CHEESY DOES IT TIME AND AGAIN

Hits such as Hello may sound corny but Lionel Richie has mas­tered the art of en­durance, writes Jody Rosen

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

Lionel Richie’s Hello be­gins dis­creetly, al­most sneak­ily, float­ing a sour lit­tle syn­the­siser melody over tip­toe­ing pi­ano chords. The song crept into the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness in sim­i­larly stealthy fash­ion. It ar­rived in late 1983, buried on Richie’s Can’t Slow Down, the se­cond solo al­bum by the for­mer Com­modores singer. Re­view­ers took lit­tle no­tice of the track, but when Hello was re­leased as a sin­gle in Fe­bru­ary 1984, it shot to No 1 on Bill­board’s Hot 100 and topped charts across the globe.

In the decades since, Hello has never said good­bye. It’s one of those adult-con­tem­po­rary bal­lads that has taken up res­i­dency in the ether, seep­ing from the walls of den­tists’ of­fices and tin­kling on the phone line while you are on hold. It’s a song that has been judged sooth­ing and in­nocu­ous enough to serve as muzak — not nec­es­sar­ily an in­sult, but def­i­nitely a mis­ap­pre­hen­sion of the fear­some beast that Hello is.

The song’s nar­ra­tor is a lovelorn weirdo who is both hap­less — “Tell me how to win your heart / For I haven’t got a clue / But let me start by say­ing / I love you” — and vaguely sin­is­ter. The re­frain, “Hello? Is it me you’re look­ing for?” sounds be­nign, but in the video, a dazed-look­ing Richie stalks the halls of an art school, moon­ing over a blind sculp­tor at least 15 years his ju­nior.

Re­cently, Hello has se­duced a new gen­er­a­tion that dis­cov­ered the video on YouTube. The high­light comes in its fi­nal scene, when the sculp­tor-hero­ine un­veils a hideous ter­ra­cotta bust of Richie. To­day on Face­book you’ll find a “pub­lic fig­ure” page de­voted to “The Clay Head From the Lionel Richie Hello Video”. There was a vi­ral Craigslist post ti­tled “Ce­ramic bald Lionel Richie bust wanted”, so­lic­it­ing an artist’s replica of the sculp­ture, with a twist: “I’d like it to be bald, as I in­tend to re-cre­ate [Richie’s] lov­able afro-mul­let with some sort of cream-cheese dip at par­ties.” A Google search yields hun­dreds of Hello- themed items: throw pil­lows, teapots, cut­ting boards (“Hello, is it me you’re cook­ing for?”). The ar­rival, last Oc­to­ber, of Adele’s block­buster Hello — same ti­tle, dif­fer­ent song — jolted the on­line world again, prompt­ing dozens of Richie-Adele mash-ups.

The re­vival of Hello is a cu­rios­ity. But it’s also a tes­ta­ment to the mag­netism of Richie, 66, a more durable pres­ence, and a finer mu­si­cian, than many have cared to ad­mit. The meme-ing of Hello has co­in­cided with a wider Richie resur­gence. Tuskegee (2012), Richie’s 10th stu­dio al­bum, was a sur­prise hit that paired the singer with coun­try stars in new ren­di­tions of Easy, Say You, Say Me and other chest­nuts. Richie has spent sev­eral years barn­storm­ing are­nas, qui­etly re-emerg­ing as a top-gross­ing tour­ing act. Last June, he played the Glas­ton­bury mu­sic fes­ti­val in Eng­land, draw­ing raves and a crowd of nearly 200,000, the fes­ti­val’s largest.

Back in the 1980s, I had mixed feel­ings about Richie: af­fec­tion for his in­escapable hits and re­gard for his crafts­man­ship, tinged with dis­dain I had ab­sorbed from rock crit­ics. He had been the Com­modores’ res­i­dent softy, the maudlin voice of Three Times a Lady, al­most too gen­teel for the band’s tame brand of funk-soul. Crit­ics of­fered re­spect, but scorn leaked through: “unc­tu­ous”, “mil­que­toast”, “white­bread”. The bot­tom line: Richie was tal­ented, but too slight and sappy to be taken se­ri­ously. To­day he stands as the big­gest 80s pop star who is not quite canon­ised.

He has sold tens of mil­lions of records world­wide, most of them in the 80s, when he strode lofty heights along­side Michael Jack­son, Madonna and Prince. But he couldn’t match the charisma of those dy­namos. The in­dus­try cel­e­brates his hit-mak­ing: there was an all-star Richie trib­ute at last month’s Gram­mys. Still, the high­est sort of es­teem is de­nied him.

A reap­praisal may be in or­der. What hits me hard­est is the ro­bust beauty of Richie’s voice — a smooth bari­tone rough­ened by hints of grit — and the ca­sual vir­tu­os­ity with which he puts it to use. Lis­ten to the 1981 Diana Ross duet End­less Love, in which Richie en­folds his part­ner’s rather colour­less singing in plush, pre­cise har­mony vo­cals, air­lift­ing the song to its right­ful place: the hon­ey­moon suite of a very posh ho­tel. That mix of un­der­stated and over­wrought is pure Richie. He de­ploys one of pop’s sub­tlest skill sets in the ser­vice of fe­ro­ciously corny songs.

The schmaltz gushes through Richie’s lyrics. “Lady, I’m your knight in shin­ing armour, and I love you,” goes the open­ing line of Lady (1980), the smash that Richie wrote for Kenny Rogers. Lest the mes­sage be un­clear, Richie presses the point: “My love, my love, there’s some­thin’ I want you to know / You’re the love of my life.” Richie’s eter­nal theme is amour fou; his po­etic mode is: pour it on. To Richie, you’re not just a lady. You’re once, twice, three times a lady. Richie loves love, but more than that, he loves say­ing “I love you” — and he loves say­ing how much he loves say­ing “I love you.” Con­sider a cou­plet from Hello: “I long to see the sun­light in your hair / And tell you time and time again how much I care.”

The mir­a­cle is that Richie makes such sen­ti­ments stick. Credit his melodic gift and his knack for ar­range­ments that wash over lis­ten­ers in crest­ing, tum­bling waves. Hello is typ­i­cal, with stately verses that open into a wind­whipped cho­rus. When the song rears up into its fi­nal re­frain, the ef­fect is that of a uni­corn ris­ing on its hind legs to meet the pur­ple dawn.

In short, Richie is a great singer-song­writer and a world-his­tor­i­cal cheese­ball. A cen­tu­ry­plus of pop his­tory has not erased the squeamish­ness we feel when faced with bal­lads such as Richie’s. Mu­sic crit­ics have largely aban­doned old snob­beries, em­brac­ing com­mer­cial pop in all its gaudy splen­dour. Yet songs like Hello re­main for many a bridge too far.

But pop cul­ture has evolved a nifty sys­tem, al­low­ing us to lux­u­ri­ate in mu­sic we pre­tend to hold at arm’s length. The campy karaoke per­for­mance, the TV com­edy sketch — th­ese bring songs back to us un­der the cover of irony. It’s canon-mak­ing, 2016 style: we mock-ven­er­ate old records as kitsch and, lo and be­hold, they get in­scribed in the ce­les­tial song­book.

Richie knows how this game is played — how to laugh at him­self, po­litely and all the way to the bank. Last year he ap­peared on The Tonight Show Star­ring Jimmy Fal­lon, or rather, his dis­em­bod­ied head did: Richie played the role of the Lionel Richie bust, duet­ting with Fal­lon in a Hello spoof. When Richie per­forms, though, the irony melts away.

That’s what hap­pened at Glas­ton­bury, where a crowd of mostly white rock fans greeted Richie in high tongue-in-cheek mode. But when the open­ing strains of Hello sounded, the throng erupted, join­ing Richie in a sin­ga­long as joy­ously cathar­tic as any you will hear. Sud­denly, Hello wasn’t a tacky 80s arte­fact — the song was a com­mu­nal hearth fire, cast­ing a rosy glow over 200,000 souls.

It was an ex­am­ple of pop’s mys­te­ri­ous sor­cery, the way cer­tain al­chem­i­cal blends of mu­sic and words strike us right in the gut, cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ing our high-minded aes­thetic ideals and stud­ied pos­tures. It was a re­minder that some of the most pow­er­ful songs are the most gauche, scram­bling to­gether beauty and vul­gar­ity, ex­quis­ite crafts­man­ship and ap­palling taste, ex­alted chival­ric love-oaths and the queasy come­ons of a dork with a mul­let. As for that clay head from the Hello Video: it works equally well as a plat­ter for your cream-cheese dip and a bust on pop’s Mount Rush­more.

Lionel Richie is a finer mu­si­cian than many have cared to ad­mit

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