In 2019, Cadbury aired an advert for its dark chocolate. At the beginning of the commercial, we see a wide shot of a gorgeous, pastoral, English country house. The camera zooms in on an attractive, middle-aged woman dressed in sensible, autumnal clothing. Her blonde hair is piled loosely on top of her head. She’s watering plants with a garden hose, looking up briefly to ask the camera, “remember me? Spiky hair ripped jeans.” She turns away, looks over her shoulder, and impishly says, “the Kids in America?” As the ad continues, we see the woman – a model of English efficiency – take trays of plants in and out of a greenhouse whilst she introduces Cadbury’s dark chocolate. She makes repeated references to “kids in America” as she continues to tend to the garden.
Who is this beautiful blonde hawking chocolate? And what does she keep referencing kids in America?
The 1980s are a popular decade for advertisers tapping into a nostalgia for a neon-lit past that feels frivolous, fun, and emblematic of simpler times when people were having a good time. “The 1980s might … be the last era associated with an exuberant visual vernacular,” Amy Merrick writes in The New Yorker. “[w]ith neon leg warmers and keyboard guitars, the 1980s at least look fun.” That “exuberant visual vernacular” that Merrick writes about is illustrated by the woman cheekily mentioning her spiky hair and ripped jeans.
The beautiful blonde in the commercial is, of course, Kim Wilde, a wildly successful pop star of the 1980s who combined high-gloss glamor with New Wave and pop music. Starting with her self-titled debut album, Wilde enjoyed a remarkably successful career, charting an incredible 20 times in the UK top 40 (even enjoying some US hits, too). She was a gorgeous Bridgett Bardot beauty with a sweet, pretty croon, and most importantly, a fabulous, slightly camp attitude. She locked in her icon status with the fizzy poppy “Kids in America”, a record that perfectly encapsulates the unabashed fun of bubblegum New Wave.
“Kids in America” was the biggest hit of Kim Wilde, a scrumptious platter of sparkling pop tunes, all penned by Wilde’s brother Ricky and her dad, Marty Wilde, a legendary English rock ‘n’ roller who had a lengthy career, scoring hits in the 1950s and 1960s. He and his son put together a great vehicle for their muse, Kim, a singer who combined the best parts of other rock girl singers like Belinda Carlisle and Debbie Harry.
The song is a fantastic introduction to Kim Wilde. It’s a silly, amusing tune with a dreamy Wilde singing the appealingly messy song with backing from Ricky Wilde’s creative production and spirited playing by rock group, The Enid. There are goofy synths Ricky plays with and a jumping beat. And the “woah-ohs!” that answer to the catchy chorus set up camp in listeners’ brains, never leaving.
So much of Kim Wilde is about its namesake making a strong impression on the listening public. Back in the late 1970s, early 1980s, there was often a loose, DIY aesthetic to pop music – a vestige of punk’s influence on mainstream pop culture. And because pop music was also all about image – Kim’s stunning looks were equally important to the whole package. Though she and Debbie Harry are two distinct artists, each with a different sound, it’s clear that the marketing and packaging of the album made passing mention of Blondi. Wilde is front and center on the album art, bathed in the spotlight, as she affects a moody pout, while three faces lurk in the shadows.
Like other women in rock music, Wilde’s beauty was used to sell “Kids in America” and the rest of Kim Wilde. “Looks were a big part of my success,” she admitted to the Guardian. “And I always understood that.” She conceded to being objectified as a pop star but “went along with it quite willingly”. But it’s important to note that Kim Wilde is a triumph of style and substance, working together. Ricky and Marty Wilde join forces to make a winning album. Given Marty’s history of 1960s American-inspired British rock, it’s all the more impressive that he, along with his son, can create sounds that affectionately ape the pseudo-sneering of late 1970s New Wave pop.
Inspired by seeing a television show about American teens in the 1970s, the strutting lyrics were a response to Marty’s pearl-clutching concern for the youth. When watching the kids on television, he fretted, “They didn’t seem to have any heart. I thought: ‘My God, what are they going to grow into?'” But the angst that Marty poured into the lyrics was merely rendered fun and ironic by Wilde’s sexy purr of a voice. She wasn’t a rock singer with a buzz saw crash of a voice like Tina Turner or Wendy O Williams, nor did she have the idiosyncratic humor of Poly Styrene. And though clearly, Wilde shared a lot in common with Debbie Harry, she didn’t capture that hooded irony and Warhol-esque sheen of satire that the Blondie frontwoman did. Instead, she was a pop star with a pretty voice whose image and sound were pretty malleable, and she was able to convince the audience that she was New Wave.
And “Kids in America” would largely define not only Kim Wilde but also Kim Wilde. Though the song is fantastic, she acknowledges mixed feelings about its impact on her career, likening it to being “caged”. But Kim Wilde more than just that hit single. “Water on Glass”, another radio hit, featured a fantastic, yearning vocal performance by Wilde as she sang the urgent, unsettling lyrics about being haunted by sounds that won’t leave her alone. And the frantic, frenzied smash hit “Chequered Love” injected a punky, snarky energy to the album. And “Our Town” is a credible piece of social commentary, with the lyrics doing a solid job of decrying urban blight as well as highlighting the poignancy of wanting to leave a small, stultifying town for brighter things.
And though everyone leaves Kim Wilde humming “Kids in America”, the album’s best song is the teen rebel anthem, “Young Heroes”. Despite Marty Wilde’s hand wringing about the worrying state of the youth in the late 1970s, his 1960s rock ‘n’ roll history is very much a part of this song and Kim Wilde. So much of rock n roll in the 1960s was a rallying cry for teens. Though it was mostly centered on the young male experience, female singers like Ronnie Spector, Darlene Love, and Diana Ross were some of the most important voices that spoke to feelings of disquiet and unrest among young women. And even if Marty Wilde saw the youth of the 1970s as a troubled generation, he allowed that the older generation thought the same of him and his peers in the 1960s.
With that in mind, there is a strong feeling of 1960s rock-pop on the song, though it’s written in the guise of a late 1970s New Wave pop song (complete with whirring electric, weird synths, and as a nod to 1960s rock, a cool surf guitar). The effect is amazing as it exemplifies that insubordinate feeling of rebellion and desire for freedom from the constricting confines of society. Like Spector, Love, and (especially) Ross, Wilde sells these emotions with a feisty, sparky performance that relies on her pretty-in-pink voice.
The success of Kim Wilde led to a fruitful career in the 1980s, though the singer would drift away from the tart New Wave pop of her debut for a far more mainstream, radio-friendly sound that owed less to the Waitresses or Blondie and more to Madonna. She had a huge hit in 1986 with a synthpop rendition of the Supremes’ classic “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” that made it to number one on the Billboard charts. Once the 1980s drew to a close, Kim Wilde was one of the most successful female British singers of the decade.
After her heyday, she branched out, finding improbable fame in the late 1990s as a celebrity gardener, success hosting TV shows. and writing books about gardening. The Cadbury ad’s setting of a garden was an affectionate reference to Wilde’s second career. Wilde’s musical journey also saw her explore house, dance-pop, and club music, as well as a return to her rock roots in the late 2010s with a series of well-received comeback albums. All of this diverse triumph is due, in large part, to the shaggy, cocky brilliance of Kim Wilde.