in the lyrics. In the second chorus, they sing

Sowing the seeds, the birds and the bees, my girlfriend and me in love.

That’s the only time in the song the girlfriend is mentioned, but it does make it seem like the entire song was maybe written to show off how these guys are getting laid.

Luckily, amid all the talk of girlfriends and implying of the mad sex they’re doing, the song does provide a clear, actionable plan for how you too can help spread the seed of love. (Which, now that they’ve mentioned a girlfriend, takes on an uncomfortably literal meaning.) The instructions are so clear that even the common man should be able to follow them:

Feel the pain, talk about it if you’re a worried man, then shout about it

Open hearts feel about it. Open minds think about it.

Listen, I know I am a cynical robot, but “feel about it” is exactly the sort of advice that makes people hate hippies. Are feelings important? If you’re programmed to feel them, sure. But feeling for the plight of the less fortunate – or just the common – will in no way lessen misfortune, unless it moves a person to act. This an unfortunately unromantic view, certainly, and a difficult one to get people to consider, especially when they have the option just to feel, man. But feelings -important though they may be – can only be the first step. Similarly, sowing the seeds of love is a great first step, but love doesn’t harvest itself, and in fact it won’t grow and take root without constant tending.  And this is the problem with Sowing the Seeds of Love; it’s not just that it uses a lot of words to say nothing, but in believing its own profundity it confuses identifying a problem with proposing a solution.

Chicago: Look Away

The ’80s were a bit of a transitional time for masculinity. After the emergence in the ’70s of the Sensitive Guy Who Could Still Get the Girl – typified by Alan Alda and, unfortunately, Woody Allen – more traditional expressions of manhood reasserted themselves. This issue would resolve itself in the ’90s as the pendulum swung back toward sensitivity, as grunge transitioned into the ascendance of the Metrosexual, but in 1988, we were all still grappling with the question: can a real man have feelings? And nowhere is that debate more poignantly expressed than in Chicago’s first big post-Peter Cetera hit, Look Away.

Look Away begins with the singer reflecting on his day, which apparently got off to a not-great start:

When you called me up this mornin’

Told me about the new love you found

I said “I’m happy for you, I’m really happy for you.”

Much as I am inclined to believe the singer is really happy, since unprompted repetition is the hallmark of truth, this insistence on his happiness raises a couple of questions about what his pre-call relationship was with the caller. Possibly these two had an amicable split and remained friends post break-up, and she is calling up a friend to share her good news. Which would make his happiness warranted.

On the other hand, these two may have had an amicable split and, post break-up,had a Friends With Benefits arrangement, although they weren’t referred to as such back then; I can’t tell you exactly what they were called, but I am pretty sure the woman would  have been referred to as a slut. Whatever her name, this call would then be less about sharing her good news than it is about letting this gent know she’s decided to commit to her other suitor and so therefore these two will have to sever ties, genitally speaking.

In this case, while there may still be some amount of happiness for his ex, it is also, understandably, accompanied by a feeling of loss for himself, as whatever hopes he’d been nurturing of rekindling their more formal romance have been roundly dashed.

There is also an unexpected, and probably unintentional third option in play here, which is that there is currently no relationship at all between these two, and perhaps never was. Thus, the lady is only informing him of her new love – real or otherwise –  so that he’ll finally take the hint and move on already.

To be fair, this option only makes sense if you’ve heard the rest of the song, so let’s move on and see how that plays out:

Found someone else

I guess I won’t be comin’ round

I guess it’s over, baby

It’s really over, baby

This stanza solidly supports the second option outlined above, since, had their relationship been strictly platonic, there would be no need for him to stop visiting her simply because of the new love. The third option is still in the running here too, as “comin’ round” is not the least creepy way to describe paying a call on a lady, but it does conjure images of creeping in the bushes outside someone’s house.

Whichever option is correct, it’s weird how much guessing he’s doing here, when he received a pretty straightforward piece of information. It’s almost like he’s not quite sure what the song is about either. Although, again, the meaningful repetition of “it’s really over” would indicate that he does fully understand that it’s over. It’s nice that he’s willing to commit to a hunch like that. And, indeed, we can see that our humble narrator is able to read between the lines:

And from what you said

I know you’ve gotten over me

Granted, we weren’t privy to the entirety of that morning’s conversation, but “I found a new love, who is not you,” is not a cryptic statement. So it’s good that he did at least take away that she’s gotten over him, but, again, it’s a little troubling that he had to any sort of parsing for meaning to get there.

His acceptance that “It’ll never be the way it used to be” is encouraging, but then immediately shown to be incomplete when he offers:

So if it’s gotta be this way

Don’t worry baby, I can take the news okay

Can he, though? Because it seems like he’s under the impression that the news that has just been presented to him as factual is instead a hypothetical statement, and the woman should be relieved that, should she ever actually share that information with him, he’ll be okay with it.

Confusing as those mental gymnastics might be, they do provide a great insight into this relationship when/if it was romantic. Even today, in the ‘teens, I think we’ve all known someone who seems to think your invitation or expectation is just a poll to gauge their interest in a particular activity, and is genuinely surprised when you follow up with them. It’s endless variants of this conversation:

“I thought you said you’d clean the garage today.”

“Oh, did you want me to do that?”

which can take their toll; it’s no surprise this relationship has foundered.

(Please note: that’s not an actual conversation I’ve ever had.)

And if that lack of responsiveness weren’t enough to doom the relationship, we then get the chorus:

If you see me walkin’ by

And the tears are in my eyes

Look away, baby, look away.

You know the tears. And how they get in your eyes.

There’s more:

If we meet on the street someday

And I don’t know what to say

Look away, baby, look away.

You know what? Her name’s not baby. Not only are the two of you not in a relationship, and maybe never were, she’s not the one who’s crying.

And finally, to summarize

Don’t look at me

I don’t want you to see me this way

There’s SO MUCH drama happening here, it is amazing. Whether the loss of this relationship was real or entirely in his head, his extreme overreaction to crying – or the spontaneous appearance of anatomically-produced ocular saline for which he is not at all responsible – sheds even more light on why it failed. The constant self-repudiation of an emotional Elephant Man, too wretched to behold, would be just exhausting to put up with, even without his poor communication skills.

Which, again, come into play here in the chorus. Because I don’t think the woman needs to be told to ignore this guy on the street. If for no other reason than people generally don’t need to be encouraged to avoid an awkward encounter with someone who can’t keep up their end of the conversation, even if they’re not openly sobbing.

It’s even more surprising that he would be so moved to speechlessness and melodramatic horror when we find out that the decision to end the relationship was mutual:

When we both agreed as lovers

We’d be better off as friends

That’s how it had to be

Yeah, that’s how it had to be

As it did earlier, the repetition is what makes it extra believable. They both agreed to it, and, somehow, this time, he understood that an actual discussion was happening and that the outcome – perhaps because it was inevitable – was one he had to abide by.

Of course, sometimes nothing is more tragic than the inevitable. Before the phone call this morning, how was our hero keeping it together?

I tell you that I’m fine

But sometimes I just pretend

Oh, word? I am shocked. You’re doing a heck of a job keeping up that facade, man.

Wish you were holdin’ me

Wish you were still holdin’ me

Aw, he wants to be held by his lady; that’s sweet. And the repetition at last serves a purpose, as the “still” finally confirms that these two did indeed have a romantic/physical relationship at some point.

I just never thought

That I would be replaced so soon

I wasn’t prepared to hear those words from you

Certainly, it can hurt to find out you’ve become obsolete. If appliances had feelings we’d never have developed the toaster oven because we’d be too afraid of the bread slicer thinking it was no longer the greatest. But progress marches on and people are fickle, and now we have microwaves which don’t do anything for bread at all and are the worst option for heating up soup. Sometimes, no matter how good you are at what you do, you get traded in for a newer model with more bells and whistles. It’s heart-breaking, but all you can do is hope that someday. . .oh, he has more to say?

I know I wanted to be free

Ah. So, the mutual break-up was maybe not so much as being better off as friends as it was a little break to see if he could do better. And now, all of this sadness is simply because she moved on first. So while it remains true that the song is about the fragile ego of this gentleman, what he doesn’t want his girlfriend to see is how very right she was to move on and find someone better. Although, given that it was the ’80s, she probably just ended up with more of the same.

A double dose of Van Halen: When It’s Love & Why Can’t This Be Love

Van Halen came late to the topic of love in the ’80s. After swapping out front men when the Lee Roth model proved no longer sustainable, their songs underwent a noticeable tonal shift. Although the Vans Halen themselves, along with any other unnamed remnants of the original band, surely remained firm in their conviction that jumping would always be a viable alternative, the public face of the band turned to more philosophical topics.

In 1985 they asked the question Why Can’t This Be Love?, and may or may not have come up with an answer by 1988’s (How do I know) When it’s Love. One can only presume they would eventually have gotten around to addressing the Who, What, and Where of love had these two early attempts proved, despite being massive hits, how ill-suited the reconstituted Van Hagar were to address such lofty questions.

Take, for example, the chorus of When It’s Love:

How do I know when it’s love?

I can’t tell you, but it lasts forever.

Although providing zero pertinent information on the topic of love, we do see demonstrated here a previously unspoken linguistic principle, that words directly following a question do not necessarily constitute an answer. It does not, however, demonstrate why Van Halen would have put themselves in a position to entertain this question in the first place, especially when they know very well they don’t have the answer. Do they simply want to be unhelpful? The next line would suggest that they might:

How does it feel when it’s love?

It’s just something you feel together.

Oh, okay. So if it’s love, it doesn’t end, and it feels like love. Great. That really sheds a lot of light.

The uselessness of these answers is almost enraging to me. If you, as Van Halen seems to be, are of the opinion that love is like a disruptive technology that can only be predicted in retrospect, maybe, when some poor lovelorn fool comes to you with a question you believe unanswerable, have the humility to answer honestly. “I can’t tell. You should probably ask someone else, because I cannot contribute to this conversation in a meaningful fashion at all,” is maybe a little wordy for a song lyric, but these are the same guys who titled an album For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge; they are not afraid to use a bunch of unnecessary words to get their message across. We have that in common, Van Halen and I.

When It’s Love, though, was at least Van Halen’s second attempt at addressing the fathomlessness of time. In the earlier Why Can’t This Be Love, they call attention to the following conundrum:

Only fools rush in and only time will tell

if we stand the test of time.

Again, it’s a universal dilemma that longevity can be achieved only through longevity and it can be difficult to commit to something that is unsure of success. But here, this is an interesting and not-at-all annoying observation because it’s not presented as any kind of answer.

The central dilemma, though, in Why Can’t This Be Love is not one of duration; it’s the titular question posed in the chorus:

It’s got what it takes

So tell me why can’t this be love

Is Van Halen making this more complex than it needs to be? Because it’s hard to know what they’re actually asking here. If the major component of it being love is that it has what it takes – to be love, given the context – then it would stand to reason that it actually can be love. Right? If we accept that the defining factor of love is that it lasts forever, and in this case it has what it takes to be love, then as long as it lasts it’s love; if it doesn’t last, then it wasn’t love and then the reason that it can’t be love is simple: because it’s not. It’s a little convoluted, which is maybe why Van Halen took a few years between albums to process it.

And I think that’s why, as frustrating as I find “When It’s Love,” Van Halen seems pretty satisfied to have worked that out. Not just in the case of Sammy Hagar’s lead vocals, which soar even before being joined in harmony by the brothers from Halen. But the music, too, is celebratory, with nameless drummer in the back crashing around to keep thing upbeat, while the guitars toward the end reach a crescendo the likes of which you might otherwise expect to accompany a burst of sunlight appearing after 40 days of rain or a sudden realization that hits when, for a moment, every single thing makes sense.

And that, if I were a song writer, is what I would propose is how you can tell if it’s love: that it makes you feel as though you’ve achieved a sense of realization and contentment, even though nothing tangible has changed. And that you can accept it for what it is at the moment, however long that moment might last.

Prince: Kiss

Kiss is a perfect song.

In the early 2000s I went to California to visit my friend Dave. Driving through the streets of downtown LA, we stopped at a red light when another car pulled up next to us. Windows down, we could hear Kiss coming from it.

Dave and I both knew that Kiss was much better than whatever song we were listening to. Obviously. I leaned out the passenger window to ask the driver if she was listening to a CD.

“No,” she said. She seemed surprised that someone could see into her car. “It’s the radio.”
“What station?” Dave asked.

And just like that, the three of us sat in our 2 different cars, singing Kiss at a red light on the way to Beverly Hills.Kiss is a song that makes you talk to strangers in cars. Because we heard it fine from her car, but second-hand Kiss is not enough; we needed it in our car too.

The first time I heard Kiss, I didn’t even believe it was Prince. Which was especially strange, because I was watching the music video and I could see him there, dancing around with a woman on guitar I knew was either Wendy or Lisa but I didn’t know which one. His voice was so much higher than it usually was. I thought he was lip-syncing. Maybe, I thought to my 7th grade self, Prince needed someone else to hit the high notes; seventh grade me was a fucking idiot. Prince, I would realize, could do it all. Because of this:

“Act your age, mama
Not your shoe size”

Yes. That is a schoolyard taunt, but from Prince, it is valuable life advice. It is a celebration of maturity, rather than the reproach it would be from a child. Prince isn’t interested in wasting time to make fun of you; he’s letting you know the two of you could totally hang – or, in this case, do the twirl- as long as you act like a fucking grown-up.

So much of Prince’s music explores adult themes. It’s weird to think of singing along with Darling Nicky as a 10 year-old; sure, that’s shockingly inappropriate for a child, but as a grown-up I understand that the song had no more meaning to me at the time than the bible does for a parrot. They were just words I could say, a parlor trick my friends and I could all do. We were funny little parrots, squawking dirty words, not recognizing that Kiss, deceptively simple Kiss, was the most brazen song we knew.

Because in Kiss? Whatever you think you need to be, you don’t. Astrology doesn’t count for shit in Prince’s world. Women – not girls – rule his world. And in case you didn’t get that, he’ll repeat it for you:

“I said they rule my world.”

In 1986 he said this. That was the revolution he was leading.

What Prince wants in Kiss is not ephemeral qualities, it is not the trappings of womanhood. It isn’t youth or trying hard to prove you’re experienced. You don’t need to be rich. You don’t need to be cool. (God, that was so reassuring to me). All you need is to spend a little time together, and you kiss. If you can handle getting that personal, the rest will work itself out.

The Power of Love

For three days in a row, The Power of Love played on the radio on my way home, and I listened to it every time. I am not so cool that I need to pretend that I was never a fan of Huey Lewis and the News. Back in the day, I owned an album, I thought their videos were clever, and Huey himself still seems like a genial fellow even if his era-appropriate suits seem somewhat boxy in retrospect.

But three is a lot of days to subject yourself to The Power of Love; it gives a person a lot of time to think: about life; about love; about whether birds ever resent having to fly everywhere. (Short answer: probably.) It also gives you a lot of time to think about the song and its lyrics, and once you put it under a 3-day microscope it’s hard not to see how this song presents a very strange perspective of love.

Things do get off to an all right start:

“The power of love is a curious thing.”

Indeed. People would not have spent millennia in contemplation of love if it were easy to pin down.

We follow this observation with an example of that curiosity:

“It makes one man weep, another man sing.”

Love affects different people differently: also true.There may also be a joke there, if one considers that at least one man singing about the power of love is Huey himself in this very song.

What else can love do? Well, it can “Change a hawk to a little white dove.”

Unlike myself, Huey Lewis apparently did not spend several years working at a newsstand with a large and varied collection of pornographic magazines, including one particular publication that walked the very fine line between upholding the law and profiting from a person’s aberrant interest in sexualizing minors, and thus does not have the same immediately distasteful association as I do with ‘hawks’ in a romantic context. Although Huey probably has that in common with more people than I do.

Unintentional paedophilia references aside (or were they?), here we start to get a glimpse of the actual power of love:

“It’s more than a feeling,”

This is perhaps a concept that deserves its very own song, but in this song, love is transformative. What distinguishes it from other emotions is that it’s not simply an expression of ourselves; on the contrary, it is the driving force behind changing altogether who we are.

To accomplish this sort of drastic change, love needs to be both strong and flexible. Fortunately, it is “Tougher than diamonds, whips like cream.” Yet, there’s an element of impermanence here, as any dessert chef or lazy dishwasher can tell you. The state of whipped cream is volatile – no matter how much effort you put in at the beginning to produce that cream, if left unattended on the counter instead of properly refrigerated, it will slowly collapse into an undesirable puddle that spills over the edge of the plate and fills the room with an unpleasant sweetness.

Optimistically, the song focuses not on the ever-present threat of reverting to an unloved state, but on the strength of love, which we then find out is “stronger and harder than a bad girl’s dream.” This provocative imagery, though, is immediately undone by the following couplet:

“Make a bad one good, make a wrong one right
The power of love will keep you home at night.”

What’s curious here is the further question this raises about ephemerality: if the bad girl becomes good, what becomes of her dreams? Further, if the full power of love is to make socially acceptable the previously undesirable, what does it offer those who need no such assistance? This vision of love is one that strips you of your negative qualities, but should you want it to? It is well established that in a marriage of true minds, love is not love which alters when it alteration finds; but how true can a mind be if it only through alteration finds acceptability?

This vision of love is not only transformative, it’s homogenizing. It should come as no surprise that it enforces a strict curfew, as that is standard operating procedure for any repressive regime; here we see that love is basically Communism.

This leads into the chorus, which states

“Don’t take money;
Don’t take fame;
Don’t need no credit card to ride this train.”

Obviously the tools of  capitalist oppression – money; fame; and money, again, in the form of credit cards – are not required for love. Instead, love is an empty box-car, waiting for any hobo or drifter with a troubled past to hop aboard and be magically transformed into an acceptable and productive member of society.

Furthermore, love is “strong and it’s sudden, and it’s cruel sometimes.” One might have expected that the greatest cruelty of love is that it be unrequited, but love apparently also has a lot in common with an ambush from the secret police.

Fortunately, there is a potential upside in being ratted out to love: “It might just save your life.”Might. Not the best odds, actually; it might save your life, but then again, there are other ways it could go. For example, “the first time you feel it, it might make you sad.” So, your initial encounter with love could be negative, so much so that it is easily distinguishable from the more pedestrian sadness you feel every day without love.

Should you try again? If you do, you run the risk that “the next time you feel it, it might make you mad.” This was romance in the ‘80s: sad and angry -making. But unlike the kids today, we had no hope at the time that things might get better; accordingly, we would be glad about this negative experience because at least we learned something:

“But you’ll be glad, baby
when you’ve found
that’s the power
that makes the world go round.”

“Glad” is not the same as “happy”, though, and what’s remarkable is how at no point in this song does love lead to happiness. Instead, love teaches you a tough lesson about how the world works. To wit:

“But you know what to do;
when it gets hold of you.
And with a little help from above.
You feel the power of love.”

Again, love “get[ting] a hold of you,” is not the gentlest imagery; love sounds a bit like a thug in this particular scenario.The only positive here is that, thanks to your previous ill-treatment at its hands, you know better than to fight. The true power of love is to encourage you to take an action that will allow love to exercise its power, an action you wouldn’t have undertaken if you hadn’t already felt the power of love. Because the goal of any power is to preserve its own power; thanks to The Power of Love, we know that love is no different.