7 Albums I Am Supposed to Love That I Actually Hate (Part 3 of 7)

3.     Peter Gabriel, So (1986)


If you are one of the people who still thinks that the film Say Anything… (sic) is a sweet flick about true love, you have either not seen it in 20 years, or you are a sociopath.  For those of you who want to defend this flick for which you have rosy remembrances and nostalgic feelings, let me re-introduce you to it.  First of all, the central plot device of this romantic-comedy is John Mahoney’s embezzlement trial.  Remember that whole riveting episode? The tragic fall of James Court?  Second, the premise of the movie is this: An over-achieving daddy’s girl is harassed into an on-again, off-again relationship with an aimless, 19 year old, kickboxer who develops a pathological obsession with her.  Not as charming a story as you remember?  Say Anything… (sic) culminates with the kickboxer following the princess to England where she will  ambitiously pursue a highly coveted scholarship while he will, presumably, spend his time not purchasing anything sold or processed, nor processing anything sold or bought.

The character of Lloyd Dobler, brought to life by a mouth breathing John Cusack, is often cited as the main reason for Say Anything…’s (sic) success.  In an era where Hollywood was beginning to find careerism to be acceptable in a woman, the virile but emotionally capable John Cusack made manifest what film studios assumed were the the fantasies of a new era of film going females.

The fantasy that Say Anything… (sic) presents is that of an impossible collection of attributes.  Dobler is a manic-pixie-dream-boy who is somehow able to safely spill affection from his mouth in the form of constant compliments, but who is also a kickboxer, able to defend and protect, if necessary.  He is smart enough to be paraded around dinner parties, but not smart enough to overshadow his lover’s career.   He is needy enough that he desperately seeks approval, and he isn’t so needy that he’ll be a burden.

In reality, Dobler exhibits the anti-social behavior consistent with that of a serial killer.  Yeah, Say Anything…’s (sic) hero, your hero, Lloyd Dobler, is almost as creepy as James Gumb.  All Dobler talks about is his complete lack of ambition other than Diane Court, he records his thoughts and conversations onto cassette tapes that I can only assume he obsessively catalogs, like Kevin Spacey’s marble notebooks from 7,  and he wears a frigging trench coat for half the movie.  What does a trench coat communicate, in film parlance, other than violent bounty hunter, flasher, or disturbed potential maniac?  And in the most iconic scene in the film, yes the boom box scene, he is patrolling the outside of her house, holding the stereo over his head, frowning and glaring, not like he wants to romance her, but like he wants to eat her alive.

“In Your Eyes” is, of course, not only the song that blared from Cusack’s boom box while he wooed the “I’m too good for you,” Ione Skye, but is also a choice cut from Peter Gabriel’s insanely popular 1986 record So.   The song forever binds the film and the record, and just like Say Anything… (sic) is mistakenly credited with being a sweet and genuine love story, So is credited with progressing pop music with its lush production, tight songcraft, and liberal incorporation of elements from world music.  And just like the film is far from being sweet, or genuine, the record is far from progressive. It is cynical, and capitalistic in the most regressive of ways.

It is everything that is wrong with music.  The gleaming synth.  The canned horn blasts.  The computer generated funk.  The mid-career reach for chart success.  And just like Dobler presents himself as thoughtful and unique while he is actually planning his “assault on the world” (which begins now, by the way), Gabriel presents himself as passionate and insightful, while he is actually calculating and exploitative.  The record appropriates from various sources, and it then aggregates the exploited parts into a meat grinder so that a slick, gleaming link of chart topping sausage can be pooped out.  Chunks of the original material still remain, like the gospel style turnaround on the piano in “Don’t Give Up,” like the African drums that thump across the record, like that stupid fucking Shakuhachi that may as well become the symbol of colonialism.

And through it all, Gabriel has the audacity to present himself as somehow socially conscious.   “Biko” was bad enough, a Caucasian pop star appropriating the struggle of Africans, moaning for the man with the same faux concern shown by anorexic celebutants RIPing Mandella via twitter, but he also has something to say about Stanley Miligrim’s experiments?  At least, mercifully, “We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)” is less a song, and more an ambient pulse with a title slapped on it.  Gabriel commands us to think for ourselves moments before the groove dissolves and he is consumed in a cloud of self-righteousness.  There is more liberation, more freedom, more understanding of what it means to be a free thinking individual in one Black Flag song than in Peter Gabriel’s entire fucking catalog.  There is something disgusting about his moralizing.  There is something hypocritical about any stance he takes, as if a record that pushes 18 million units could ever be a protest of anything.

Now.  Let’s talk about “Sledgehammer.”  I think I am ready.  So, “Sledgehammer” is the worst song of the 20th Century.  Gabriel has claimed that the song was inspired by Stevie Wonder and Otis Redding.  “Sledgehammer” is, I guess, what Gabriel thinks Innervisions sounds like.   But the most offensive thing about the song is that Gabriel misunderstands those musicians.  He does not see them as lusty and indulgent lovers, or crooners of rich poetic verse.  He does not see the soul music of the 70s as lushly and lovingly orchestrated.  He imagines Redding, Wonder, and anyone associated with Motown, to be merely the Walt Whitmans of their own phalli.  Gabriel writes an ode to his own penis, and completely misses on the levity and the joy cultivated by the artists he is supposedly mimicking.  The lyrics don’t posses any kind of humor, charm, subtly, or whimsey, they are instead strange, and menacing.  Somehow “Fuck the Police” is offensive, but this piece of calculated theft built in the shape of a cock, is pumped through the speakers of every supermarket, every minivan carting kids to school, onto every top 10 videos list.   Gabriel wasn’t really inspired by Stevie Wonder’s and Otis Redding’s music.  If Gabriel wanted to mimic anything about them it was their ubiquity.  And he somehow did it with a song about his dick.  MC Ren never said anything as disgusting and offensive as, “open up your fruitcage/ where the fruit is as sweet as can be.”  But somehow when gross Peter Gabriel sings it, it’s clever, and fun!   “Sledgehammer” was made by a man who fundamentally misunderstands soul music.  This is evidence by the cool monochromaticism of Gabriel’s sonic palette.  The song sounds like what you would hear were there a Sega Genesis fighting game from 1991 featuring the legends of Motown recording.  “Sledghammer” would be the entrance music for when you picked Jr Walker as your character.

And the worst part is that he did it twice.  No one else has noticed that “Sledghammer,” and “Big Time” are the same fucking song?  No one?  They even have the same stop-motion video.  Gabriel smirks his way through “Big Time,” like a college kid reusing his eleventh grade compare / contrast paper on the Scarlet Letter and The Crucible, for his American Literature 101 course.  You’ve been fooled, America.  Not once, but twice.  Shame on you.

Not unlike the film that will always be associated with it, So is an impossible combination of disparate parts.  A synth-soul record with a promotion budget bigger than the operating costs of a professional sports team, featuring a middle-aged, prog-rock front man singing songs about his own penis.  It’s more impossible than a sweet, damaged , articulate, boyish kickboxer who will accompany you to London after your father disappoints you.

Listen to this Instead: Graceland by Paul Simon

Song I would listen to if Peter Gabriel held a gun to my head: “Sussudio,” mother fucker.  Now pull the trigger you son of a bitch.


Don’t be a slacker!  Check in tomorrow for part 4 of 7.

6 thoughts on “7 Albums I Am Supposed to Love That I Actually Hate (Part 3 of 7)

  1. Sledgehammer was my favorite song when I was a kid. I used to sit on the carpet in front of my mother’s wood-grain particleboard enclosed television, mesmerized by the video. Peter Gabriel seemed like such a cool, fun guy. I definitely wished he was my Dad.

    “Say Anything” is not an especially good movie, but I never felt it defined “So” or Peter Gabriel any more than “Jerry Maguire” defines the career of Bruce Springsteen. Once great musicians become commercially successful and sins of artistic integrity are inevitably committed. I’m over hating them for it.

    The only part of your post that really rankles my ire is your insinuation that Gabriel is not allowed to genuinely have feelings regarding Steve Biko or to have thoughts about psychological research. I guess he should only write music about what a big white sellout he is? And of course you’re right, Henry Rollins is much more genuine and not a celebrity or a heavy-handed moralist.

  2. For the record, when songs are used as a part of a films, I don’t consider that to be a sin, in and of itself. I consider the use of film in the cinema to be an important element of the artform. Even though the intention behind the use of some music seem manipulative, or exclusively profit-oriented in nature, there are too many examples of great pop songs being used in films (That moment where Gwen Paltrow and Luke Wilson first share the screen in Tenenbaums, scored by Nico’s cover of “These Days,” the use of “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) by Kenny Rogers in Lebowski’s acid flashback, Scorsese’s entire body of work, etc.) to decry the whole endeavor. (Indeed, even my feelings about artist’s selling their work for commercials and advertisements has evolved over the years, though I still think the practice is, by and large, gross).

    The problem with “In Your Eyes,” in Say Anything… (sic) is that it is a sappy and melodramatic song, used in a sappy and melodramatic movie and neither Peter Gabriel, nor the filmmakers display a shred of self awareness about how sappy, or how melodramatic they are. It results in the scene, the film and the song coming off as laughably and memorably immature.

    And sure, Henry Rollins is a little self righteous. But Gabriel could use a little heavy handed. He is heavy handed because he bleives the shit he says. Gabriel could learn a thing ortwo from a guy like that. I think that artists like Bono and Rollins who make their opinions heard should be applauded for using their platform for things other than reality TV shows and sham marriages. (Although, I was talking about a punk / hardcore band from the 80s, not the guy who did a guest spot on Sons of Anarchy. The two have little to do with one another.)

    And I didn’t say Gabriel couldn’t make those kinds of songs. I said that when an artist like Gabriel, who writes cheesy pop tunes, writes a song that tries to tell me how to feel about a social issue, I am suspicious. The same way I would be suspicious if The Black Eyes Peas released a song about global warming, or if One Direction tried to tell me how to vote. I just don’t believe him, He has developed zero credibility to make the kinds of statements he makes. He can make them all he wants, but he is going to fail to convince me of anything, other than that he is a blow-hard.

  3. I’ve never seen “Say Anything,” and I’ve never been much of a Peter Gabriel fan. Even so, I enjoyed your review. One thing you are spot on about is “Graceland.” Now THAT album is a classic.

  4. As far as I’m concerned, Solsbury Hill and In Your Eyes are timeless classics along the lines of Graceland or Sound of Silence. I don’t know really where this is coming from and why you are mentioning Peter Gabriel in the same breath as Pavement or why spoken word fucking Henry Rollins comes up at all ever (and don’t tell me that Black Flag is a seminal punk band that everyone should listen to because they had something important to say along the lines of Sex Pistols or Ramones or the Stooges). Listen to the Stooge’s I Wanna Be Your Dog and then send me one Black Flag song that is as listenable and as poignant. All I need to know about Henry Rollins I learned in 1994 when he released Liar. I don’t really know what the song is about, but I do know that the main protagonist (or antagonist in this case?) is deigning to “rip [the listener’s] mind out” and other death metally-things that sound really menacing but are ultimately insipid. Speaking of insipid, I would listen to an entire Rage Against the Machine album before I would willfully listen to 10 seconds of a Henry Rollins or Black Flag song.

    Sorry, I just have really sweet memories of those two Peter Gabriel songs. They are soothing in the same way that U2s One is soothing. I hate U2 overall (which is another blog post, probably), but that song got me through some tough times.

  5. Sorry, I don’t know if I’m any good at an endless, circular dialectic about pop music. If you want to punch me in the face, that’s okay.

  6. Hey Thomas. No one wants to punch you in the face. Thanks for the input, and thanks for checking out this blog. I’m so glad you shared your opinions. That’s what this thing is for.

    To answer your questions, “this” is coming from my frustration with what is considered the accepted canon of pop music, and the only thing that Peter Gabriel and Pavement have in common is that I happen to not like their music,

    But my opinions are not everyone’s opinions and I wouldn’t have it any other way, so please continue to share what it is you like about the music I don’t, or hate about the music I love. I suppose it’s also possible that we may end up agreeing about something eventually. Peace.

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