Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Dan Hill's "Sometimes When We Touch"

Since the development of music in reproducible forms (i.e. records, tapes, compact discs, and mp3 files), the best popular music has made more difficult and sensitive topics broadly accessible to the public. Think of songs like Paul Anka's pro-life ditty "(You're) Having My Baby," Rod Stewart's tragic tale of homophobia, "The Killing of Georgie," or the visceral teenage suicide described in The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack." Well, in 1977, one glorious and subtle pop song turned the concepts of rough, sweet bondage and sadomasochism into one of the most luscious tracks of all time: Dan Hill's tour de force, "Sometimes When We Touch."

Delicate as a flower in mid-Winter, Dan Hill's earnest rasp of a voice--resembling a choir of Kenny Loggins clones being suffocated by a large dancing gopher--appears to relate the tale of a couple at the most vulnerable point in their relationship. But a closer look at the lyrics and musical backdrop reveals a coupling whose psychosexual motivations are wrapped up in pain and domination. The male in the relationship would "rather hurt you honestly / than mislead you with a lie." In addition, he'd "like to break you / and drive you to your knees." The emphasis on pain in this relationship is as brutal and fantastic as that described in The Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs," a song that has never received much radio airplay because of its blatant and fetishistic references to the book of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1870), the man whose name is the etymological root for the term "sadism." The song's string arrangements clearly illustrate that "Venus in Furs" is a referent for this song. If that wasn't enough, the male narrator thinks that "the honesty's too much," and his admission that "I wanna hold you til I die / 'Til we both break down and cry" suggest he is stimulated by both choking and humiliation. This is validated in the opening line, when he sings, "You ask me if I love you / And I choke on my reply."

For the many "vanilla" listeners of this song, the sadomasochistic lyrical content may be too difficult or strange to process, as the world the narrator sings about is shrouded in decadence, mystery, and grand misconceptions. For that very reason, Dan Hill decided to also make the song about "honesty," an abstract concept so thorny that even the French philosopher Jacques Derrida never wrote a book about it. "Sometimes When We Touch," as I've already pointed out, discusses the idea and morality of honesty. But what Hill brilliantly does here is to put those automatons in the aphorism factory who came up with the phrase "honesty is the best policy" in their place. In fact, what Dan Hill's revolutionary pop song reveals is that the effect of honesty is unpredictable, and unpredictability is never the best policy. Honesty can get people fired from their jobs, kicked out of their relationships, and ridiculed mercilessly. Therefore, what makes this seemingly innocuous pop hit of the 1970s so filled with unprecedented genius is its ability to shroud its pro-BDSM agenda with an intellectual examination of truthfulness and its all too painful consequences. Basically, without this song, songs like "Every Breath You Take," "Wrapped Around Your Finger," and "The King of Pain" (coincidentally, all of these songs are by The Police!) would never have been the big hits they became.

1 comment:

  1. "Delicate as a flower in mid-winter" is brilliant. This song is very tender. How anyone can write such a tender song is beyond me. The tenderness is bewildering.