Love in the Time of Rock Music
Sting ruled the world for a time.
My freshman year of college, 1989, I sat in a restaurant booth and listened as the woman behind me explained to her date – I think as a way of explaining her personality – that she’d spent the last two years completely absorbed in only two albums: The Dream of the Blue Turtles, and Nothing Like the Sun. I nodded my head to myself when I heard her say so, because I knew exactly what she meant. I came to those albums late, a couple of years after their release, but together they made up the soundtrack to my college years, with themes both personal and political that would shape my thinking for years to come.
Of course, before the solo work, there was the Police, a trio so potent, so mythic, that their breakup instantly spawned dreams of a reunion. Outside of Cream, I have trouble coming up with a trio with as much talent as these three (Rush might come close, but only close). I think an argument might be made that more than any other artist, they bridged the gap between punk and new wave, showing everyone else how punk’s angst might be inverted to comment on the emptiness of the Thatcherite 80s.
But of course it’s the rare artist in any medium who can avoid over-exposure or who can maintain relevance indefinitely as music cycles through generation after generation. And though the myth of the Police looked large two decades after their breakup, their actual reunion came and went, with a lot of initial fanfare at their induction into the rock and roll hall of fame, but without much in the way of quality to back it up. Following the second date, Stewart Copeland himself declared, “Our First Disaster Gig!” explaining, “We are half a bar out of synch with each other. Andy is in Idaho […] we are totally at sea” (qtd in Chris Campion’s Walking on the Moon 253).
Sting himself could often come off as pretentious. Journalist Paul Morley describes an interview with the artist in which he proclaimed the secret to his “immense cool”: “I care about how I look, and I care about how I present myself […] Like this morning when we met, I cared very much what you thought of me at breakfast. Maybe it’s vanity. I feel that I’m being watched and I enjoy it” (qted in Campion 126). Beyond his own self-adoration, though we all grew weary at some point of being lectured to about this cause and that (especially when that lecture comes with a heavy dose of hypocrisy: you probably shouldn’t get so worked up about over-population if you have six kids). His ardent defense of Milli Vanilli and his threat to return his own Grammy over the way they were handled – no matter how genuine – probably helped usher in the beginning of the end.
And though Sting hasn’t entirely disappeared – in the way of Barry Manilow, for instance, or in the way the Bee Gees went away for a while, or Johnny Cash, or Bob Dylan – he doesn’t occupy the place in our pop culture consciousness he once did.
Which may be just as well, since it’s hard to truly assess a musician at the height of his or her career. Of course, that’s just when everyone is assessing them, but the distance of time often helps to define the edges of a career, to give us a sense of what an artist actually contributed – or didn’t as the case may be. It turns out there’s a great deal of good that might be said about Sting as an artist. He possessed, from the beginning, a remarkable talent for telling stories in song, from the angst ridden teacher of “Don’t Stand so Close to Me,” to the fish-out-of-water “Englishman in New York” to young Billy in “Island of Souls” to the troubled transvestite prostitute of “Tomorrow We’ll See.”
He could turn a phrase as well: “Take your father’s cross, gently from the wall, the shadow still remaining,” he sings in “When the Angels Fall”: “See the churches fall, in mighty arcs of sound, and all that they’re containing.” Indeed, The Soul Cages on which that song appears stands with Tennyson’s In Memoriam as one of the more remarkable artistic expressions of loss and grief. He has been innovative both musically and lyrically, using repetition of single words and phrases, for example, to put the angry obsessive force of punk to new use as the signal of a new obsessive age.
But what I want to focus on here is his particular approach to the love song. Love isn’t, after all, an easy topic – or perhaps it is too easy. There is no stronger or more common emotion among humankind, so common that its nature has certainly been dissected by every person who ever lived. On the one hand, that means it tends to get written about a lot. Back in my high school teaching days, I would normally get half a dozen budding poets each semester desperate for me to comment on their “Ode to Olive” or “Sonnet for Cindy.” To say something new about love, though…that is a rare achievement indeed. It’s a struggle Sting himself understands intimately: not for nothing did he title his second album “Nothing Like the Sun”: Shakespeare’s sonnet is among the most clever approaches to the subject of love precisely because he takes dead aim at the trite overblown nature of most love poetry: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” he begins, stripping her down to size so he may build her up again based on her true qualities.
What marks Sting’s work out as innovative is his recognition of the changing dynamics of relationships in the late twentieth century. I have no wish to wade into gender politics here, and I don’t especially think Sting does either, but what he does manage to do is put his finger on the male confusion that I think developed over this time period, the logical confusion that accompanies any change in the way society behaves. As women entered the workforce in large numbers post-war, as economic status became more equal between the sexes, as traditional roles shifted, something as simple as whether or not to hold the door for your date could be a complex puzzle. Navigating a relationship has never been especially easy, but any time the rules are in flux it becomes exponentially difficult.
In response, Sting invented a hapless male persona, always unbearably anxious about how to act around women, always desperate to solve the puzzle, but never quite able to do so. He comes in a number of forms…
"I see you sent my letters back
And my L.P. records and they’re all scratched
I can’t see the point in another day
When nobody listens to a word I say
You can call it lack of confidence
But to carry on living doesn’t make no sense."
He digs into this motif over and over again: “The Bed’s Too Big Without You,” “So Lonely,” “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” “King of Pain,” “I Burn for You,” “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” “Does Everyone Stare,” “Love is Stronger than Justice,” “She’s Too Good for Me,” “Heavy Cloud, No Rain,” “Big Lie, Small World.”
Interestingly enough, Sting is not alone among contemporary songwriters in finding new things to say about love and romantic relationships. Don Henley, for instance, has done some fascinating work fusing love and politics – “All She Wants to Do is Dance,” “The End of the Innocence.” And Joe Jackson has produced a number of songs that undercut romance, offering a more realistic take on the nature of relationships – “You Can Be My Number Two,” “Breaking Us in Two,” “The Best I Can Do.”
These unique takes on an age-old and often worn out subject demonstrate, of course, just how insightful pop culture can be, the fact that what we sometimes regard as “low culture” today can offer genuine depth and will in all likelihood be the Literature (big-L) we focus on in the future. But leaving that argument aside – an argument I make so often it probably doesn’t need repeating here – these artists and their work suggest something important about the nature of innovation and creativity generally: that the most innovative moments in artistic history tend to occur when great change is happening in the culture and society at large. We exist at a very particular moment, when society is undergoing enormous foundational shifts but also at a point when media itself – the machines in which we encode art are going through equally powerful shifts. It’s not surprising, then, that some of the most important artwork in history is being produced right now. And if Sting’s work isn’t as urgent as it once was, I suspect his time will come round again, and not simply in the sense of returning to “popularity,” but in the sense of inclusion in a canon (if we can speak about such a word any more) of twentieth century literature.
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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