Song And Vision No. 2: "The Power Of Love" and Back To The Future
The stated goal of Song And Vision, to paraphrase myself from column No. 1, is to figure out exactly why pop songs and movies work so well together. One reason is time, or the lack thereof. Unlike you or me, pop songs and movies have the power to stare down time and walk right on past it. It's like that Byrds song, "She Don't Care About Time." She might not care about time, but time will eventually make her fat, crotchety, and an obsessive accumulator of collectible figurines. Citizen Kane, on the other hand, don't care about time, and time don't care about it. That's what makes Citizen Kane timeless: it successfully sidestepped the rules of the time-space continuum. No matter when you watch it, Citizen Kane always takes place in the present. The same is true of "Johnny B. Goode." The song originated in the mid-1950s but it isn't set there. It's set in the moment you hear you it. It moves forward with the rest of us, but never, ever changes. Maybe we prize timelessness in our art so much because it's utterly elusive to us as people. Orson Welles and Chuck Berry don't care about time, but time sure did a number on them.
Let's make one thing clear, though: timeless does not automatically equal greatness. Citizen Kane and "Johnny B. Goode" are great, but "Brown Eyed Girl" is as exuberant and feel-goody today as it was in 1967 when Van Morrison first released it, and I fucking hate that song. Honestly, I hope every wedding that plays that song ends in a long, soul-destroying, financially crushing divorce. On the flipside, dated does not automatically equal bad. Datedness is one of the most underrated attributes for a song or film. I'm not talking about getting stoned and giggling through Reefer Madness, or throwing one of those bozo '70s parties where everyone dresses like the Bee Gees on the cover of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. I'm talking about experiencing the past as it really felt at the moment when what you're hearing or seeing was created. I get that from Steely Dan's seminal, soft-rockin' '70s albums, which I love so much, in part, because of how vividly they evoke the sunny, shallow environs of Watergate-era southern California. (I often picture scenes from Shampoo, Night Moves, or The Long Goodbye when I play them.) "Hey Nineteen" is great because it clearly isn't set in the present. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker's weariness in spite of the Cuervo Gold and the fine Colombian seems very specific to the end of the go-go '70s and the oncoming over-correction of the buttoned-down Reagan era. Steely Dan's best work makes datedness an aesthetic plus by turning the rules of time on their head, somehow staying vital by staying put. The same applies to a lot of dated things I love, whether it's Robert Johnson's bluesy howls from the dark depths of the '30s Jim Crow South, or the deliriously smutty '60s counterculture satire of Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls. Experiencing these things is the closest I'll ever get to time travel.
Which brings us to the vision part of this column's equation, Back To The Future, a comedy starring Michael J. Fox as a California teenager who travels back in time 30 years and unwittingly inspires Chuck Berry to write "Johnny B. Goode." Back To The Future is both undeniably timeless (its place in pop culture is beyond question) and incredibly dated (it's very much a product of its time). Interestingly, it's a period piece made in 1985 that depicts 1985 as an era as distant-seeming as its version of 1955. Of course, when Back To The Future was first released, 1985 just looked like "now." It's entirely possible that director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale referenced Ronald Reagan and Eddie Van Halen and dressed Fox's Marty McFly up in a denim jacket and Calvin Klein underwear because they wanted Back To The Future to exist in the same universe as The Breakfast Club, Girls Just Want To Have Fun, and other teen films from 1985. But I'm going to give them way more credit than they probably deserve. I think Zemeckis and Gale knew all the timely accoutrements signifying "the present" in Back To The Future would inevitably look like 1985 within just a couple of years; in fact, they were banking on it. Zemeckis and Gale were trying to create an archetypical representation of 1985 just like they did for 1955, with its soda fountains, social repression, and subjugated black people. In this way, Back To The Future only gets better the further we get from the '80s. Everything that defines Marty McFly—how he walks, talks, acts, and dresses—acts as instantly recognizable shorthand for the year he comes from. (For you cooler-than-thou folks who were listening to Hüsker Dü and watching Jim Jarmusch movies in 1985: Congratufuckinglations. You are awesome. I bet you totally wouldn't have been the guy smoking pot at Woodstock in the '60s, or doing blow at Studio 54 in the '70s. I guess an archetype is only a generalization that's true in the abstract, but it's open to question when applied to each and every individual person living at the time. Hopefully you can set that aside and stay with me here.)
It's fitting that when we first see Marty, he's in Doc Brown's office, surrounded by clocks set exactly 25 minutes slow. Already, he's a man out of time. What follows is a quick but insightful dissertation on what was cool in 1985. Marty plugs into a huge amplifier, straps on his fighter-pilot sunglasses, and strikes a single power chord, which sends him flying back several feet. "Rock 'n' roll," he says, his rapturous tone most definitely implying "arena rock 'n' roll." Then Doc calls to inform Marty that, once again, he's late for school. So Marty hops on his skateboard—the "third generation" of skateboarding popularity began in the mid-'80s—and quite awesomely hitches a ride on the back of a Jeep. The song scoring these old-timey shenanigans is the first No. 1 hit by Huey Lewis And The News (and Billboard's No. 9 song of 1985), "The Power Of Love."
If you weren't alive at the time, it may be tough to imagine how a band called Huey Lewis And The News not only got on Top 40 radio, but helped define its era of pop-rock music. But by any standard of popular success, Huey Lewis was a defining rock 'n' roller of 1985. In 1983 and '84, he scored five Top 20 hits from the album Sports, which went platinum seven times. (This was back when people idiotically paid for their music.) In 1986, Huey and his band of News released Fore!, which spawned five Top 10 hits (including two No. 1s) and sold three million copies. A few years after that, the band was handed a one-way ticket to the county-fair-and-corporate-gig circuit, but in 1985, Huey was still safely ensconced in a protective shell at the center of American pop culture. Yes, I'm sure there were plenty of people who thought Huey Lewis was the epitome of soulless corporate rock in '85, and history might have proven those people right. But at the time, I didn't know any of those people. To me, Huey Lewis was the height of coolness and awesomeness. Of course, I was only 7, which means I was really, really dumb. But it wasn't just 7-year-olds who bought all those copies of Sports. There must have been at least a few grown-ups on the same page I was. If Huey Lewis was my favorite rocker of '85, Michael J. Fox was probably my favorite actor, and I definitely wasn't alone in feeling that. Family Ties was one of TV's most popular shows in the mid-'80s, when it aired on Thursday nights between The Cosby Show and Cheers, the '27 Yankees of sitcom lineups. Taken together, Huey Lewis and Michael J. Fox represent a perfect storm of song-and-vision 1985-ness approached only by the video for John Parr's "St Elmo's Fire (Man In Motion)" from the film St. Elmo's Fire.
This is the part where I make snarky comments about Huey Lewis and the suggestion that he ever signified coolness for morons like me. Only when I watch Back To The Future, I don't laugh when "The Power Of Love" comes on, even though the song hasn't aged nearly as well as the movie. To me, that would be like laughing when "Earth Angel" by The Penguins plays during the climactic "Enchantment Under The Sea" dance. We can argue whether "Earth Angel" is a better song than "The Power Of Love"— I think they're equally good—but there's no doubt that the songs represent their eras equally well. It's also worth noting that Zemeckis is trying to use Huey Lewis to give Marty some residual coolness, and that makes perfect sense for a scene operating on 1985 logic. Right away, he's showing Marty doing all these really cool things, and he sets it to a song Marty (and the average 1985 audience) would have found really cool, so how can we not help but love the little almost-motherfucker? (A few scenes later, Marty plays an instrumental version of "The Power Of Love" for the talent-show tryout with this band The Pinheads, only to be turned down by a nerded-up Huey Lewis for playing too darn loud. Huey Lewis a nerd? That'll be the day!) Compare how Zemeckis uses "The Power Of Love" in Back To The Future with how director and former punk-rock journalist Mary Harron uses Lewis' tacky 1987 hit "Hip To Be Square" in American Psycho, and the difference is obvious and striking.
The implication of this scene is pretty simple: Only a psychopath could take Huey Lewis And The News seriously. I'm not going to argue for or against that—though for the record, I never killed any cats when I was a kid—but the irony in American Psycho makes it a different kind of period piece than Back To The Future. American Psycho comments on the '80s, and Back To The Future embodies it. American Psycho views the era with the benefit of hindsight, giving us the luxury of pretending we always thought Huey Lewis was lame. Back To The Future shows things the way they actually were, at least as far as what we liked is concerned. (The whole time-travel bit is kind of a stretch.) Yes, you loved Michael J. Fox. Yes, you thought Sports was all killer and no filler. Deny it if you want, but Back To The Future will be here to refute you long after we're all dead and gone.