Monday, September 08, 2014

The Night Wham! Won

My freshman year there was a guy who lived next to me, a classic super-weird smart guy. He collected snakes in his room -- not in cages.  He was sweet and screwy and spent a lot of time walking around in the woods but the main thing he cared about was the blues. He loved the blues, fronted a little band playing harmonica, and hated MTV pop. My college years were anchored right in the middle of the Reagan presidency we were all fighting, and there was a lot of synthpop to hate if you wanted to hate it and you thought the two were related. 

He articulated the word over and over with an elongated distaste that we tried to imitate with his kooky snarl: “ssyyyyynnnnthpop.” He extolled at length the virtues of Chicago blues and the Farfisa organ and complained about bands like Wham! -- especially Wham!. 80s pop was the devil but the blues were real. This was his hobby horse. That there is a strong through-line from blues to pop didn’t seem relevant in these conversations as I remember them.

I spent some time nodding along, at least out of amusement. Oh did he hold forth. There was a little Laingian worship in all these college kids listening to this sweet but off-kilter guy with such attention, even though he made some of them impatient. I was, often. I remember seeing an escaped snake of his slithering down the hall one day and thinking: why do people put up with this dude.

Anyhow, he got an idea to hold a burning -- I don't remember exactly what he called it -- a massive pop burning. He was going to kill synthpop forever, kill Wham! I think he was serious, but despite that it came across, as most of his projects did, as a happy piece of performance art, or maybe people's half-indulgent attitude made them fun. There was a little island in the middle of one of the lakes our dorms were on, and that’s where it would be. He had found an old 50s or 60s stereo in town and he was going to blast Wham! as it burned and leave us purified to listen to the blues. Or something. He put up posters all over. 

The night of the stereo burning we gathered in a cluster on the island as it turned dark. It was a beautiful night. Crisply cool at the edges. Warm, young, smooth bodies, dark green of the trees. Our weird messiah got up and made a little speech, and fussed with his matches and lighter. People were cheering. The stereo was beige mid-century mod, with a vague plaid pattern on the speakers. And then -- this is mostly what I remember -- the sounds of "Everything She Wants" started up.

I expected the music to sound bad. Even though I felt somewhat removed from the spirit of the event, I was ready, after so much talk, for Wham! to sound like wrongheaded moneyed MTV corruption.

But it sounded great. It sounded great. There was a breeze off the fetid lakes, the light from the fire was flickering on beautiful young faces, and the moving bass and George Michael falsetto suddenly seemed to know much more than we did. The song was so fleshed out and whole and forward-moving. And all these people gathered to kill pop started to respond to the music -- dancing, moving their bodies, shaking their hair. Wham! was winning. I didn't want to burn anything. 

It was fabulous. But short-lived, all of it, the planned and the unplanned. As often with planned pyrotechnic extravaganzas, this one fizzled out. George Michael's voice did not in fact trail off in a pained howl as the stereo blew to the sky; the music stopped abruptly, leaving the night sounding empty. The fire burned a short while longer on the charred but completely recognizable stereo, then went out. We shuffled back to our dorm, a bit disappointed, but maybe not all quite in the way blues guy was.

I was thrilled inside to know that Wham! had triumphed. It was an early lesson in the futility of arty polemics; you can't put anything in a box that hard. It'll jump back out. But also: George Michael had chops. And one of life’s great pleasures is when music doesn’t care if you dislike it, just finds you and wrestles you to the ground to show you how wonderful it is.

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