If you were to stop strangers on the street and ask them to name Pat Benatar songs, each person could doubtless list a half-dozen without thinking about it: From massive hits ("Hit Me With Your Best Shot," "Heartbreaker," "We Belong") to minor-but-memorable singles ("Invincible," "Sex As A Weapon," "Hell Is For Children"), Benatar made an indelible mark on a decade of music. The problem for Benatar today: That decade was the 1980s, and she's still trying to record new albums and headline national tours. Her latest album, Innamorata—recorded for the CMC International label, the roster of which includes Warrant, Slaughter and a plethora of other washed-up cheese-metal bands—came out in June, and like her labelmates, she's struggling to find airplay on the same radio stations and music networks that launched her career. Benatar recently spoke to The Onion about her uphill career battles, her tour with Styx, her tiny handful of Lilith Fair dates, and more.
The Onion: How's it going?
Pat Benatar: It's going great. We just got back; you know, we did the summer-touring thing. We'd been out since May, and we just got back two weeks ago. You know, we're promoting the record, which is going great. We've got a few Lilith Fair dates, and then we go to Europe next week. So we're real busy, but it's good.
O: This tour you were on, this was with Styx?
O: What was with that?
PB: Oh, nothing. Absolutely nothing. It was just that we wanted to go out at a certain time, and they were available to go with, and that's what happened. It was very hard for us. I mean, they're very good guys, but we have nothing in common. Musically, it was really impossible, but it worked out okay. We had one purpose, and that was just to play in front of as many people as we could, and that was a good idea.
O: So all the Styx fans went out and bought your record?
PB: Actually, the good thing about it is that when you do these kinds of things—this is the third summer where we've done this with different bands—what happens is you pick up each other's fan base. So it works out really well.
O: How is the new record doing?
PB: Um, it's going slow. It's going to be a long haul, I think. We're having a really tough time at radio. It's really frustrating for us: It's selling fine, but it's just really difficult to get where you want to go these days. It's a different world out there. [Laughs.] So that's going to be a long haul, but we are relentless, and we're going to keep doing it until it gets there.
O: I wanted to talk to you about the fickle nature of radio and MTV and VH1: They have an amazing amount of control over what gets heard by the public.
PB: Well, it's great when you're on the other side, and it's always frustrating when you're on this side, so having been on both sides… [Laughs.] It's just an interesting dynamic. It's always the same thing: People are always out there doing really good work, both young bands who never get heard for one reason or another, and older bands that aren't getting played because maybe they're not current. And it's always wrong. It's wrong on all levels, so I don't know what you do about it. It is what it is. I understand that things have to stay current; that's the whole point, and I agree. But I think there's a place for new people coming up who need a spot, and then, older people who've made their mark… They don't get to continue to do what they've always done. Hopefully, that will change. I don't know. I don't have anything good to say about it, if you're looking for that. [Laughs.] Forget it. [Laughs again.]
O: Your stuff does get played on VH1 and some radio stations, but it's generally in the context of "'80s Flashbacks." Is that a mixed blessing?
PB: Oh, it's not a blessing on any level, as far as I'm concerned. If you're retired, it's a blessing. You know, if you want to keep working and doing what you want to do, it's not a blessing as all—it's a curse. See, there's nothing wrong with the past; the past is a good thing, but that's not all there is. The media are always a problem on all levels, because they have a job to do, and their job depends on hooks and things that keep people interested—and if that's what the hook is, that's what they have to use. It's very frustrating. My point is that you should be able to coexist with what you've done. You don't want to trash what you've done; that's your history. People wouldn't wince and feel so bad about that sort of thing if they were allowed to continue playing and working in a contemporary light. That's where the problem comes in, because if you get pigeonholed into one thing, that's never fun for anybody on any level. No one minds doing it, as long as you're allowed to continue doing current things.
O: How has playing music evolved for you over the years? The new album has a different sound.
PB: Well, it's 20 years [later], you know what I mean? Everything changes all the time, and unfortunately, everyone who knows what you do by buying records only hears a small amount of what's going on in your life. People's lives change dramatically over such a long time period, and I think that if you're still vital, and you're still interested in writing and things like that, of course your music evolves and reflects where you are in your life. I mean, that's the whole point. You're not supposed to be time-warped. [Laughs.] That would be so boring and horrible—the whole point is that as everything else changes around you, it has an intense influence on how you write and what you play and what you listen to. I was 26 then, and I'm almost 45 now, so it's a whole different thing, from a completely different perspective. That has profound effect on what you do.
O: A few years ago, you put out a blues record, True Love, that seemed to be sort of misunderstood—and disliked by critics.
PB: [Laughs.] Well, I don't know. [Laughs.] Maybe.
O: How do you feel about that record and the effect it had on your career?
PB: I love that record, so I don't really care. [Laughs.] The whole point is that it actually sold really well—it went a little bit over gold with no airplay—but that was never the point. The record was solely a self-indulgent, try-to-get-the-inspiration-back kind of thing. That's what it was. We made it because we loved making it, and we'd been dying to make that kind of music for years. And if we hadn't made that record, you and I wouldn't be speaking right now, because I would have definitely retired. It did everything we wanted it to do, which was really just about making a clean slate for us musically, and performance-wise, and writing-wise. And it actually sold some records, too, which was great. And I have to tell you that every time somebody comes up to us, they always mention that record. Always.
O: Well, what career move would you change if you could?
PB: I don't know, you know? That's always a double-edged sword. I mean, I probably would have been more assertive earlier on. I had a lot of difficulty with the record label. You know, I was pretty much done with that bad-girl, tough-cookie thing really quickly. It was very one-dimensional, and very old. It got old really quickly. And they had this really nightmarish contract. After Crimes Of Passion sold so many records, we really should have been able to renegotiate for anything we wanted. We should have, and we didn't. That would have changed things a lot, and then maybe True Love would have happened second. [Laughs.] They really had an iron-clad hand on what we did, and it was very difficult. After Crimes Of Passion, I was pretty much done with that, and I was ready to move on, and I couldn't. When you've made them that much money that fast, they don't ever want you to move a muscle or change a thing. [Laughs.] "You just stay like you are, girl. You are just gold! Stay that way, honey!" And they are so happy, but it's very boring for you after one or two times—it's about as much as you can stand. So that's pretty much it; otherwise, it is what it is, and I really don't have any regrets. Things took a little bit longer than I had anticipated, but that's okay. Everything happens for a reason, I suppose.
O: How about your relationship with your new label? CMC International is a pretty fascinating business.
PB: Yeah, the reason we decided to go with these guys… We had reservations because we saw the roster, and it's all these old bands that weren't really going to go anywhere, but we decided to go with these guys because the man who owns the label is so enthusiastic and so genuinely into everything that goes on at that label… He loves music, and he's a decent person. It's a very small label, so you get to be, like, the flagship thing, which is how we started on Chrysalis. It's what I prefer, and by the time we ended [our relationship with] EMI, you're part of this gigantic machine, and they're spelling your name wrong on your own record, you know what I mean? It's so horrific. I really can't deal with that, so this is a perfect thing. They were able to put the record out in three weeks, which is what we wanted. It's a very small office—it's like four people who run the company, and that's it. You want to talk to somebody? You talk to the same four people all the time, and you're on a really tight basis with them. He just said, "Give me the record." He never even heard it; he didn't even care. You can't buy that kind of enthusiasm.
O: The only downside is that you're back to being on the same label as Slaughter.
PB: That's true. [Laughs.] But I've been labelmates with worse. [Laughs.] You know, when you're doing this, you have to be very focused and egocentric on some levels, but I really don't care. I don't care who's on the label, because I have a job to do. Those people are working for me; that's all I care about. I don't care who's on that label.
O: But there is a stigma that you have to deal with. You know, "Oh, now she's on that label with Slaughter and Warrant."
PB: Yeah, but Chrysalis wasn't a major label either, and we changed that. [Laughs.] And don't forget, we're distributed by BMG, which is a gigantic thing. Day to day, you deal with real people, but you're part of this gigantic thing. So it's a perfect blend for me.
O: Your relationship with Neil Giraldo goes something like, "husband, producer, guitarist…"
PB: …garbage-taker-outer. We do it all.
O: That's kind of a rare thing, where you can take your family with you as you progress through your career.
PB: Yeah, I guess it is, but this is the only way that we know, you know? I'd like to say that we're extreme geniuses, but that's not the truth. The truth is that we just kind of happened to start out this way, and it really works for us, and we work hard at it. The major thing is that neither of us had any aspirations to change the other one; we liked each other the way we were, and we agree on the really big stuff. On the small shit, we rip each other's heads off. But that's not the point: The point is that on the big stuff, we are absolutely in agreement. And that's why it works.
O: You've won four Grammys, you've got six platinum records and four gold records, and at this point, you're basically rebuilding. You're playing acoustic sets in the afternoon on the side stage at a couple of Lilith Fair shows, while Meredith Brooks and her "Bitch" song are on the main stage.
PB: I know, but things must move on. It would never be fair for all of us to stay in a top position for 20 years. What would that do to everything? Everything would stay the same—it would stagnate, it would be horrible. That's not the point. Is it hard for me to do this? Sometimes, but you know what? I wanted to be at the Lilith Fair. I said, "You know what, I want to go." And if there's no room, I'll go anywhere, because I think it's a really wonderful thing. It's everything I envisioned when I started in '78. I can't believe it's actually happening. Are you kidding? It's an honor for me to be there. Sure, they want me to play an acoustic set for 20 minutes, but that's no problem. I'm, like, the grandmother. I'll go do this. For me, it is a total honor for me to be there, and rather than not go, I'll do that. What do I think about all those young bands going on stage? That's where they're supposed to be. It's their day, and I did my day already, you know what I mean? That's it. Do I want to have another day? Sure! But if it's not right now, that's fine. Everything must change, everything must move forward. I have my position, and I know exactly what that is. No one can change it; no one can make it not so. You have to know where you belong, or you'll be angry and frustrated. I know where I belong, and I'm happy to be there. I did an amazing thing 20 years ago. [Laughs.] And I'm glad I did it, because I'm going to the Lilith Fair. I'm happy I did it.