Presence as a Matter of Form: “Billie Jean,” “Down Under,” “Little Red Corvette” (09/83)

Popularity—diffused, inchoate, but intense response—transforms a work. As Laurie Anderson is finding out, the “mass audience” is less an abstraction than a new art space. Mass popular response can bleed a work dry, break it into once-invisible component parts, make its composition seem obvious and pandering, make it impossible to see the original except as a version of its imitations. Mass response exposes. But it can also turn the mystery of a work (why do we respond?) into a different mystery: why does our response continue to build on itself? How does the response become part of the work, generating not so much a one-way assent or refusal as a subliminal emotional conversation? The question of why a work continues to grow becomes a question not merely about its form but of the language it speaks.

Three records dominated the first half of 1983: Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” (former Motown prodigy comes into his own), Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” (Minneapolis’ black flash continues his campaign for More Sex for More People), and Men at Work’s “Down Under” (Australian pop band scores hit #2). These remarkable singles were played—at home, in clubs, as TV videos, and especially on the radio—so often and for so long—in the case of “Little Red Corvette” and “Down Under,” for a solid six months, and displaced only by new records from the same performers—that their presence as a matter of subject, style, or attitude was transformed into presence as a matter of form. If at first a listener might ask why one or all of these records was so mysteriously affecting (a question contained in the feeling, “My god, I love it!”), after, say, three months that same person might begin to ask how such an implacable record was made (a question contained in the feeling, “My god, why won’t it ever go away?”).“Billie Jean” is a record exposure picked apart. To understand this record—to make your way through the passionate confusion of the vocal to the plain what-happened? confusion of the singer/narrator, denying he’s fathered Billie Jean’s baby but not having the slightest idea whether he has or not—is a wonderful game, but a game nevertheless. If “Down Under” is a matter of crossing rhythmic lines that cannot be untangled, and “Little Red Corvette” a matter of layers the borders of which cannot be perceived, “Billie Jean” is a matter of levels that finally betray clearly defined aural spaces between them. The delicious melodrama of the whole performance separates into its brilliantly realized conventions—and may lead a listener who consciously has only “gotten tired” of “Billie Jean” to the unconscious perception that the rhythmic melodrama that sets up the “great” guitar solo in Jackson’s follow-up single, “Beat It,” is oppressive, and betrays a lack of ideas.

The first time you catch the background voice helplessly moaning “Oh, no!” after Billie Jean proves her son’s eyes look like the singer’s (it might be the 12th time you hear the song, or the 217th), it’s a thrill: the deep mix is a labyrinth full of clues, and you’ve found another one; the game as a game is worth the candle. But once you’ve understood the function of the device, you hear function. The way the record has been assembled—not shaped—isolates the device, and it stands out as an effect—as, ultimately, a gimmick. On, for example, Public Image Ltd.’s Metal Box/Second Edition, you can hear the music being made; every esthetic intention remains uncompleted. The idea expressed is that the strongest esthetic intentions cannot be completed, and that constitutes much of the power of the music. With “Billie Jean” you hear that the music was made. That subliminal emotional conversation between record and listener cannot continue; the record uses itself up.“Billie Jean” has the shiniest possible surface (and the shiniest possible depths, which is quite a trick). Listening to the radio you can almost see the production money dancing on the disc as it spins. (“Billie Jean”’s video, which is to say its commercial, played without charge on TV and in clubs because it is presented as art, cost over $100,000.) The record all but announces itself as a masterpiece. “Down Under,” on the other hand, announces itself as trivial—mere throwaway. Its catchy-craftsmanship anonymity doesn’t seem to have been put together at all; it sounds like something a radio that doesn’t know much about art but knows what it likes could have spontaneously generated out of simple commercial serendipity. Manny Farber’s opposition of white elephant art and termite art applies: “an expensive hunk of well-regulated area” vs. art that “feels its way through walls of particularization”—in the case of “Down Under,” a few chord changes—“with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.”

Thus while “Billie Jean” breaks down and wears out under airplay, “Down Under” takes shape; airplay doesn’t so much expose the record as reveal it. Carrying a witty vocal (though for the first hundred listenings it might sound stupid) about Australian braggadocio on what’s left of the pot trail that ’60s hippies blazed through the Mystic East, the music forms itself out of the sort of basic Creedence Clearwater Revival rhythmic shifts that always bring sneers from accomplished musicians who could never in their lives produce anything so pleasurably right. After a thousand turns on the radio those shifts still carry the sound of surprise. Having learned every note of the instrumental break by heart, you still doubt the band is going to pull it off; the joyous clumsiness of the musicians is so physically evident it supersedes memory. It’s “Billie Jean,” the masterpiece, that can be reduced—that reduces itself—to the level of craft; “Down Under” goes its merry way.“Little Red Corvette” is a record to get lost in—there’s no bottom to it. Automobile-as-woman is an ancient blues metaphor, but has anyone ever taken it so far? The allusions never stop moving—that red Corvette is sometimes the singer’s lost lover, sometimes only everything between her legs, yet she’s never depersonalized: the metaphor is never a phony, sexist symbolization of all-women. The metaphor is complex, but almost never calls attention to its contrivance—and when it does, there’s a sigh or a solo to sweep you away. It could take you months to feel your way through the mini-labyrinth of the lines, “She had a pocketful of horses—Trojans, some of them used”—horsepower, sexual attraction as a Trojan horse, Trojan condoms, a woman who collects used condoms—and once you have felt your way through it the lovely self-referentiality, or the brazenness, of the image lets you revel in those qualities; the deciphered image remains both a casual aside and a shock, and you respond to the way something so shocking can be so casual.

The music and the vocal of “Little Red Corvette” speak the same language as its lyrics. Instrumental lines and vocal phrases are left suspended, hanging in the air; words drift into guitar pieces, which fragment into choruses, which escape into solo vocals, which reform into dual vocals. As you listen, the texture of the record insinuates itself like a dream—you can feel the emotional weight (it rushes back at you throughout the day whether the radio is on or not) but you cannot reconstruct the details. When Prince sings the lines, “Move over baby/Gimme the keys/I’m gonna try to tame your/little red love machine,” what you hear first is lust so deep it’s painful, a pain that turns to meanness by the last few words—but creeping up from below is a second vocal, which is tender, afraid, asking for permission. The two sounds don’t cancel each other out; on this record, every detail is carried away by another. The layers of the composition and the performance double back on themselves, until you are, perhaps, most of all aware of the layering itself, and of your inability to see where one layer begins or ends. The terribly slow, against-the-singer’s-will synthesizer tones that open the record are a perfect rendering of the way a memory can invade any everyday situation, which is just what the singer is describing; then immediately the rhythm hardens and the memory takes the present moment away, is all-consuming. The song becomes a struggle to retrieve the life one must continue to live from the tyranny of memory—without in any way denying memory’s claims, in fact by experiencing the memory to its limits. When band-member Lisa Coleman comes off Prince’s “Down to the ground…,” repeating the line three times, she’s not the singer’s lost love returning for a fantasy kiss; she’s more like any listener finally entering the song and finding a place in it. That she has the warmest moment of the performance is not incidental.

Artforum, September 1983

Related aftershocks:
—> GM on Michael Jackson’s answer record to “Billie Jean”
—> Take Me with U—David Bowie, Prince, and the Utopian Pop Universe (2017 presentation at Yale)

One thought on “Presence as a Matter of Form: “Billie Jean,” “Down Under,” “Little Red Corvette” (09/83)

  1. And all three songs are essentially short stories, with details, exposition, etc. Compared to something from that era like, say, “Hurts So Good,” they’re practically high literature.

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