Welcome to the latest post in our most recent book club! This time around we are discussing the book, Mad World. We will be reading and discussing the chapters on Kim Wilde, Howard Jones and Berlin. Hopefully, you, too, will read those chapters and dive into the discussion!
I knew of Kim Wilde as a kid but I didn’t know her really well. I definitely knew the song, “You Keep Me Hanging On,” and liked it, but I didn’t know enough to say that I was a fan. I never thought about the songs or about the fact that she was a female singer. Did this chapter make me see her and her position in the New Wave musical era differently than just a simple singer? It made me think more about the status of women in the industry, then vs. now, for sure.
Before I get to gender roles, I was struck by her discussion of the lyrics to “Kids in America”. She mentioned the idea that you don’t have to directly identify with the lyrics to be able to sing them or like them. She says this, of course, because she isn’t American singing about kids in America. I have to agree with her. You don’t have to directly identify a lyric to sing it or like it. Look at Duran’s lyrics. I am sure that Simon can’t relate to every single thing he has sung about. In fact, I might argue that a lot of Simon’s lyrics aren’t exactly autobiographical.
During this chapter, it seems clear to me that Kim just rode the waves of her experience. She didn’t think about writing the songs herself, but was content to let her father and brother do it, at least at first. Image wasn’t at the top of her list either. Was that because she was young? Was that because of her personality? A combination thereof? Possibly. Yet, I think about how things went for her as a young female singer compared to the young female singers of present day. Now, image is central to everyone’s career, I think, especially women. This reminds me of last week’s discussion in the discussion about Yaz and how Alison Moyet pointed out the push for women to just act like sexual toys now. Clearly, Kim felt sexy, at times, but didn’t feel sexualized, or objectified, in the way that Alison referred to many female performers today.
My knowledge of Kim Wilde pretty much starts and ends with “Kids in America”. It was a song I heard on the radio and recognized, but I wouldn’t say I know her music beyond that one song. It’s not that I didn’t care for her, it’s that my sights were focused elsewhere.
I never really gave it much thought that Kim was singing a song about America and yet she wasn’t from here. It was just a song. Personally I think that a good writer *does* always identify in some way with what they’ve written or sung about, but just as we say that Simon’s lyrics aren’t always as transparent as they may seem – I think the same can be said for nearly everyone. That said, Kim Wilde didn’t even write the songs. Her father wrote them for her to sing and created an image for her from there. It’s not exactly the deepest story of someone climbing stardom from the rock bottom, gripping by their fingernails to get to the top, you know? I mean, the song is fine – but let’s be realistic about what it was. Was she talented? Sure. Talented enough to get by without her father doing the writing? Not immediately. I think even Kim acknowledges that her part was played elsewhere, with more to come later on. Everyone gets their start somehow.
I agree with Amanda that Kim seemed to just ride the wave of her career. It seemed to me as though she knew her place, played her part but had no ambition for more. She was happy with what she had, and perhaps that was a sign (to her) that her real love was elsewhere. I see that she’s still recording and signed to a label, but I also see that she has had other interests in her life. Some people are not necessarily designed to do only one thing in their life, and maybe Kim Wilde is among them.
I love that Howard Jones thought about what message he wanted to send with his first single. I love the message about going after your number one dream, too. Obviously, if he had the chance to write, perform and release a single, then he would be showing the world that dreams do come true. I like the idea of that. Of course, if he wasn’t successful, would the message still ring true? As he points out, this was part of his own struggle to feel like he was in control of his own future. It also puts him against the grain of the time since he was optimistic about the future when many others were not.
As the authors pointed out in the introduction, there were other elements of Howard Jones that didn’t fit into the usual New Wave scene. Two things that he mentioned that shows this include the discussion on image and the discussion on his lyrics. First, while he did have some spiky hair, he didn’t feel it super necessary to dress in a crazy sort of way. He felt that if people wanted to wear jeans and a t-shirt, that’s cool. Likewise, if people wanted to be more “flamboyant”, that would be fine, too. Clearly, he wasn’t as focused on image in comparison to so many other artists of the time. Second, he mentioned that the importance that the song lyrics be such that people could relate to them. His lyrics were grounded in reality versus lyrics like David Bowie’s that he called “meaningless”.
In many ways, Howard Jones and Kim Wilde provide an interesting contrast to each other. On one hand, neither one let image dictate. On the other hand, Kim was more open to lyrics she didn’t directly relate to. Perhaps, this has everything to do with Howard being a songwriter and Kim being initially just a singer. That said, I see both of their points and, as a listener, I appreciate both–lyrics that I can relate to and lyrics that I don’t. To me, quality lyrics is more important.
Howard Jones has always been a favorite of mine, and it’s because of those lyrics. He writes songs that make me think, and I like that. I also liked that for Howard, he was more interested in writing quality songs than he was with being cool in order to attract attention. I think I sensed that immediately – and it drew me in. He didn’t fit in, *I* certainly didn’t fit in much in high school, and I just liked his music. Easy.
I was completely struck by what Howard shared about David Bowie…particularly because it is exactly, without question, what I feel when I hear his music. I like David Bowie’s music. I cannot stand the lyrics most of the time. I don’t get any meaning from them. I don’t feel lighthearted. I don’t feel anything. As Howard says “Art for art’s own sake is just not me. I like being able to relate to what people are saying.” That’s exactly it. I know that this is practically blasphemy coming from a Duran fan – but it’s the truth for me. I’m really not a Bowie fan because I just never quite got it. Hey, we all have our faults.
Howard Jones has to be one of the most grounded musicians I’ve ever really read about. Perhaps for a lot of people that makes his story boring – it certainly isn’t ever going to hit headlines, but I like that about him. He’s married, he has children, and he writes amazing music. It’s as though he hasn’t allowed that one portion of his life – his career – to BE his life or to transcend all else. I applaud that.
Unlike Kim Wilde or Howard Jones, Terri Nunn of Berlin, right away in this chapter, discussed image and their focus on it. The image she wanted the band to have was “elegant but sexy”. She wanted to seem grown up and classy with dresses and martinis. The band should be able to fit in with bands like Roxy Music. I can appreciate that aesthetic as Duran portrayed that image, too, at times with their cool suits and fancy drinks. Like Duran, they also went for a bit of controversy to get attention. I can understand the motive for doing something like doing a song like “Sex (I’m a…)” even if it didn’t go exactly as planned.
It seems to me that Berlin’s story is like so many others. Once a hit happened, the ego exploded like it did with Terri Nunn’s demands about how playing “Take My Breath Away” at the Academy Awards should be. Of course, the fame also means that there is a cycle of life from studio to road to studio to road with little real interactions and few, if any, real relationships. In the case of Berlin, they fell apart, which seems pretty normal to me. I would think that kind of lifestyle would be exhausting and would cause tension and irritation for most people, no matter how great the relationship was to begin with. Thus, the bigger question to me isn’t why Berlin couldn’t survive but how come some bands do survive. What do those bands have that most bands do not?
It is funny to see how image really mattered to some bands and not to others – although to be fair I think that most bands cared about image in the 80s, even if it was about making sure that they were completely different from anything else out there. (conversely nowadays I think image is about making sure you’re exactly like everyone else, oddly enough…)
Being a child of the 80s, I grew up watching “The Metro” on Video One or MV3. (But I had no idea that Richard Blade and Terri Nunn were almost married!) I would look at Terri Nunn and immediately sense that there was no way on this God’s green earth that I’d ever be as cool. That alone made me respect her and love her music…and that voice? She was amazing then, and she’s amazing now. I will say this though: just as many people say that Duran Duran would be nothing without Simon LeBon because he is the “voice” (a stance I do not agree with, personally)….I think that is why Terri has been able to continue on as Berlin. She’s the voice and the image. I didn’t ever even acknowledge that other people might have been in that band, because to me it just didn’t matter. Now whether that is something to applaud or something to fuss over probably depends on whether you’re Terri Nunn or one of those other guys in the band.
Oddly, I was never a fan of Take My Breath Away. It’s a great song. Terri sings it beautifully. I also heard it about ten million times over the course of a single summer – and while it’s a beautifully sultry piece, I’m still a much bigger fan of “The Metro”. I think it might be due to what Jonathan Bernstein said – it’s much more European-sounding than American.
I live in Orange County (CA) and as a result I see ads for Berlin playing all over the place. I’ve seen them several times, and they put on a great show. Terri Nunn does an excellent job, and while sometimes you’ll go see a band that was big in the 80s and they’ll kind of seem like they’re just there to pick up their paycheck….that has never been the case with Terri. She still looks HAPPY to be there, happy to connect with the crowd. I believe that is why her shows sell so well, because it’s impossible to come away without feeling just a little fired up, and who doesn’t want that??
Next week we’ll be discussing Flock of Seagulls, Modern English and Soft Cell, so do some reading at the beach or poolside and join in!!