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Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus's most recent books are "The History of Rock 'n' Roll in Ten Songs" and "Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations."  He is at work on a book on the place of "The Great Gatsby" in the common imagination.  He teaches American Studies at Berkeley and lives in Oakland.

"The Irresistibility of 'Take on Me.'  (Not to mention 'We've Only Just Begun.')"
 In 1985 A-ha 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 feel in love with it the same way I fell for the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun”—not on the radio, but by way of the Crocker Bank commercial.  I had to hold back tears.  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.  I knew then and know now nothing whatsoever about the people in the group.  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—and something about it made me queasy.  It wasn’t only gay--to my ears—it was fruity.  It was not 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 the 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?