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Rant #428
(published April 2, 2009)
Raise the Trophies High!
by Michael Lars
Love is such a complex and gigantic thing that the Chinese have several different words for it, among them yuanfen, which connotes a binding force, something akin to serendipity, destiny, fate. In the 1980s, the triumphant decade of big hair and progress, we were so rarely reminded of love, of its human significance, of its potential to conquer the world, of its magical ability to bring peace and joy to hearts, minds, cities and congressional districts. There must have been something quite grandiose—like yuanfen—that was ripe to be addressed in a catchy way. The year 1985—poised like a high-wire act between the rise of the keyboard synthesizer and the fall of hair metal, between the disco and the grunge, the known and the unknown—would have been the perfect time for a simple yet revolutionary love-based mindset to regain its rightful position after a decade and a half of vanity and confusion. And then, sure enough, like a trumpet on the hilltop, there it was: "The Power of Love" by Huey Lewis and the News. Even though there were at least four different songs of this exact same title written and performed in the 1980s, including "The Power of Love" by Luther Vandross, "The Power of Love" by Jennifer Rush, and "The Power of Love" by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, it was Huey Lewis and the News's "The Power of Love" that seemed to effortlessly capture the very loving essence of a generation.

But no one would ever make such an idiotic statement, not even the Wall Street Journal. Huey Lewis is not John Lennon. One simply cannot accept his lyrics at face value. "But you'll be glad baby, when you've found," he sings, "it's the power makes the world go round." "The Power of Love" was written expressly for the soundtrack to Back to the Future, starring Michael J. Fox, and was only thrown in at the last minute. In the movie, the song plays during a scene when Marty McFly—played by Michael J. Fox—rides his skateboard to school. It was a support song for what was to be Huey's main contribution, "Nick of Time," which for various contractual reasons had to be turned over to Patti LaBelle for the soundtrack to Brewster's Millions and was replaced, thanks to Huey Lewis and the News again, with "Back in Time." Thus "The Power of Love" is more or less a throw-away song. It doesn't even headline one of Huey Lewis and the News's major albums. And although it was actually their first #1 U.S. hit—to be followed later by "Stuck With You" and "Jacob's Ladder"—few people would care to discuss the matter any further.

I, however, cannot get "The Power of Love" out of my head. I've been listening to it three or four times a day and never tiring of it. The amount of play-time it gets on my iPod is not something shared by the majority of astute individuals, a majority which might include those who have read Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho and its famous Huey Lewis chapter. This is the chapter where Ellis's psychotic hero Patrick Bateman—after murdering a few people and correctly identifying the brand names of the clothes they wear—praises Huey Lewis and the News's "clear, crisp sound" and "consummate professionalism," referring to one song as a "jaunty enterprise," and then calling them the greatest band of the 1980s. The essay is equal parts articulate and empty, and that is its purpose and its brilliance. At the same time, Ellis's psycho makes more than a few points about Huey Lewis that ring true in the highest degree. In particular: "Huey and the band have a way of energizing clichés and making them uniquely their own." Well, nowhere does this statement hold more water than with "The Power of Love." Nevertheless, I refuse to concern myself with Ellis's mocking flattery. I like Huey Lewis and the News and I don't care to play games here. I have listened much and listened hard to "The Power of Love," recording my impressions over a period of many months. After listening to the song again and again in a variety of situations—on the street, at my work desk, in the shopping mall, in bed, on the toilet, and at my kitchen table—I am moved to a singular conclusion again and again: "The Power of Love" has nothing at all to do with love. Love is but the glorious packaging for something else entirely. "The Power of Love"—with its candyland jingles and Tower of Power horn section—is a song about the almighty dollar. It is an anthem to the swift detergent-adrenaline of materialist gratification, the lure of money, the feel of crisp banknotes under the sleeve and the tingling anticipation of the clothes, cars, houses, flatscreen TVs and designer drugs they can buy. And what's more, it hits the mark better than any money-themed song could ever dream.

When I listen to "The Power of Love," I don't feel love. I feel two endless ski tracks of cocaine electrifying my cerebral hemispheres, septum sparkling like candy, city lights racing across the tinted windows of a gleaming black BMW as I punch it through one pristine financial district after another. New York, Chicago, Miami, Palm Springs—the tires purr over the cracks in the asphalt as I pat my hand against the leather upholstery. I see my feet in a pair of polished wingtips, propped atop a mahogany desk in a high-rise office building, desk calendar scratching and flapping away as it fills up with golf and tennis dates. My Rolodex spins round like a Ferris wheel. A blonde secretary with grapefruit-size breast implants works three telephones as I peacefully contemplate loaded balance sheets and black-digit income statements.

"The Power of Love" provides the same spine-buzzing exhilaration I imagine comes with nailing a million-dollar business deal. But you have to play it loud. Open your heart, as it were, to the saxophone of his voice. The way he so crisply enunciates everything—"Make a one man weep! Make anutha man sing!"—a Maoist army could march to these words. And his voice is supported by a guitar riff so loose and jangly, so loaded up with sugar and pepper, that to hear it is to slide down the side of an iceberg with a breath mint in each cheek. Unlike the familiar stink of a Hendrix or Lynyrd Skynyrd guitar—the kind appreciated by any person capable of enjoying a good beer piss—News guitarists Chris Hayes and Johnny Colla serve up nothing but pure neon lights. The sound reeks of roses and Listerine. And the chords just hang there, casually swaying about like Christmas lights strung up loosely among the rock-hard pillars of the drum and horns, delivering us to an entirely new landscape of handshaking clarity, one great yawning limestone-sparkling vista as viewed from beneath the gentle embrace of a business haircut.

Tougher than diamonds, rich like cream
Stronger and harder than a bad girl's dream

Huey's lyrics create the most delightful salad dressing. And that is no accident. Once you're truly connected with "The Power of Love," it is exactly this Ranch-Dressing-on-iceberg-lettuce of the voice and instruments that brings more and more money-fuelled images to mind—wads of cash changing hands in sunny abandoned parking lots, decks of playing cards machine-shuffled, fists pounding roulette tables, a twirling cascade of gambling chips caught frozen in midair. As the song tumbles back through its more predictable verses, I quickly lose myself in visions of glistening thighs, leopard skin fabrics, red lipstick, the silent swish of elbows straightening in Armani suits, palm trees swaying at Club Med resorts, the clink of cocktails reverberating off parked limousines—white limousines, of course. "The Power of Love" is the genuine article. It's that jolt of energy after cold water in the face, followed by a French kiss from the most expensive hooker in town. And yes, she's got big hair—it's 1985! This is the American dream, the brand name original, as corroborated by every jabbering TV set west of the Grand Meridien . . . And as soon as you've been lulled into this plasticine paradise, the horn section reports back like a Tommy gun—Boo-BAP! BAP! BAP! Perfectly timed and sharp as a sledgehammer. It's called the Tower of Power and it lives up to the name. Its trumpets and trombones bring such a bright snappiness to the proceeding, 'tis like the tightest asshole clench in the Guinness Book of Records. I see accountants and actuaries lining up for miles to get a taste of its supreme check-balancing acuity. If the Tower of Power could kill a man, it would. And yet all its terrifying brass doesn't invade or overpromise in the slightest. It is only confirmation that "The Power of Love" is more than just a song. It is a nation of flawless people, a place where Conscience is clear and Ego is king.

When a man finally manages to sleep with the woman he wants, he feels himself a master, a champion, a winner. There is nothing false about this. It's a biological impulse. In this case, the Ego doesn't lie. But if this man turns out to love this woman, and she him, something else comes into play. A relationship develops. Eventually, the man spends half his time catering to the woman's needs, and half his time gloating over how excellent he once was, i.e. on the night he first got into her panties. In the meantime, a growing despair begins to well up inside the woman. Despite—and sometimes as a direct result of—her man's constant love and support, she begins to feel something that Morrissey articulated so well in that song of old: "I still love you, oh I still love you. . . only slightly less than I used to." "The Power of Love," let's be clear about it, does not occupy a space anywhere near this set of circumstances.

One would do better to watch Baywatch, the television show based on beautiful people dealing with everyday lifeguard dramas and intrigues. The characters look deep into each other's eyes and talk, deeply and emphatically, about lifeguard issues and concerns, when all the time all they really want to do is fuck the living shit out of each other. Take a closer look at Baywatch and you'll see that this is entirely the case. It's right there under the surface of all that bad acting: Beautiful bodies want to fuck. It's a timeless axiom. When I am able to accept and embrace this reality, I am able to accept and embrace "The Power of Love." I simply take the enthusiasm of the one-night stand and I extend it across a lifetime. I peruse the glossiest magazines. Once I am able to appreciate the subtle fogs of the airbrush, the ideals of plastic surgery, and the physio-electric ritual of the ultraviolet tanning booth, my whole being begins to glow with the life-affirming Miami sunlight of 1985. There are no tan lines here, no traces of incision.

Here I find it helpful to meditate on something more technical, like data transmission. We could talk about the fax modem, fiber optics or the Ethernet protocol. . . but these are already de rigueur for the modern man and woman. It is more instructive—in the context of "The Power of Love"—to look at technology of the 1980s and earlier, something more quaint and nostalgic, rather like a village of watchmakers in Switzerland. I speak here of the teleprinter, the kilobaud, Hayes-compatible and the famed Intelsat, the global communications satellite network. One must also give credence to the dedicated line and the germane act of demodulation. Every coaxial cable is, in some manner, a sexual therapist for the various stock tickers, modems, hubs, jacks, multiplexes and, of course, the token-ring networks. Batch processing often comes in handy, although it depends on your use of delimiters and cross talk. The key process becomes cybernation, naturally. These elements—along with documentation—form the Roman pillars on which stand the very fundamentals of relational database management . . . But I won't belabor the point. All of this is important because the technology of the latter-20th century, in conjunction with "The Power of Love" as soundtrack and national anthem, is a mirror in whose mystical silvery depths we may glimpse the future of mankind.

It can be cruel sometimes
But it might just save your life. . .

Whatever "The Power of Love" describes, it can be cruel sometimes. Even financial success, for example, can be cruel sometimes. But it's so goddamn tender . . . smooth suntanned legs falling open on king-size beds, Jacuzzis bubbling . . . those sunsets printed on Caribbean postcards. "The Power of Love" is the champagne in the veins, the champagne in the soul—it's spraying in all directions! And since Huey keeps bringing it up, where exactly is the love in all this? He says it doesn't take money or fame or even a credit card, and yet he also says I'll be glad when I've found it, that it might even save my life. But the lyrics are but sonic accessories, I say. They might as well be in a foreign language. And anyways, show us a woman who loves a penniless nobody! She probably exists, somewhere, in some far off land inhabited by Simon and Garfunkel or Natalie Merchant, Marcel Proust, Stendahl, Emily Bronte, D.H. Lawrence, Jesus, The Beatles . . . but she is nowhere in this song. And loving her is an entirely different proposition.

Which brings us to a fact I have gradually come to grips with. Huey Lewis and the News's "The Power of Love" is inhabited by a specific type of woman. She is the kind of woman who, in the game of love, chooses to pursue only multi-millionaires. It is possible that Huey and the band members had some familiarity with this type, but that is beside the point. When I hear this song, I cannot help but feel her presence. But let's not oversimplify her. We must keep in mind—as reputable psychologists will remind us—the "golddigger," as she is usually called, isn't really attracted to the money itself, but rather the confidence and power that lie behind it. The man she's after had to do something to get that money. He had to be brutal, cunning. In short, he had to be excellent. If not excellent, he had to be born of good stock—so if he never managed to actually prove anything himself, at least his ancestors proved something. Even if the man was just lucky—all the better: it means God is on his side. At one time these women went for the strong hunter types, the inverted-V torso, the strong lean muscles, whatever came home with fresh kill every day. Today that has been replaced by the meaty handshake, the unforgiving mind, the fat aftershaved face that spills over its collar, poised for rectangular photo-inserts in business periodicals. "The Power of Love" woman and her ideal man are the archetypes for a superior century, a century of the self. I know they still exist in great abundance, that they may even be fundamental to our future as a species. Therefore I am nourished by their existence. It is "The Power of Love" that lets me live through them, with them, among them, if only for a moment. And it feels pretty good. The human race has been evolving toward this for millions of years. We deserve this.

In Africa, there are still people who practice what is called the "persistence method" of hunting. A BBC Television documentary hosted by Sir David Attenborough (The Life of Mammals) shows footage of tribesmen in the Kalahari desert hunting wild Kudu using this most ancient of hunting techniques. The point of the demonstration—besides documenting what is thought to be the last tribe on earth to practice the technique—is that many thousands or millions of years ago, before the development of weapons, man had to run down his prey. This was possible due to the fact that a man's two legs, while not allowing for even half the land speed of the mammal he wants to kill, are more efficient than the mammal's four legs. This makes it possible for him to simply tire the animal to death. As we follow along with David Attenborough's thoughtful narration, we watch a modern-day tribesman pull off the feat:

Open on a hot desert morning. Three men belonging to the Sand People of the Kalahari have discovered a set of Kudu tracks. They hunch down and quietly follow its marks in the sand. One man takes the lead, stretching out one hand with the middle finger pulled back—which signifies that he's following fresh tracks. After hours of this careful tracking, the men finally reach the Kudu, a group of muscular antelopes chewing at a patch of grass. The animals immediately sense the men's presence and bolt off in all directions. The hunt begins!

But something isn't right. There are no sprints, no sudden attacks, no throwing of spears. The tribesmen just jog along at a leisurely pace. The Kudu escape easily. As it happens, the men have singled out one particular animal—a large bull with shifty eyes. He has the biggest set of horns and will therefore tire more quickly than the others. By spreading themselves out in strategic fashion, the three men manage to separate their bull from the rest of the herd. But the hunt is far from over. Every time they get within eyesight of the bull, he jolts off. Before long he is completely out of sight. The men are reduced to a walk.

As the hours pass, the bull's tracks begin to thin out. The men follow what prints they can find, walking patiently under the hot oppressive sun. Often the tracks disappear altogether and the men have to guess where the bull might have gone. By about midday, hunt seemingly long since lost, one of the men suddenly lunges his wooden staff into the air and lets out a horrific scream. Is this the end? Attenborough explains: it's the next stage of the hunt. Only one man will go on—the runner.

Much like his two fellow tribesmen, the runner is all sinew, his skin a tough dark-brown leather, crafted by dust and sun. His only modern accoutrement is a pair of old black sneakers. Otherwise it's just loincloth, spear, some religious jewelry to ward off evil spirits. What sets him apart from the others is something you can't see from his exterior. It may be in his muscle fibers, in the porosity of his lungs, or in the relative laxity of the pain control centers in his brain . . . whatever it is, he is the runner. And as soon as his friend's carved staff hits the ground, he's off.

The runner bounds across the desert, sweating like a madman, cheeks jiggling with every footfall. The BBC gives us a collage of slow-motion close-ups with him striding in midair, sweat flying, leading with the chest, sun glancing off his slender brown limbs. While running he occasionally sips water from a canteen and splashes the water over his face and back—luxuries the bull is not afforded, as Attenborough points out. By this time the sun is already sinking toward the horizon and the bull is still well out of sight. Cut to sunset. The camera follows the runner into an area of thick brush. He arrives at a gnarly old tree where the bull's tracks come to an end. At this point the bull could have gone in any direction—360 degrees of possibility. The man crumbles a bit of dirt between his fingers. And then, suddenly, he slumps down on all fours. He begins puffing and grunting—like a Kudu. He mimics the animal's body movements, snuffing air out his nose and lumbering from side to side. In this way, he enters the mind of the bull in order to intuit its next move. The man continues weaving back and forth, sniffing the tree, sniffing the dirt, rutting and panting, until an interesting notion takes hold—he veers left, then right! . . . then left again! And then—with a direction established—he dives through the bushes.

And there it is! The bull is standing alone in the sun, just beyond the edge of the bush. Its eyes are a hot, glassy black, looking about its body with an almost ironic detachment. The bull senses the man's presence and tries to jolt off, but its body refuses, managing only a weak spasm of muscles. The bull shakes, mutters, furious under the heat. It looks back at the man one more time, eyes watering in a curious wonderment. The man raises his spear above his head. The animal's legs buckle. It slumps to the ground, groaning, exhausted. The animal has given up. Man has won.

Rather than closing in on the bull, the man first stands at a fair distance. Finally, he throws the spear. "Little more than a symbolic gesture," remarks Attenborough. The spear strikes the bull right in the jugular. The bull groans, head straining forward. It slumps further into the ground. Its muscles go limp. Its lips putter and flap with one last out-push of air. The man walks up and crouches over the animal, gazing into its mucous-coated eyes. He reaches out and affectionately strokes its mane. Then he picks a handful of dust off the ground and begins rubbing the dust all over the bull's hide, over its back and haunches. With the other hand he pulls up a generous slobbering from the animal's mouth and begins rubbing his own knees with its saliva. Attenborough says this helps soothe the joints. The camera cuts out. We're back at the tribal village at night. Meat sizzles on the fire. The tribeswomen are sitting there in a circle, laughing in the orange glow. Dogs run for scraps, tents flap in the wind.

In the developed world, our persistence is not rewarded in such clear-cut fashion. We put in the effort—hours, weeks, months, lifetimes—and the money/meat just flops out, usually in disappointing amounts. And this only after passing through the administrative procedures, back office politics, middle management, boards of directors, marketing departments, consultancies, lawyers, congressional lobbies, focus groups, family connections, meetings in soundproof conference rooms, casual conversations on the fifth tee at the $50,000-a-year golf course, midnight phone calls to offshore bank accounts . . . and all of it ruled by greed, fear, calculation, idiotic whims, manipulation concealed by a dry sweat, cold stares and manufactured smiles. Do I exaggerate? It's all in the name of our friend Economy: supply and demand, market efficiencies, inefficiencies, inputs, outputs, factors of production, marginal utilities, and so on.

But what really happened between the hunting spear and the surface-to-air missile, between the persistence hunt and the conference room Powerpoint presentation? The wheel, the alphabet, steam power, the industrial revolution . . . "The development of agriculture," says the clever conversationalist, "which led to the development of cities." It's fun to conclude and conjecture, filling up our collective ego with ever more satisfying explanations. Meanwhile the sky outside explodes with balloon payments, fringe benefits, annuities and amortizations, sprinkling down upon the brilliant glassy architecture of finance, the Grand Gazebo of private enterprise. Telescopes swivel outward upon the Economies of Scale and Scope, with profit margins hiding away in the shafts and crawlspaces. The Laws of Arbitrage observe the spinning of a treasury note, beneficiaries tinkling across The Table of Tangible Assets like human dominoes. The shareholders laugh in our faces, juggling their receivables, assets and acquisitions, and all the time shouting out the language of Innovation, Logistics and Forward Thinking, forever bowing down to the sovereignty of very senior management and executive decision-making. The losers are left to pick up the scraps, to situate their sweaty fingers and pale cerebrums in the lower abdomen of The Machine, to eat from cardboard boxes and follow the conveyer belts of Media and Government via high-definition television and computer screens. But there is a space in here for honest, righteous feeling! Yes, I believe it. There is a space here for joy and celebration. Because at the pinnacle of all this pain and torment that we call Economy or Mindfuck or Getting By—at the ecstatic apex of this massive, terrifying network of frustration—sits a sparkling, sonorous, resonant, magnificent lullaby called "The Power of Love."

When I listen to Huey Lewis and "The Power of Love," I am leafing through clothy 20-dollar bills like animal skins. Like the tribesman, I dip my knees in animal slobber and I bring home the kill . . . and when the whites of the tribal bride's eyes flash like light bulbs in respect of the hunt, in awe of its violent certainty, I see those same eyes seated beside me in a Ferrari convertible or a hotel suite at the Tangiers Las Vegas. I find that gold digger woman that will love me for the money and I bang her in a king-size bed with red satin sheets. I buy her a diamond necklace and I send it FedEx, imagining the look on her face when she opens the box, her cheeks glowing yellow as I am far away, floating miles above the Earth on a Concorde jet, forearms cooling on gigantic armrests as I nibble on cashews and adjust my Rolex. Is it the love or the money? The sex or the meat? My mind gets way ahead of me. I could be in the shopping mall, on the street, in the doctor's office—all I need are those headphones in my ears and the volume on high. And then at last the melody lays into that cheesy-ass bridge . . .

They say that all in love is fair
yeah but you don't care
But you know what to do
when it gets hold of you
And with a little help from above . . .

Pure condiment! Pure, utter bullshit! And yet so rich, so fructifying, so generous and so totally, totally fulfilling!

Michael Lars is an American advertising copywriter living in Warsaw, Poland.

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