Sheena Easton, "Modern Girl" (1980)/"I Wouldn't Beg For Water" (1982)/"Almost Over You" (1983)
While I understood, in 1980, that "Modern Girl" was a song about a liberated woman
, I'm not sure I got that it was specifically sexual
liberation we were discussing. It's stupid, I know, that I didn't link the two. I mean, what other kind of "liberation" could a pop song be about? It's not like the narrative revolved around the freedom to vote. But this was 1980, and I was young -- a fetus, if you're counting, which you really shouldn't -- so I should be forgiven.
But listening to it now, it's amazing how wickedly sly the song is. Consider just the first verse: it begins by painting what looks like a domestic scene ("He wakes and says hello/Turns on the breakfast show/She fixes coffee while he takes a shower"), before alluding to a early morning fuck that unsettles that domesticity ("'Hey that was great,' he said/'Wish we could stay in bed/But I got to be at work in less than an hour'"), and then finally destroying any remaining illusions we may have that this couple is husband-and-wife, or even necessarily monogamous and steady. "She manages a smile as he walks out the door/She's a modern girl who's been though this movie before," and then we go into the exhilarating chorus: "She don't build her world 'round no single man/But she's getting by, doing what she can/She is free to be, what she wants to be/And all what she wants to be, is a modern girl."
The middle eight pulls a similar trick, but even more awesomely. "She's been dreaming 'bout it all day long/As soon as she gets home, it's him on the telephone": even if we've been paying attention to the rest of the song, these lines might still lead us to think that she's been dreaming about him, and that his phone call is thus her dream coming true. But...POW! "He asks her to dinner, she says I'm not free/Tonight I'm going to stay at home and watch my TV." As someone who is often tempted to stay home with my tube instead of going out and mating -- which is to say, as someone who is like everyone else, and don't you deny it -- I have to find the concluding lines of the middle eight simultaneously hilarious, righteous, and whine-inducing.
Over the weekend I revisited and rethought, not just "Modern Girl," but much of Sheena Easton's oeuvre. It was neither a strenuous nor an extensive rethinking: I simply dug up The World Of Sheena Easton: The Singles Collection
to play (and play and play) -- it collects most, but not all of her singles -- and it's not like I'm now ready to overturn the critical consensus about her. The consensus goes roughly like this: Sheena was okay, but started sucking around 1985 (that year's singles: "Swear" and "Do It For Love"), or perhaps even a year prior, when her music hardened ("Devil In A Fast Car," "Strut") and she, at the hands of Prince, tried transforming into a sex kitten ("Sugar Walls"). In other words, conventional wisdom holds that only about half of the chronologically-arranged The World Of Sheena Easton
is any good. And...that's true. If this were a vinyl record I would likely wear out Side A long
before Side B.
Although: some of the tracks on "Side B" are at least interesting or revealing failures. For one thing, many of them catch Sheena (and her producers) in the desperate act of imitating contemporary trends, no doubt trying to find the right bandwagon for her after her initial persona (more on that in a moment) ran its course. "Devil In A Fast Car" signalled her turn to rockier guitars, and "Swear" (video
) practically steals the licks from Michael Jackson's "Beat It." But that rockier sound does Sheena's voice -- which is always at its best when it can be pristine, crisp, and crystal clear, not fighting with rock arrangements, which pushes it towards "shrieky" -- no favors. Meanwhile, "Strut" (video
) -- which I always forget is anti-, not pro-sex kittiness ("I won't be your baby doll") -- has a funk-lite beat that must have been inspired by the then-ascendency of Jam and Lewis, though in some ways it may be even ahead
of the curve, since the songs it resembles the most -- Ready For The World's "Oh Sheila" (1985) and Cameo's "Word Up" (1986) -- were yet to come. Then, of course, there is "Sugar Walls" (video
), which is truly horrifying. Quite aside from the risible lyric, which aims for "sexy" but lands on "gynaecological," the melody is just clunky. (But then again I find many of Prince's melodies clunky, and only his unique singing can sometimes make them work; the last track on the compilation, the ballad "Eternity" (video
), is likewise a Prince composition, and it requires poor Sheena to wail and howl like a proto-Björk, which, honey, no. Just...no. I actually find Sheena's output in 85-86 (produced by Niles Rodgers, oddly) to be okay; she returns to poppier numbers (the Motown pastiche "Jimmy Mack" [video
] the breezy "Do It For Love" [video
]), though it's true that they mostly seem watered-down and unexciting compared to her early work.
But how frequently great is that early work? Sheena no doubt still get royalties for "Morning Train (Nine To Five)" (video
); I've joked about my relation to that song before
, but for me "Modern Girl" has been the more enduring track.
We remember, of course, that the order of release for these two singles were reversed in the UK and US: in the latter territory, Sheena made her debut with "Morning Train" and "Modern Girl" was single #2, but in the UK "Modern Girl" was released first -- whereupon it flopped, and then rereleased following the success of "Morning Train" (which was of course simply titled "Nine To Five" in the UK, since Dolly Parton's song wasn't as much of a competitor there). The two songs balance each other out perfectly as far as Sheena's persona was concerned, so perhaps it is appropriate that both have served to introduce her. While "Modern Girl" declares Sheena's independence from any man, "Morning Train" saw her, if not beholden to, than at least enamored with one. To some extent, that same balanced relationship exists between the other two upbeat songs in her run of initial singles: the well-known "Telefone (Long Distance Love Affair)" (video
), in which Sheena is clingy and distracted by a long distance lover, and the less-remembered "Machinery" (video
), in which Sheena rails against being treated like a "piece of machinery." The latter is odd and spiky: Sheena sings in a hiccupy fashion, almost as if she was trying to channel David Byrne or Fred Schneider. If in the end "Machinery" is my least favorite moment from "Side A" of her greatest hits collection, it at least is entertainingly bizarre.
Finally: even if people acknowledge that Sheena's first ten or fifteen singles contained a number of gems, they tend not to pay much attention to the ballads, figuring them for treacly sap. They are, which is why I LOVE 'EM. For my money, very few of them are conventionally
sappy -- there's almost always something about each that raises them above the ordinary. For crissakes, "You Could Have Been With Me" (video
) begins with the weird line, "You're the seventh son of the seventh son," and, as it continues, does strange and intriguing things with pronouns
(the "you" in the first verse seems to refer to her love, but the one in the second is a kind of self-address? I still can't work it out). Immensely Broadway, "When He Shines" is structured around a series of binaries
, and the cover Barbra Streisand missed out on doing. And "I Wouldn't Beg For Water" I find bewitching
: it keeps to Sheena's then-persona of being a modern girl, since it's largely about being proud and uncompromising: "I'm not the kind who deals behind the scenes/I won't sell my soul/I'll be nothing without some integrity." But the condition under which that pride is abandoned is thus powerful, and the condition, of course, is "you": "I wouldn't beg for water/I wouldn't beg for water/If my soul was on fire/But I'd get down on my knees for you."
Even "We've Got Tonight" (video
), Sheena's seriously sappy duet with Kenny Rogers, appeals. Yes, really. I'm been trying without success to think of a song about a booty call that isn't jokey-sleazy, but instead nakedly emotional. The story starts out as a meeting between, let's face it, two losers at closing time ("both of us lonely"); they are absolutely realistic about what a fuck would mean ("We've got tonight/Who needs tomorrow?"), but the musical genre of the overwrought ballad duet tells us just how much a yearning for more runs underneath this assignation.And "Almost Over You"?
In 1983 I labored under the illusion that the chorus went, "Now I'm almost over you/I almost should be blue." I'm not sure I prefer the real line ("I almost shook these blues"), especially since it's ungrammatical. But even this doesn't stop me from practically bursting into tears each time I hear this track. I was always a sucker for songs in which our narrator meets some old friend who unwittingly asks after the narrator's lover, unaware that it's all over....But I don't want to talk about it. I've said enough already.