Sunday, May 24, 2015
Track of the Week: Kim Carnes "Bette Davis Eyes"
The "eighties" did not begin on January 1, 1980, at least not as a cultural phenomenon. They slowly came into being, fully solidified in 1982 with the end of the economic turmoil that began in 1979 and the beginning of a wave of popular culture distinct from that which came before. (That's my periodization, and I'm sticking to it.) The 70s was The French Connection, Taxi Driver, and Star Wars, while the 80s was Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, and Return of the Jedi. I have a theory that "Bette Davis Eyes" as performed by Kim Carnes is the true beginning of the 80s as a cultural epoch.
The sound is unalterably, unmistakably 80s, from the reverby guitar to airy synths to metronomic beats to its processed production. Tapping into the Zeitgeist, this song spent a whopping eight weeks at the top of the charts in 1981. America had spoken, and it was tired of the shaggy, macrame-festooned 70s and ready to catapult into the clean, brightly lit, angular 80s.
If you need an example to see the contrast, compare Carnes' icy cool rendition of the song to the rollicking, country rockish version first cut by Jackie De Shannon in 1974. The woman described in this song is more ribald than anything else, in the Kim Carnes version, she is dangerous. The hard-edged 80s, where getting ahead mattered above all else, is very much apparent here, as well as the backlash against feminism, which meant that women who used their sexuality to get what they wanted were no longer sympathetic or seen as empowered.
Despite all this, the song has elements that elevate well beyond the usual 80s FM radio fare. Most important is Carnes' raspy voice, containing a grainy, earthy quality that cuts against the metallic sheen of synths and drum machines. Her voice sounds perilously close to cracking at a couple points, the kind of thing you'd expect on say, a punk rock or Bob Dylan record. Take a look at some of the other huge hits of '81 -"Endless Love," "Lady," "Morning Train," "Kiss On My List"- and it's pretty easy to see why this song has had a stronger afterlife than the other ones.