Most people know that the first video ever played on MTV was the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”, an obviously relevant choice. But until I read the liner notes of this new hits collection (which vastly improves the sound quality of previous Benatar packages, though it does use the single edits and not the full-length album versions), I wouldn’t have known that Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run” was the second. But this too was an appropriate, telling choice as well, since artists like Benatar were the reason MTV needed to be invented in the first place. With her striking style—the short hair and the leotards and the leather pants (a total-package look immortalized in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, where the girls who copied it are singled out in a cafeteria scene)—Benatar was one of the first pop singers as famous for how she looked as how she sounded, and thus was instrumental for cluing the music industry in to how image alone could sell records. Her success, which would grow exponentially with the pervasiveness of music videos in American culture, was one of the first signs that the symbiosis between MTV and record-industry PR departments could yield lucrative results, indeed.
But unlike some of the MTV stars that came in her wake, Benatar can really sing, with a diva caliber voice over which she had impeccable control. And she was telegenic not merely because she hired some inventive stylists but because she exuded a tough, confident assertiveness that hits like “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and “Invincible” played on. But with the video for “Love Is a Battlefield”, complete with an army of choreographed dancers in tatters, Benatar made something that seemed to define the possibilities of the medium and epitomize a cultural moment. (This impression is solidified by the booming drums, banks of synths, and shrieking dive-bomb guitar licks she’s frequently singing over.) But by perfecting a new tool for Top 40 domination, providing a blueprint for some of the later ludicrous excess of big-budget video making, she also mortgaged much of her credibility, seeming to become the face of corporate hit manufacturing. Rather than being generally revered as female rock pioneer and part of a lineage that begins with Patty Smith and runs through Debbie Harry, Joan Jett, and Chrissie Hynde, she regarded as a campy karaoke-ready who recorded blustery big ‘80s hokum like “We Belong” “Shadows of the Night” and “Sex as a Weapon”.
Whether or not she really deserves to be considered among such women is an open question. She wrote little few of her own songs, relying generally on industry-favored hacks like Holly Knight and Billy Steinberg (a notable exception is “Hell Is for Children”, which paved the way for future child-abuse anthems “Luka” and the 10,000 Maniacs “What’s the Matter Here?”). Her early hits—“Heartbreaker” (which has a killer a capella breakdown), “Treat Me Right”—established her quasi-feminist ball-breaker persona, a woman who’ll stand for no male bullshit, and helped make it a viable mainstream identity. But later efforts to sustain this image in the face of her mammoth popularity were strained and contrived, making it seem as though it has always been a put on. It began to appear that she had merely commercialized a feminist outlook by reducing it to ersatz equality in romantic relationships and thereby made it a little less threatening.
But one thing that’s not in doubt is her fearless commitment to her material, no matter how bubblegum or cornball it may be. She sings the hell out of songs like “Fire and Ice” and “Promises in the Dark”, betraying no signs of hesitation, never just going through the motions or vamping at an ironic distance. Though videos made her a megastar, they also distracted people away from her voice itself, and it’s stunning to hear what Benatar can do with it when you’re paying attention to her singing and not her shimmying her shoulders down some post apocalyptic byway with a legion of dancers behind her. After the dopey spoken intro of “Love Is a Battlefield”, just listen to her tear into the first “We are strong” and then marvel how she makes the vulnerability the verse is supposed to convey palpable despite its rote lyrics. There’s so much conviction in her delivery, you feel like there’s really something life or death at stake when she sings, “we’re losing control / will you turn me away / or touch me deep inside?” It’s moments like these that allow Benatar to transcend the dated arrangements and dopey songs and sound so vital now, especially to jaded ears accustomed to the hermetic pop productions that dominate radio today.