Betcha thought I was going to RickRoll you, eh?
Nope. Too easy.
Alright, everyone. Sorry for the long delay. Job markets being what they are and all, I had some loose ends to take care of. With all employment now finalized, I can now party like it’s 1991.
Unfortunately, that’s sort of where Rick Astley has been stuck for a while. “Cry for Help,” the lead single off his third studio album, Free, was his last top 10 hit on either side of the pond. It’s understandable for the same reason that it’s a shame. Up until this point, Astley’s output had largely consisted of up-tempo, synthy dance numbers, like this one. (What? Not the one you were thinking of?) His soulful baritone, amazing ginger hair, and cute Macca-esque appearance easily trumped the occasional inanity of his lyrics. But in “Cry for Help” Astley reveals some growing pains. Despite the slower tempo and a melody that is perfectly suited in range and style to Astley’s voice, he sounds less convincing than he does in his earlier hits. Partially that’s because the meaning of the song is a bit convoluted. Is he crying for help? Why? Wait – no, it’s her, and he’s waiting for her to cry out, because … they can’t break down and cry. Which is all he needs, apparently. No wonder he can’t quite sell it – even he doesn’t know what it’s about! It’s too bad, because he really digs into it at the end, when there are no more lyrics to overcome (and when he has the support of a random African-American women’s back-up choir. Like you do). Makes me wonder what would have happened with a more fine-tuned lyrical plot. As it is, Astley’s voice (and even more amazing ginger hair – look at that ‘do! Don’t you just want to run your fingers through it? Don’t lie. You know you do) is the saving grace of the song, bolstering it to the number 1 position on the US Adult Contemporary Chart, and afterward was promptly relegated to the dustbin of pop music history. He retired in 1993, though fortunately has made a rather unique comeback over the last few years.
However, all was not lost for Astley; despite the third album doing less well in the charts than his prior two releases, the success of “Cry for Help” actually placed him in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the first male solo artist to have his first eight singles crack the UK top 10. The record still stands, by the way, and the later internet meme-fame of “Never Gonna Give You Up” (okay, okay, FINE) caused the song to return to the UK charts over 21 years after its original release. Pretty awesome, there, Rick Astley.
Anyway. For reasons that are unclear to me, somehow this song became linked indelibly in my mind with the Gulf War. I think it may have been because radio stations would play these types of soulful love ballads, ones in which it seemed like a loved one needed or missed someone, and overdub recordings of local families sending messages to their sons and daughters overseas. I can’t be entirely sure, but I feel like this happened to “Cry for Help” around the Baltimore area. However, I know it happened very frequently with next week’s post, so it is also distinctly possible that the very fact that this song was recorded immediately before a very prominently Gulf-War-oriented song caused me to contextualize this song in a completely unintentional manner.
I have a similar experience with George Michael’s album Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1—easily one of my favorite albums of all time, no lie—because of the song “Mother’s Child,” which also was frequently overdubbed with messages between soldiers and families for radio play during the Gulf War. Astley and Michael were both trying to take charge of their own careers in the early 1990s, breaking away from their original record labels to try to reconfigure their sounds and images. In Michael’s case, he specifically rejected the bad-boy look of the Faith album and turned more introspective, baring his still-in-the-closet soul on the album in a bittersweet, poignant fashion. Still, aside from the lead single, “Freedom,” the rest of the album bore little resemblance either to the tunes of his teeny-bopper Wham! days or to the retro, rugged heteronormativity of Faith. It wasn’t until he openly embraced his newly exposed (pun intended) sexuality in subsequent provocative, up-tempo dance numbers that he really reestablished himself as a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, Astley never had a bad-boy side to fall back on. He had been so over-marketed as a “British tea boy,” a know-nothing who had stumbled, quite by accident, into the music industry based on the raw talent of his soulful voice, that he had a much harder time proving himself as a mature artist. Without the extremely personal vignettes encapsulated in Michael’s lyrics and without the ability to escape the mainstream, Astley floundered.
I’ve gotta say, I’m so happy for internet memes sometimes. I’m thrilled that the RickRoll exists (existed? is it still a thing that happens?), because it brought the guy back into the limelight. I’m even more thrilled that he seems to have a terrific sense of humor and has really taken the whole phenomenon in stride – not milking it for unnecessary fame, but willing to play along with a wink and a smile.
Rick Astley, I like your style.
Now, would someone please write the man a killer song??