Do All 16 Dances
Fill in the blank: “I can’t believe my parents didn’t realize I was gay when I __________.”
My answer is “danced around my room to ‘Love Shack’ whenever it came on the radio.” Me at nine: Coke-bottle glasses and a terrible haircut, reliant on my parents’ 70s/80s station and Video Hits One for any tips on understanding what the older kids were into. My friend Craig started liking some band named Depeche Mode; I was still trying to tell the difference between Poco and Toto.
By twelve, I was barely more culturally literate. Good Stuff, the B-52’s’ sixth album, was the second tape I ever bought, from an outlet music store; later, I bought it again on CD, in one of those cardstock longboxes. The cassette was shock-orange and I loved to listen to it on my Magnavox boombox. (Take a second to note that almost nothing in the preceding two sentences exists anymore.) Its songs about hot pants and alien abductions came from somewhere beyond the edge of my experience. It was richer, cleaner, more streamlined, more nuanced than what I knew of “Love Shack” and “Roam.” But I didn’t quite get any of that at the time; I just felt slightly embarrassed to tell anyone I knew that I was into it. The B-52’s weren’t the first band I ever discovered. They weren’t the first band I truly loved, and they’re not my all-time favorite. But they’re the first band I lusted after, in some primal, unknowable way. And as the saying goes, you never forget your first. All my life, I’ve been an obsessive collector. I can’t explain why; there was just always some nameless desire to have everything I could find on one thing, and it came in waves. Rocks – geodes and minerals and stuff. Flags of the world. Legos – those were some seriously fun years. Star Trek. Comic books. And then, when I was twelve or thirteen, it was music. Music turned from a casual hobby into the last obsession I ever had, and I lapped up music like a French bulldog at a water bowl: hungrily, noisily, messily. Everything was thrilling and new; I was forming my own language from scratch, combining guttural noises into sounds and words. I crawled, I walked, I ran. But you can’t run alone.
The B-52’s were literally a band of misfits – nice Southern girls and gay boys who surely loved rocks
and geography and comics and space travel, too. Somehow, they found each other and made a weird family: Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, Keith Strickland, Cindy Wilson, and her brother: poor, doomed Ricky. They were a band I felt like I’d found, like they’d been waiting for me the whole time. When you start getting into music, no one tells you how to prepare for a band that’s going to change over time, that won’t always sound like the song you first fell for. No one tells you what it’s like to discover a band at the end of its career and have to work backwards. No one tells you that you’re going to listen to a song many times and then one day it’s just going to click.
I’ve had these experiences maybe hundreds of times. Sometimes it leads to an unpleasant discovery – holy shit, what’s the deal with Metal Machine Music? But Transformer is so good! – but that’s the trip you sign up for when you love a band. You’re going to follow them as far as you can, even though both of you are going to change. Being a music fan means a series of adventures that look miniscule from the outside but feel planetary to you. Being “into” music as a teenager makes you… different. Other kids develop attachments to sports or cars or art or actually playing music. These are things that friends and parents understand; after all, if you’re really good at it, you can make a career out of it. Loving music isn’t enough to make you an outcast per se; it just means you’re going to have this secret world at home that’s more vivid and accepting than the one outside.
I think this prepared me well for going to design school, and much later, coming out. The more experiences you’ve had being the unusual one around you, the more alien it feels to want to be like everyone else. The B-52’s were never Cool. I mean Capital-C Cool, like The Clash or Joy Division. If you created a map of music, the B-52’s would occupy an exquisitely gerrymandered district which would cut through girl group pop, punk rock, surf, kids’ music, and a half-dozen other genres. But each of those was at least understood, if not completely accepted, by the mainstream, and each had its own icons of cool. For something to be Cool, I think it has to appeal to mainstream culture enough that it actually helps convert people to alternative culture (or vice versa) because it’s just different enough that you can follow it down an identifiable path without ending up totally lost. I’m not sure the B-52’s led more people to like kitsch or sci-fi or lobsters. Instead, they reassured people who already liked those things of their inherent value.
Their debut album was all sorts of things that had no place in the mainstream. “Rock Lobster” became an unlikely hit, like all those other songs you remember as briefly punctuating culture completely because of their otherness (see: “Istanbul [Not Constantinople]” or “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”). The album featured stabbing organs, electrifying guitars, tambourines, animal calls, lists of girls’ names and sea creatures and planets. Visual records from that time show wild colors and wilder wigs borrowed from 30 years of recorded music. It might be the only album of its era to imagine what a post-punk take on Motown would sound like. After a long time – maybe too long for a band I liked this much – I went backwards from Good Stuff. There were songs that excited and songs that were difficult to love. Lush and polished moments pushed up against raw, almost painfully naked ones. Touches of weirdness and touches of imagination. Noise and sound. Together, they added up to a world that I hadn’t known before. As I get older, the one thing I’ve realized I respect more than anything else is world-building. You don’t get to claim that the B-52’s were silly or countercultural when you finally glimpse that whole, strange world. You can watch a complete 46-minute B-52’s set on YouTube from the 1985 Rock in Rio festival. It’s a little depressing, though, because while the band expanded to a Stop Making Sense- esque size for a fuller sound, they’re dwarfed by the black cavern of the stage around them. Their visual aesthetic at
these shows – by a wide margin the largest they ever performed – could be described as “vaguely hip grandma.” Cindy sports an unbelievably massive white Jackie O wig; Keith looks like he just came from a backyard garden; Fred is wearing a billowy shiny green onesie with straps.
Compare this to a Saturday Night Live performance of “Dance This Mess Around” from 1980. Kate plays a keyboard, Keith’s drums are mixed high, and Ricky’s electric guitar is almost shockingly sparse. Cindy hits a tambourine while Fred plinks on a toy piano. There are mere feet of stage space around everyone, and the audience is plainly visible in front. You can hear individual audience members cheering on the performance with hoots and claps.
Watching these clips together, you know at once that they were destined for both musical greatness and relative obscurity. Speaking of Stop Making Sense, no discussion of New York music can ignore Talking Heads as a celestial body. They were the older siblings, the ones who cleared the brush and made it safe for bands to get on the radio while keeping Manhattan weird. They were the unofficial arbiters of Cool. The B-52’s followed in Talking Heads’ footsteps in many ways, and David Byrne even produced songs that resulted in 1982’s Mesopotamia EP. Mesopotamia’s songs, especially “Deep Sleep,” show that relationship, with subtle but tight production and guitars tuned to a sly, chiming post-punk sound.
But I think the B-52’s saw where the trail blazed by their older siblings was leading and chose to leave it – the post-Byrne album was Whammy!, which doesn’t contain a single actual drumbeat. This late turn towards the motorized sounds detached and aloof, almost ironic. For a band that rejects irony completely, the album feels like an odd entry in their library, and the subsequent Bouncing Off the Satellites represented a dramatic course correction. The B-52’s are unmistakably warm, while Talking Heads seemed to take pride in being cold and distant. I believe Talking Heads became a slave to their process while the B-52’s stayed a slave to their muse, which was, in every definition, earthbound. Talking Heads seemed to figure this out too, and backtracked to a more human sound in their final albums, though by then it was too late. The “Love Shack” video might be one of the most literal things I can name. The band is shown hopping into a big-ass car, driving down a Southern highway. They arrive at a “Shaque du Amour” and proceed to play the rest of the song, to much moving and grooving. Everyone looks like they’re having a total blast, which is ultimately the point. You want to see them look like it was as much fun to make as it is to watch.
When Fred sings, “The whole shack shimmies, yeah!” the first time – that moment gives me chills. It’s the moment of anticipation, when you know the song is about to get next level. Fatboy Slim and James Murphy have built fortunes based on this moment. It can be just as rewarding as the song’s climax, which is undoubtedly the line, “Tiiiiiiin roof! Rusted.” The B-52’s were, at their start, 3/5 gay. Eventually it became ½ gay, then most recently, thanks to some late blooming, ½ gay and ¼ lesbian. If you can remember life before Wikipedia, you’ll know that it used to be a lot harder to come across that kind of information. But with the band, sexuality was always a non-issue – just one among many pleasures inhabiting their music. Any band member’s orientation made no impact on me; I don’t remember wondering when I would get comfortable enough with my own sexuality to don brightly colored pants. I just remembered thinking that when I finally could, I would make it a non-issue too.
And yet, Keith really liked wearing sunflowers. I should’ve figured it out earlier. Oh boy, I remember hearing “Love Shack” and thinking how badly I wanted to create something, anything as pure and heavenly as Keith’s guitar in that song. It just fucking rings out. Twenty-five years later, this sound still enthralls me. It had as much an impact on me as that first chord of “A Hard Day’s Night” must have had on my parents.
The story behind that line is worth telling: the band had gathered in the studio to sing the line “tin roof!” Cindy forgot to stop when everyone else did – she looked around the room to find that she had sang it alone one extra time, then improvised the last word. This also means there is (or was a plan to have) a version that features this group yell-chant prominently. I’m confident we can find it in the universe immediately adjacent to ours.
It raises a question I constantly find interesting: what else has been edited out of things we treasure? What did a handful of people deem uninteresting to the rest of the world? Everything is curated, no matter what. By the way, that “whole shack shimmies” line is cut from the single and video versions. Another piece of B-52’s recording history minutia: there’s only one original B-side, an instrumental called “Return to Dreamland.” There are a handful of songs floating around and a couple that have never been released. For an 80s band with many 7” and 12” singles, they totally bucked the trend of producing original songs to supplement singles.
On one hand, the collector in me feels rebuffed since there isn’t much left to be unearthed. On the other, I have a lot of respect for a band that says, “Okay, these are the nine or ten songs we have, we believe in them, and they’re are all we need to offer.” In that light, nothing becomes second-class. Fred was 29 when the band’s debut album came out. Kate was 32. The B-52’s weren’t one of those bands that started in college and was over by the time its members were 27; their breakthrough came after nine full years of performing together. This gives me hope, too – that my 20s passed without incident or much satisfaction; and now, at 34, with greater happiness and confidence and understanding, my golden age could be happening right now. I just had to wait for my own Shaque du Amour to show up on the highway. The B-52’s sang songs about things ordinary (baking a cake, walking the dog), things extraordinary (illegally printing money, Satan taking a ride in your car), and things somewhere in between (applying to a dating service, visiting a nude beach). They compared love to volcanoes and wanted to live in ancient Egypt. They strongly advocated shaking your butt and finding lifelong friends. If there’s a common thread through all of this music, it’s that we’re all humans, and humans are gloriously complicated. That’s a good way to summarize the B-52’s – it’s dance music made by humans. Compare that to the soulless, bleak aesthetic of EDM: it asks you to dance the same way for long minutes at a time – so long, actually, that you’re not supposed to realize the song has changed. But the B-52’s ask you to spaz the fuck out, flail, shimmy, twist, whatever. I can keep a beat like nobody’s business, but when it comes to dancing I’m beyond hopeless. The band said–you know what? You can do whatever the music makes you feel. It’s better to be Weird than Cool. It’s okay to be yourself and evolve.
When you’re nine and you have a whole life ahead of you – and even when you’re 34 – that message gets you through a huge part of your life. It protects you, it empowers you, it welcomes you into a family that was waiting for you. Everyone’s a mess; now it’s your job to dance that mess around.