Comics-in-Chief: Laughing With (and At) the Presidents -- The Scathing Slice of the Satirical Edge

When America chose Nixon over Paulsen at the polls, it ushered in a president that many consider one of the most humor-challenged in modern history.

The Dance of the Comedians: The People, The President, and the Performance of Political Standup Comedy in America

Publisher: University of Massachusetts Press
Author: Peter M. Robinson
Publication date: 2012-01

Great Political Wit: Laughing (Almost) All the Way to the White House

Publisher: Crown
Author: Robert Dole
Publication date: 2000-08

The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History

Publisher: Penguin
Author: Norman Mailer
Publication date: 1995-01

Going Too Far

Publisher: Doubleday
Author: Tony Hendra
Publication date: 1987-11

The '60s, it's often said, changed everything, and political humor is no exception. Prescient trailblazers from the underground—like Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Dick Gregory—had already sent out warning flares of a zeitgeist in comedy, and John F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson had shown that even from within the Beltway, humor could be deployed in strategic new ways. However, no one could have anticipated the tsunami of political humor that began to storm the nation from all directions from the mid-'60s on. Tony Hendra described the counter-culture humor of this era as “going too far” in his book of the same name, and its innovations in tone, content, and style set precedents for much of the humor we experience today.

Like most storms, this one was preceded by calm. The assassination of President Kennedy on 20 November 1963 killed not only young people’s most beloved president in recent memory, but also the almost daily banter that had been established between the Kennedy camp and the media. In the immediate aftermath of his death an unofficial moratorium existed on humor similar to what happened just after the events of 9/11. In both cases, people were just not in the mood for levity, nor did comedy seem appropriate. The mute button was released, however, by the time JFK’s successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, settled into the White House.

LBJ was in many respects the anti-JFK: a scheming insider rather than a visionary idealist; a western plain-speaker rather than an articulate eastern sophisticate; an arm-twisting bully more than a quick-witted charmer; a scowling figure as opposed to upbeat and inviting. Whereas Kennedy exuded bright, imaginative wit, Johnson’s sense of humor stretched little beyond sarcastic put-downs and the dirty tall tales of his Texan heritage. Despite these perceptions amounting as much to myth as reality, LBJ could never shed the inconvenient contrasts; in looks, character, and public image—to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen on Dan Quayle—he was just no Jack Kennedy.

Comedy vultures descended accordingly, mocking unrelentingly both Johnson’s character and the state of the union. That Was the Week That Was, a sketch comedy show popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the early-to-mid-'60s, spearheaded a so-called “satire boom” of comedians that never got tired of using the US president as their principle punching bag. And while JFK had always matched wit with wit, or at least put on a brave face against incoming satiric missiles, LBJ could not hide his irritation at the often cruel personal mockery directed his way.

The satire boom hardened humor and politicized it in ways neither seen nor heard before. Besides the established channels of editorials, newspaper cartoons, and stand-up, political humor now ventured onto the small screen, particularly on night-time talk shows hosted by the likes of Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett. They brought an unfamiliar irreverence to the monologue segment and mocking the president became a daily ritual. Such developments were quite a departure from '50s TV fare, over which sponsors controlled and contained (comedy) content within a box demarcated by the conservative consensus.

Political humor was disseminated in the '60s mostly through a growing youth demographic increasingly skeptical and critical of administrations’ policies on civil rights, Vietnam, and other issues that effected young people first-hand. MAD magazine—with its tag-line “Humor in a Jugular Vein”—led a new school of comics in directions that would culminate in surrealistic “head” humor, while neo-folk radicals like The Fugs and Country Joe & The Fish emerged as spokes-bands for the newly politicized counter-culture.

The Fugs were at the heart of the practical joke wave—most famously represented by Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and Abbie Hoffman’s Yippies—that swept out from within the counter-culture. Characterized by its creativity, whimsy, and obtuseness, prankster humor invariably had a surrealistic edge at one with the psychedelic drug experiences of the time. The Fugs incorporated a political component into this humor. Their mock levitation of the Pentagon at the 1968 March on Washington (protesting the Vietnam War) became the stuff of legend and was even captured by Norman Mailer in his “new journalist” account of the occasion, Armies of the Night. In song, too, The Fugs were brazen in such satirical ditties as “Kill for Peace” and “C.I.A. Man”. “Who can squash republics like bananas? / …Fuckin’ A, man / C.I.A. man”, goes the latter’s chorus line (The Fugs’ First Album. Fantasy, 1990).

Country Joe & The Fish were equally candid in their repertoire, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” becoming a sing-along staple of anti-war protests after it came to prominence as the stand-out song at the Woodstock festival. “Superbird” particularly captured the drug-addled brand of political humor that had been brewing in their hometown of San Francisco for some time. Its eccentricity-meets-dissent mockery of President Johnson spoke in the language and tone of the insurgent youth movement. “Look up yonder in the sky now / What is that, I pray? / It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a man insane / It’s my President LBJ”, Joe gleefully sings before adding, “Gonna make him eat flowers / Yeah, make him drop some acid.” (The Collected Country Joe & The Fish. Vanguard, 1990).

The agit-prop impulse of these artists and activists brought humor out of its usual sanctuaries of stages and pages, and onto the streets where protest marchers popularized slogans like “LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”, which soon morphed into variants like “LBJ, pull out like your old man should have” (qtd. in Peter M. Robinson. The Dance of the Comedians: The People, The President, and the Performance of Political Standup Comedy in America. Boston: University of Massachusetts, 2010. p.165). Even mainstream media came to embrace the new black humor, as columnist Art Buchwald and cartoonist Jules Feiffer skewered the president with cutting commentary in the so-called “serious” papers.

TV, too, loosened its censorious collar, providing spaces for counter-culture lite entertainers like The Smothers Brothers but also edgy black comedians like Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor. Taking a page from the comic playbook of old-time “rubes” like Seba Smith and Will Rogers, Gregory used incongruity humor by imagining himself in the role of the president. Such a comic ploy highlighted inequities black people were “really” experiencing and thus played an integral role in the larger civil rights struggles. This era even had its own mock presidential candidate, continuing a tradition that had previously given us fake contenders in Will Rogers and Gracie Allen. Pat Paulsen’s 1968 campaign was crafted in order to critique both the presidential election process and the power-brokers that sustained it. He named his party the “Straight Talking American Government” (STAG) and ran under the word-playing slogan “We Can’t Stand Pat”.

Alas, the country chose Nixon over Paulsen at the polls, ushering in a president that many consider one of the most humor-challenged in modern history. Nixon had long been presented as a caricature by the national media. Physically, his dark eyebrows, perpetual five o’clock shadow, and brooding jowls gave him a sinister look befitting the man who had just served as McCarthy’s side-kick attack dog during the dark days of the House Un-American Activities hearings. Cartoonists couldn’t believe their luck at being given such a physical specimen to play with. In character, too, Nixon was harsh and serious; as Henri Bergson would see it, in need of some corrective laughter. However, humor was never Nixon’s strong suit, and despite his fleet of hired comedy writers and the occasional pop-up on TV shows like Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, comedy always fell embarrassingly flat when emanating from his mouth.

Harry Truman captured the recurring “Tricky Dick” slight that plagued Nixon when he commented, “He is one of the few men in the history of this country to run for high office talking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time and lying out of both sides” (qtd. in Bob Dole. Great Political Wit: Laughing (Almost) All the Way to the White House. New York: Doubleday, 1998. p.37). Even Bob Dole, a fellow Republican, weighed in. At an occasion in the late '70s when Presidents Carter, Ford, and Nixon had gathered at the White House, Dole quipped, “There they are: see no evil, hear no evil, and…evil” (Dole, p.54). With friends like these from within the world of politics, it is not surprising that the media had even more of a field day in their attacks. Pre, post, and during his term-and-a-bit in office the comedic onslaught came from all angles against Nixon and his frequent embittered outbursts against all media suggest that he felt every body blow.

Watergate, of course, confirmed what many humorists had been suggesting for some time: that paranoia, deceit, and venality lay at the core of Nixon’s character. Watergate was, too, a comedian’s ultimate god-send. “I hear that whenever someone in the White House tells a lie, Nixon gets a royalty” was one of hundreds of jibes Johnny Carson made in his late night show monologues during these times (qtd. in Robinson, p.190). The youth counter-culture, likewise, unloaded on Nixon in a series of running gags and pithy put-downs. “Impeach with honor” and “Dick Nixon before he dicks you” were just two of many slogans adopted by protesters in the streets.

The venom in counter-culture humor was vividly illustrated by Hunter S. Thompson, who brought his customary “gonzo” flavor to a piece he wrote (for Pageant magazine) about Nixon on the eve of his 1968 election victory: “He was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad. The Nixon I remembered was absolutely humorless. I couldn’t imagine him laughing at anything except maybe a paraplegic who wanted to vote Democratic but couldn’t quite reach the lever on the voting machine” (WikiQuote: Hunter S. Thompson).

After Nixon’s Shakespearian acts of hubris, Presidents Ford and Carter brought some welcome humility to the presidency in the post-Watergate era. On entering the office, the former vice-president set expectations modestly low when declaring, “I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln” (qtd. in Robinson, p.191). A new sketch comedy show at the time, Saturday Night Live, was not, however, willing to let the makeshift president slip under the comedy radar. Despite once being a star college athlete, Ford’s occasional though notorious clumsiness gave SNL comedian Chevy Chase all the ammunition he needed to craft his slapstick-driven impersonation.

Carter, like Ford, projected a candor, transparency, and clarity absent under Nixon, but these traits just became fodder for SNL and others who mocked his sunny cult-like smile and righteous demeanor, casting him as a southern “rube” and his brother “Billy Beer” as a redneck. Despite their attempts to be upbeat and resilient, both Ford and Carter became unwitting victims of the comedic floodgates that had burst open during Nixon’s fall, and they were impotent in combating the caricatures that ultimately enveloped and defeated them. Such was not the case with the next president, Ronald Reagan, who, while providing just as much fuel for comedy fire, was adept at extinguishing incoming flares or fanning his own flames in response.

Reagan was the most natural wit in the White House since John F. Kennedy and was just as strategic in using it as his predecessor had been. And while JFK often used humor in order to buffer interrogations about his powerful Catholic family, Reagan did likewise in relation to his often extreme ideological positions and, as the oldest person ever elected to the office, his age. Regarding the latter concern, 1984 contender Walter Mondale became the butt of the joke when, during the second presidential debate, Reagan was asked if age would affect his ability to serve. His response: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience” (qtd. in Robinson, p.210). Knock-out punches like these were Reagan’s calling cards, as candidate Carter discovered during the 1980 campaign. Then, unlike with Mondale later, it was Reagan who was charged with inexperience at the highest levels of government—to which he retorted, “I haven’t had Jimmy Carter’s experience. I wouldn’t be caught dead with it” (qtd. in Dole, p.41).

Reagan’s prior career as a B-movie actor in Hollywood made him a joke candidate in some critics’ eyes, but he clearly used his acting chops in timing and delivering (and no doubt rehearsing) his jokes at the expense of others. This, coupled with his avuncular charm and unruffled public presence, made him one of America’s most beloved presidents by the time he left office in 1989. Ironically, Reagan’s wit worked best when he set himself in opposition to the very government he sat at the apex of. He made wisecracks on behalf of fiscal conservatism at the very same time as his administration ran up the national debt in unprecedented fashion, yet the power of his aw-shucks, Mr. Smith-like down-home humor enabled him to obfuscate any political realities. Like 19th century comedians Seba Smith, Charles Farrar Brown, and Finley Peter Dunne, Reagan succeeded by assuming the role of the everyman-outsider fighting against oppressive power structures—despite, in reality, representing and advocating for the latter. Peter M. Robinson explains the strategy: “He used humor to ingratiate himself into the community with fellow citizens while distinguishing himself at the same time” (p.207)—as Lincoln had done.

The celebrity-in-chief role that Reagan cultivated so effectively has since become a standardized necessity for all presidential candidates. It's almost impossible to run for the highest office nowadays without first traversing the day and night-time talk show circuits—and “performing” accordingly with cheerful comic aplomb. Those who have attempted to circumvent such national demands, like Mitt Romney in the recent election, have paid a high price in popularity and likeability. Some, like Sarah Palin, proved so inept at dealing with the serious media during the 2008 campaign that she basically settled for appearances on comedy TV shows where her “dumb” character played to more populist appeal.

The biggest changes in presidential humor in recent decades have come not in content or style, both of which still largely follow templates established by SNL in 1975, but in the media industry itself, which now has more outlets than ever before. This modern media-scape has its roots in Reagan-era deregulation and has since widened further, courtesy of the technological revolution. Deregulation of TV in the late '80s facilitated the arrival of cable channels with specialized content and without obligations to satisfy any consensus interests or “public trust”. New, more extreme material catering to specific demographics soon arrived on the screen, and comedy—particularly on HBO—was at the vanguard.

Simultaneously, other media followed, with talk radio moving in increasingly polemical directions. Rush Limbaugh, since 1984, has graced the airwaves with his radio talk show, satiating his cult of “ditto heads” by playing to their anti-liberal leanings through blowhard sound bit(e)s couched in vitriolic mockery. Arguably, much of the hateful resistance Presidents Clinton and Obama (have) received is due to Limbaugh’s rallying of the right-wing base with his provocative put-down humor.

Even the news media has been adulterated by deregulation. With cable channels stealing their ratings, traditional news services (ABC, NBC, CBS) have found it an economic necessity to make their programming more appealing. The result has been the emergence of “infotainment”, both from serious news sources but also from comedy-news hybrid programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Ironically, this latter sub-genre is often more delving and news-worthy than the former, and many young people today gravitate to Jon Stewart rather than Brian Williams for their daily news coverage.

This morphing of the news with comedy is particularly pronounced on the internet, where sites like The Onion and JibJab serve up political humor in tandem with the 24-hour news cycle. Sometimes their pointed wit veers into absurdism, such as when, during the last election, The Onion ran the outrageous “story”, “‘Romney Murdered Jon Benét Ramsey’, New Obama Ad Alleges”. Like much new media, though, this piece spoke—through satire—undeniable truths about the dishonesty of the political campaigns, the sensationalism of modern media, and the gullibility of the general public.

These recent trends in our national discourse are unlikely to slow down in the foreseeable future. In fact, with the explosion of new social media forums like Facebook and Twitter, which lend themselves conveniently to non-stop and succinct witty retorts from anyone to anywhere, the marriage of politics and humor will surely continue to grow more intertwined and intimate, such that our presidents, public, and media will exist in a perpetual state of attentive vigilance, ever-ready to out-wit each other.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

This film suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

Keep reading... Show less

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.