This week’s question comes from A.V. Club reader “Charlie”:
“The internet has the uncanny power to reanimate cheesy old songs as contemporary hits—most famously Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up,’ and most recently Toto’s ‘Africa.’ What old song would you nominate for the pop necromancy of making it a hit all over again? I’m going with Steve Winwood and ‘Back In The High Life Again.’”
While we’re on the subject of rehabilitating ’70s dad rock, when will The Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes” get its ironic postmodern revival? Folks, this song is a joy: It’s got what Beyond Yacht Rock’s JD Ryznar calls the “Doobie bounce,” a quirky yet smooth marriage of bleating bass and two-handed keyboard whose giddy toot feels like riding in a taffy boat bobbing through an ocean of cotton candy. It’s got the instantly recognizable talents of one Michael McDonald, whose vocals are performed in a key and at a register that, much like Toto’s “Africa,” make “What A Fool Believes” deceptively difficult to sing. (That just makes it more fun to holler along with.) It’s even got a devastating contrast between the cheerful music and bleak lyrics—catnip for cynical millennials! Let’s make this thing happen, online America!
For a song to enjoy the same resurgence as “Africa,” it needs some kind of hook for modern audiences. “Africa” did this by becoming a meme, but another way to do it is by introducing a hot take that convinces everyone to give the song another look. With that, I’d like to welcome you to my TED Talk: Meat Loaf’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Lights” is the musical equivalent of Breaking Bad. Nobody’s selling drugs, but it follows a similar arc with its protagonist beginning as a relatable hero and ending as an outright villain who deserves no sympathy. Also, like Breaking Bad, it’s not afraid to appeal to our desire for ridiculous drama, with the turn from “I would love you to the end of time” to “Now I’m praying for the end of time” being just as thrilling as when that bomb goes off in Gus Fring’s face. On top of that, I defy anyone to find a song that’s more fun to sing with a partner—or just more fun period.
I could probably answer this question a thousand different ways by just opening YouTube and letting my autoplay, the magical land where “Africa” has never been out of rotation, run. I’m tempted to go with Peter Gabriel—2019 is just begging to be the summer where Pitbull remixes “Solsbury Hill”— but I’ve been on a real Men At Work kick lately, so let’s go with that. Besides being one of my go-to karaoke jams, 1983’s “Overkill” has the kind of naked emotionality, catchy beat, and weirdly haunting lyrics that make for a perfect musical zombie; you might not feel smart when Colin Hay’s mournful wail blows past your defenses and tugs at your heartstrings, but you’ll still want to howl along. And sure, no song that featured quite so prominently on an episode of Scrubs can ever be considered to be truly “dead.” That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be pretty happy to see it get some fresh top 40 play.
But why should the 1970s and ’80s get to have all of the retro fun? We’re nearly three decades into the 21st century, and the ’90s nostalgia bubble is nowhere close to bursting. Cultural memory of that era seems to cut out around the time of Kurt Cobain’s death, but the weird stew of sounds that the major labels stirred up during the post-Nevermind gold rush still has plenty of flavor to it, none more so than those in Harvey Danger’s snarling time capsule “Flagpole Sitta.” 2019 doesn’t really need an old chestnut that rallies back from its bridge with “Paranoia, paranoia / Everybody’s coming to get me”—in my heart, I’m fully in favor of Katie’s proposed McDonaldssaince—but isn’t it eerie how well the soft-loud-soft thrum of “Flagpole Sitta” goes with, and pushes against, the awful churn of contemporary existence? The specific faddishness the song is railing against is long gone, but the lyrics “I’m so hot, ’cuz I’m in hell” have only become more relevant. Further merits: a great sing-along chorus, and thanks to those “ba-da-da-da”s, you don’t even have to know the words. And that snare drum intro should cause every room it plays in to explode with enthusiasm.
I’d love for Laura Branigan’s 1982 hit “Gloria” to somehow make a popular resurgence. I don’t have any great philosophical or anthropological reason for thinking this. Nothing about the song speaks to our current age in a relevant way, and nothing about the song structure itself is back in vogue or being critically reassessed. But it has a super-propulsive dying-days-of-disco beat, Brannigan’s operatic capacity to hold a note, and most importantly, I recently put it on my running mix where it ameliorated some of the pain of running. Branigan’s version is an adaption of a song originally written in 1979 by the Italian pop star Umberto Tozzi, a love ballad spilling over with overwrought, baroque romanticism. In it, Gloria is the air and the sun (and interestingly, also the salt), and also she should be naked on Tozzi’s couch. Branigan’s lyrics take the song in a completely opposite version, presenting a story of a woman wracked by delusion. Which, sure, is a little cruel. But also, upbeat, dance-friendly pop hits with mean lyrics are awesome.
Friends, commenters, countrymen, lend me your ears: I come to bury Bob Seger, not to praise him. Surely we have moved on from his particular brand of addictive roots rock, and his attendant ear for hooks that puts most contemporary musical artists to shame. Certainly there’s no need to resurrect Bob Seger’s “Night Moves,” arguably one of the finest rock ’n’ roll songs ever written about trying to woo the fairer sex during one’s awkward adolescent years, and the nostalgic recollection of those attempts. True, the song reached number four on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1977; The Rolling Stone Album Guide may have referred to it as “one of rock’s most moving exercises in elegy”; and it is 100 percent unfuckwithable, whether in karaoke or on vinyl or simply driving down the highway, road sodas in hand (perhaps of the Miller variety). But none of that is as important as the passage of time, yes? So no, certainly no pressing need to once again reawaken the siren song of Seger’s finest hour and remind America of the magic it has been missing. Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot. Take thou what course thou wilt. (Also, check out that official video—from 1994! Matt LeBlanc! Daphne Zuniga! Johnny fucking Galecki! Ain’t it funny how the night moves.)
Am happy to see that the Electric Light Orchestra has had a bit of resurgence lately thanks to “Mr. Blue Sky” appearing on the Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 soundtrack, but that band still has a particular saga I would love to see get a reboot. ELO’s “Telephone Line” doesn’t make much sense in today’s cellphone age, starting out with now-antiquated tech noises to kick off the story of a guy who can’t get the object of his affection to pick up the phone. I’m not much of a fan of these remakes that pay so much homage to the original that it’s hard to tell the difference (looking at you, Weezer’s “Africa”). As much as I revere the orchestral elements of this song, the strings chiming in on the enveloping unanswered-phone-line loneliness, I would love to hear someone pick it up with some guitars. Ditch the violins and amp up the doo-wops, and I can’t wait to hear what the 21st-century version of this song would sound like. I think ELO’s Jeff Lynne would be nothing but proud, and would appreciate proof that his song captures the devastation of communication breakdown, no matter what stage the technology’s in.