Then a few months ago someone handed me a phone and showed me a video of a-ha performing the song at a show a year or two ago. It was moving to see the obvious commitment the band had to the song. It was as if it was still speaking to them, as if they were still asking it questions. The feeling was that they had lucked into something, some version of winning a world-wide lottery and receiving a letter informing them that they’d been granted immortality at the same time. Something like that would likely change you. But if it was a record, what would it do to other people?
If you were Kanye West, it meant that you could do it yourself and, in front of thousands and thousands of people, for two minutes or so, stop being a star and be a fan instead. He acted out the part of someone who felt his or her life had been saved by a record, again and again, and he had the style to do it in an almost anonymous way, so everyone else could think about how and when the same thing had happened to them.
In 1985 a-ha, from Norway, had a world-wide number one hit with “Take on Me.” Everyone immediately fell in love with it. Well, some people probably hated it, but as a fan of pure-pop-for-now-people pop music it was impossible for me to imagine that anyone could resist it, or would want to. It also had one of the most imaginative videos of the MTV era—some kind of too-fast-on-the-eye comic strip. I fell in love with it the same way I fell for the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun.” Two songs that are pure fluff on the surface with infinite depths of feeling beneath it.
“Take on Me” was also the gayest song I’d ever heard on the radio. Something about hearing the song that way made it even more wonderful—out there, in front, speaking a language that wasn’t supposed to be spoken. I think that was part of the charge the song carried, the lift it achieved over and over again. Its internal rhythm was in making public a banned, forbidden voice, and you didn’t have to think about it. You were hearing what you never expected to hear in public—and that was part of your own internal rhythm, the internal rhythm of your response.
I quickened every time it came on the radio. I still do—There it is! But something about it made me queasy. It wasn’t only gay—to my ears—it was fey. If it had been on the radio in the ’50s or the ’60s it would have been called fruity. It wasn’t musically but socially clichéd. It was a kind of shtick. But was that part of why it was irresistible—why Kanye West could lead crowds in singalongs, knowing everyone in ANY crowd would know it, would know no one in the crowd had ever sung it in front of another person, because they’d be embarrassed to having to admit to loving something so corny, knowing they wanted nothing more to sing it in a crowd so that no one could be embarrassed?What is this song? Why is it perfect? Why is an a-ha 2017 acoustic performance a kind of confession—the song confessing that it knows why everyone loves it, and now it’s going to come out and explain why?
a-ha began with Pal Waaktaar, guitar, drum machine, backing vocals, and Magne Furuholmen, synth, backing vocals, as part of a band called Bridges Together. They made an album. They had a something they were playing around with they called “The Juicy Fruit Song,” but they couldn’t finish it, and they left it off.
They formed a new group with lead singer Morten Harket. They went to London in search of success, got a publishing contract, made demos, got a contract with Warner Bros. It took a lot longer to happen than it does to describe.
They recorded a first version of “Take On Me.” It was a hit in Norway, but it disappeared in the UK, which was supposed to be the primary market. The band recorded it again. In the US Warner Bros. put money into a video, and the record was #1. It was number one in too many other countries to name, even if in the UK the new version of it stopped at #2.
In the US it was all over MTV as a video a month before it was even released as a record. The video was distinctive—Harket and an actress cut into a super-fast pencil sketch montage. There was some kind of plot, but it was the look of it, and the speed, that made you keep watching. And maybe the fact that Harket and the actress, with identical haircuts and hair color, could almost have been the same person.
They’ve made ten albums, most recently a 21-song acoustic set called Summer Solstice, from last year. In the US they reached #20 with “The Sun Always Shines on TV” in 1985, #50 with “Cry Wolf” in 1987, and “Dark Is the Night” in 1993. That was it in the United States.
They had a farewell tour in 2010. They unfarewelled in 2015 for that year’s Rock in Rio, a storied place for them: for the 1991 Rock in Rio they’d made the Guinness Book of World Records for selling 198,000 tickets to a single show.
In the wonders of Wikipedia, one can also find that Morton Harket owns the record for the longest note ever held in performance. Cyndi Lauper held a note at the end of “Money Changes Everything” for eleven seconds—it feels as if it will never end, as if the note has carried her so high she will never come down. Harket supposedly held a note for more than 20 seconds.If you watch the Nobel Peace Prize concert in 1998, you can see him do it—for eighteen seconds, which is still superhuman. The song is “Summer Moved On,” a tear-stained ballad, oh, nothing lasts, friendship moves on, you and I move on, the earth moves on, the stars move on. Harket looks like an android pop star, his face smooth and devoid of blood, his blonde curls dropping in just the right way. The whole song is built around held notes—and yet when he goes into the final showstopper, there isn’t the slightest tension, not even over how long he’s going to do it. The sound just sort of floats through the music. Nothing is at stake. There’s not a hint of passion. It’s not even a formal, physical exercise—it seems effortless, and also thoughtless—there’s not enough corporeality in the sound for an idea to attach itself to it. In half the time Cyndi Lauper made you believe she’d die to get the song across if that’s what it took.
So “Take on Me” wasn’t typical, and it wasn’t repeatable. It was the founding stone for a long career, one that a-ha can play out till they die, and probably will.
And it remains the biggest thing to ever come out of Norway. I wondered what kind of life the song had lived there. I asked my Norwegian friend Ida Tvedt, who wasn’t born when the song came out, if it had touched her life at all. She had a story to tell.
“I was walking in Prospect Park with an Icelandic DJ when I got your e-mail,” she wrote me a week ago. “He told me a story about a love affair between Morten Harket and his mother’s best friend. My impression is that Scandinavians in general are skeptical of Morten Harket, who, perhaps unfairly, is seen as a botoxed clown, while Magne Furuholmen is widely loved, because he has recreated himself as a musician and artist, independently of a-ha.
“When I was little,” she went on, “a comedian I liked did impersonations of Morten Harket on TV. He’d pout and squint his eyes, wear a very tight t-shirt, and cross his arms in a strained way while flexing and touching his biceps. That was the image of a-ha that I grew up with.”
Ida Tvedt is among other things a critic. Her ears are in her mind and vice versa. “The brilliance of the song is the way in which it goes up and up and up, but perhaps that is also what makes people cringe,” she wrote. “If I hear that song at a misanthropic moment, it’s like listening to someone falling in love with their own reflection, which is ironic, since the woman in the music video is trapped on the other side of a mirror, as if she is Harket’s female alter ego. In this sense, it really is the gayest song ever. It is not a song about heterosexual love, but about a man’s longing to make love to himself in a feminine form.”
As I thought it might, the song made its way into her biography. Her story:
“I grew up among monstrously dogmatic Marxists whose moralism and snobby rejection of all things [so-called] ‘inauthentic’ extended past their politics, to food, literature, music, everything. So when I got an a-ha album for free, with a pizza special at a family fast food restaurant that I went to with my father, who had left my mother and his Marxism and married a woman (who happened to have grown up with Harket, and thinks he’s a moronic narcissist), I remember feeling slightly embarrassed for keeping it. I must have been nine years old, and it was maybe the fifth album I owned, after The Best of Michael Jackson, The Beatles’ Revolver, Van Morrison’s Moondance and Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle. I have a vague memory of playing it in my room and still feeling embarrassed, and not really liking it, and I wonder if this might have something to do with the music’s slick, sterile and muscular androgyny. Maybe the song is embarrassing to a little girl in the same way that she is embarrassed by her attraction to horses—she suspects it reveals something about her that she doesn’t understand yet. Morten Harket was like a grown up version of the boys we liked in elementary school: the short ones with long eyelashes—the ones that looked the most like us. So half-liking a-ha felt humiliating, like when you tell someone your dreams and then realize that you revealed something way too personal about the way your desire is structured. A leakage. Maybe ‘Take on Me’’s success has to do with this ability to make the listener simultaneously elevated by the way it goes up and up and up, and absolutely embarrassed by being taken for a ride, by a song and a singer who seem to tap into one’s arrested development, or a memory of a kind of infantile sexuality that one would rather forget.
“A-ha played ‘Take on Me’ in a city square in Bergen once when I was a teenager,” she said at the end of her e-mail, “and I actively avoided it by walking a big circle around the square, even though I was happy to hear it.”
They are, of course, still playing it, and it’s wonderful to watch them do it, now. The song has lifetimes behind it, and lifetimes in it. You play a song for thirty years, hundreds and hundreds of times, and it either goes dead and turns you into a vat of bile and hatred, hatred for your audience, hatred for yourself—or it begins to talk to you, and you hear it, and talk back, and the song listens, and then talks back again in turn. It’s no longer clear who has agency—if the singer sings the song, or the song sings the singer. If the singer wants the song to say things it never has before, or if the song knows things it won’t exactly tell the singer, what happens? The singer is going to have to make the song give those things up—if he can, and he might not be able to. It might be someone else, from halfway around the world from Norway, someone who wasn’t born when the song came into the world, who takes it up, records it for herself, puts it out into the world, where Morton Harket hears it and realizes he never really knew the song at all, never really heard it before.
Kanye West played out one drama in the song: the drama of fandom. Today a-ha is playing out more than one drama.
There’s a BBC concert from two years ago. Harket is wearing glasses. His hair is dark hair now, he’s thin, with a goofy grin. On the first verse he’s somewhat flat, not catching the lifts in the tune—the rhythmic trick that makes it seem like the words in the song are at once turning cartwheels and hanging back, embarrassed—that’s a word it seems impossible not to use when talking about “Take on Me,” even if you’re trying to talk about the song as if it’s a person and how it feels about itself. But then Furuholmen, behind the keyboard, points to the crowd, the crowd begins to sing, a woman holds up a sign—MORTEN TAKE ME ON—and Harket sweeps into falsetto at the end of the first chorus, seems swept up, as a person, by his own voice, and they’re off.As Morten sings the second verse, it’s clear this is just a bunch of words to get through so he can get to where he wants to go, where the song wants to go, what the song is all about—the delirious vortex of the chorus.
You watch and there’s only one question: how does he get up that high? Is it real?
There’s an acoustic session from last year, in Norway, where Harket doesn’t have the sheen he carried with him just a year before. His hair is the same, the glasses are the same, but he looks used up: on the way down, on the way out. And the song is done so slowly it’s on the verge of coming to a complete stop. The effect the band is aiming for may be delicacy, but what they produce is exposure. Harket, who’s usually so smooth you can imagine him gliding through an earthquake, can’t ride the melody. He falls behind it and hits a sour note. Every word of the song presents itself, separate from the others. The words have to communicate as ideas, not sounds, and the story they tell is so love-song hackneyed they say nothing.
And it’s moving. It’s overwhelmingly romantic, and heartbreaking too. If there was ever a chance this song would keep its promises—for the couple in the video, for the people who wrote it, for all the couples and solitaries all over the world who sang along like Kanye West because it made them smile, because it was a few minutes of utopia, as Harket sings now it’s clear that that is far in the past.
He’s finding so much soul in the song that it feels as if it was always in the past, whenever you first heard that 1985 recording—you just didn’t hear what the song was really saying, anymore than the singer did. But you can imagine this is what the women in the audience wiping tears from their eyes are hearing—the disappointments in their own lives, the song now telling them that no one else’s life is any different—and that if you’re somehow protected from the pain that is now in the music—protected by money, glamour, fame, or luck—then you’re not really human.
Harket doesn’t look old—anyone who’s 57, as he was this night, would like to look this good. But he looks tired of life. That’s his performance. He’s not emoting.
Again and again, he slips under the notes the song is demanding. There are a few times when he puts a new curl on a word: instants where he climbs up above where the song has been before. There may be only three moments like that, and they stand out like wounds.
Talk given at MoPop Pop Conference, April 27, 2018