Thursday, July 22, 2010

Old School Ode #8 - The Significance of Rick Springfield on the Development of the 12 Year Old Girl in 1982

I do not have air conditioning in my Jeep. Luckily, I have my Dad's spare truck parked in my driveway for those days when rolled-down windows and bundled-up hair will just not cut it.

That vehicle has a tape deck. As much as I like the radio, I can only go so long before I feel the need to control what I am listening to. So I've taken to rummaging through my box of abandoned cassettes in my basement.

Which is how I've come to be listening to Rick Springfield's "Success Hasn't Spoiled Me Yet" almost non-stop for the past week.

To go on about how Springfield was a huge star in 1982 would be a redundant waste of time. Even those who don't care could not argue this point. What intrigues me now, however, is just how spot-on Springfield was in appealing to an almost exclusively prepubescent female audience, given he was in his thirties at the height of his popularity. One could argue this is creepy, but I'd like to try to give Springfield the benefit of a thorough consideration.

Let's start with the album cover of Success Hasn't Spoiled Me Yet:

I won't say it looks like something a twelve year old girl could pull off, but it absolutely appeals almost exclusively to that demographic. Anyone who ever picked up a Teen Beat in 1982 knew that Springfield had a dog named Ron. That he loved this dog enough to put him on one album cover (Working Class Dog) is one thing, but to bring him back and be humbled enough to eagerly play man-servant to said dog? That's altogether something else. Throw in the pink and the poodles and the silly posturing, you're not going to win over the Van Halen crowd.

I would imagine all teen idol types are under some sort of pressure to consistently appeal to the throngs of screaming girls. But unlike the guys in the Beatles who longed (rightfully so) to shed their teenybopper image, or George Michael's hidden-in-plain-sight homosexuality, Springfield's songs seemed a genuine expression of his inner landscape. I would imagine it might have been confusing as an artist to recognize a common maturity level between he and his audience, but he never seemed to fight this or condescend.

Springfield uses the terms "girl" a lot to describe the women in his songs. This might be offensive if he didn't also seem to refer to himself as a "boy." He has a song called "How Do You Talk To Girls" that is almost embarrassingly earnest in its longing to understand the opposite sex. How he manages to not sound like an emotionally stunted man-boy is astonishing.

Likewise, there is a song called "April 24, 1981" the title referring simply to the date of his father's death. The song is short, perhaps not even a minute, and the lyrics are simple

I know all your life you've wondered / About that step we all take alone / How far does the spirit travel on a journey / You must surely be near heaven / And it thrills me to the bone / To know Daddy knows the great Unknown.

Girls all over the world, girls who had never known one bit of loss in their lives, collectively wept over this song. While I had my musical crushes (forever having to point out Johnathon Cain from the Teen Beat centerfold Journey posters...) I was never the overt screamer. But there was something about Springfield that made it easy to fall for him. He appealed to many types of girls - the quiet, the pretty, nerdy, even the tough girls. At my school there were a trio of girls who were known for their allegiance to wearing black t-shirts featuring the icons of rock - Rush, the Doors and Ozzy - who were hard-core Rick devotees.

Perhaps I am overlooking the obvious charge that Springfield's songs were better than everyone gave him credit for. Should they be compared to even the pantheon of classic pop songs? Probably not, but as I strain to listen to my almost thirty-year-old thinly worn tape, I realize how easy it is to simply soak in the songs that I am not listening to for simply sentimental reasons.

I saw Springfield in concert when I was thirteen, fourteen, and twenty-seven. Going to the latter show, I worried that I had become like those middle-aged ladies you hear about going to see Tom Jones. But it was a huge crowd of all kinds of people - women as well as men, suburbanites and urban hipsters alike - all hovering around thirty at the time, all there to celebrate what we loved about Rick Springfield.

And he seemed genuinely proud that we'd finally come of age...

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