July 11, 2011
Fans of Heart, the rawk band led by sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson, fall into one of two categories: (1) those who dig the band’s fat rock licks from the 70s and lost interest after 1982’s underwhelming Private Audition, and (2) those who think that after 1982’s disappointing Private Audition the band was just getting started and who actually prefer the more embarrassing, slick, and power-ballad-heavy material to come. Naturally, I fall into the latter category, because guitars and feathered hair are nice, but exploding pianos and Aquanet are better.
This Heart-fan dichotomy was illustrated powerfully last year at karaoke night at Matchless bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Surely you’ve heard about what happened. It was a battle royale between the old school and the, uh, new old school, and boy was it a shitstorm. For my song I chose “Alone,” the desperate power ballad to end all desperate power ballads, and I sang the f*ck out of it.
[Above: Me singing the f*ck out of it]
A few singers later some misguided, unwashed, tone-deaf fraggle got up and, as the first licks from his chosen song “Barracuda” escaped the speakers, he said into the microphone, “Here’s a real Heart song.” Then he proceeded to sing that real Heart song real badly. His rendition was a flailing mess, a terrible tangle of whoops and cries for help, and it was an affront to sisters with big hair everywhere. So naturally, I won this duel because he disqualified himself by being awful. But the battle rages on between Team “Crazy on You” and Team “Where’s My Hairspray?”
While I do absolutely love the Heart of “Barracuda,” “Magic Man,” and “Dreamboat Annie,” I happen to feel that the Heart ladies didn’t start truly reaching for the stars until the grand, galloping drama of 1984’s Heart album and songs such as “What About Love?”, “These Dreams,” “Nothin’ At All,” and “Never.” I remember the first time I heard “What About Love,” which hit #10 on the Billboard charts (yes, I knew that off the top of my head): I was a young gay 12-year-old with no friends riding in my dad’s car as he drove me to the middle school across town that I’d had to transfer to because of the bullying I’d experienced at my previous school. As I listened to Ann tell a dude in her robust soprano that she only wants to share her love with him, dammit, so wtf, give it to her, Jesus, I remember thinking: “This woman is as clammy and desperate as I am!”
Ann Wilson’s soaring soprano was the voice of my tween soul back then, and I stuck with her even as I grew into an actual teen and began to respond to the more sophisticated anthems of angst that British post-punk and new wave bands were giving to the world. And I’m glad I stayed, because Ann was really about to deliver the goods with the first single off of Heart’s 1987 album Bad Animals.
“Alone,” which hit #1 for three weeks on the Billboard charts (yes again), proved once and for all that there has never been a more desperately in love woman on the face of the Earth than Ann Wilson. The woman is beside herself with yearning and it is killing her. She’s sitting in the dark listening to the ticking of the clock and wearing a black veil, for God’s sake. And who is this schmuck that refuses to answer his phone, leaving our Ann to wonder whether she’ll once again be forced to face another night alone on the balcony, her heart brimming with pain and lonesome misery, with only her sister Nancy’s exploding piano to keep her company.
You know, til now, Ann had always been fine on her own. She never really cared until she met this guy and he turned her world upside down. Worse, he keeps bringing his friends on his dinner dates with her, so she’s never even had an opportunity to tell him how she feels. Every time she tries to corner him at the salad bar, he pretends that he doesn’t hear her. How can you not hear Ann Wilson when she’s singing at you?!
Yes, this song is about flakey men and the angelic-voiced women that they string along. I hear you, Ann. I’m right there with you, on that balcony, wearing a matching veil and an “I’m With Ann” T-shirt. Or rather, inside, in the living room, in the corner, in the dark, on the floor, turning on and off the lamp, lips trembling. And the story of “Alone” earns added pathos points after one watches the vh1 “Behind the Music” episode dedicated to Heart and learns this horrible truth: that the record company, worried that Ann was going to turn off the world’s male MTV viewers with her terrible, unsightly fatness, made sure that in the video she was placed either in the background and up on a balcony or in extreme close-up, while her slimmer, blonder sister sat at a piano in the foreground, her naked back undulating in the dimly lit goth chamber, or making love to her guitar all nasty-like—all so that the young boys of America wouldn’t lose their boners while enjoying the Wilson sisters’ breathtaking song about longing.
It’s funny, because I had always thought that, as much as I had always loved sister Nancy (can’t count the ways), it was a little insensitive of her in the video to continually hump and writhe against her guitar while her sister stood beside/behind her in such turmoil. But she was just keeping the record company at bay with all that gyratin’, for her sister, which is beautiful and also sexy. Plus, she came through with one of the loveliest guitar solos of the 80s–no small feat. And the video ends on a positive note: the ladies standing together looking at each other as if to say, “We’re gonna get through this, and girl, you are gorgeous.”
And of course they did get through it. The song became their biggest hit, knocking that skinny bitch Whitney Houston’s “I Want to Dance With Somebody” off the top spot on June 11, 1987.