Below, a Believer Music Issue exclusive from Joshua Harmon’s Annotated Mix-Tape Series.
DEF LEPPARD: “Photograph” (Pyromania LP, Mercury, 1983)
A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS: “Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)” (Listen LP, Jive, 1983)
In 1983, in seventh grade, a friend detailed his plan to attract the attention of a girl he liked: he’d cue his Pyromania cassette to the moment in “Photograph” when the music drops out for a measure and the lead singer growls, “I wanna touch you!” Then he’d crank-call the girl, holding the phone to his stereo as he played a few inches of tape before hanging up—leaving her wondering, presumably, just who wanted to touch her (and resonating unintentionally with the advertising campaign Ma Bell introduced in 1979: “Reach out and touch someone”). Even still, my friend’s approach seemed too direct an admission of desire; at that age, I preferred simply to imagine any potential romantic encounters, so they’d have no chance of failure.
In the video, the lead singer wears a sleeveless Union Jack T-shirt, a white scarf, and leather pants cinched with a set of handcuffs. Singing in a rough, impassioned falsetto, he prances, shakes shaggy hair out of his eyes, pumps his fist, clutches the microphone stand, stares at the camera, writhes with legs spread wide, thrusts his pelvis, leaps through the air nearly touching his toes, leans against the lead guitarist, points at the camera, and finally contorts his face as he howls and grimaces. Along the side of the soundstage where he struts, heavily made-up women with teased hair and torn clothes lounge and shimmy inside their cages, snarling along with the music. The lead singer’s name is Joe Elliott, and he performs a distressed ardor using classic lead-singer gestures and poses: his performance is learned from other performances, acutely aware of its audience (even though there is no audience here except director and crew) and its reception.
The song Elliott sings concerns the inability of a representation to satisfy his longing: the presences of so many representations—every time he dreams, on every page of every magazine—haunt him. He wishes only for the intimate presence of the real; he needs to touch the object of his desire to escape her many confounding images. To underscore Elliott’s postmodern dilemma, the video’s director cuts from shots of the band playing to black and white, would-be film noir scenes of a Marilyn Monroe impersonator in a trenchcoat, or lying facedown in a chalk outline, or—most hauntingly of all—posing for photographs in front of other photographs of herself. The reproductions proliferate. Everyone looks at the lens; we see everyone through the viewfinder. We learn the agony of desire when a Polaroid of a wailing Elliott is crushed beneath a single spiked heel.
An early lesson on the male gaze and the slippages of language: Sunday afternoon at my grandparents’ house. Parents, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and my fuzzy suspicions that I must be some foundling these people took in. One older cousin wears a pair of Chic brand designer jeans. Perhaps to make evident the increasing awkwardness I feel, perhaps because I have nothing else to contribute, I point to the Chic logo stitched in gold thread on the back pocket of her jeans and pronounce the word: “Chick.”
My aunt’s boyfriend, one of a number of embarrassing men she’s dated since her husband’s early death, grabs my hand. “Whoa,” he says. “You can’t call women that. That’s male chauvinism.” I blush—I am maybe ten—because although I know not to compare a girl to a baby bird, I have no idea why speaking a brand name is wrong. My aunt appears not to hear him—no one else does, thankfully—so he adds, “You have to be respectful,” and turns away. At the next family gathering, or the one after that, my aunt arrives alone.
In the video, four men with blowtorches and goggles attempt to repair their spaceship, but shake their heads sadly at the futility of the effort. (The Millennium Falcon’s malfunctioning hyperdrive had been a major plot point two years earlier.) The lead singer’s name—Mike Score—also seems cribbed from a sci-fi movie’s script, as does his pale hair, which is sculpted into a shape resembling a pair of wings with a long tail between them to cover one eye. But this video has little action: Score strolls the spaceship, hands in pockets, peering out at deep space, or wandering into different rooms to hold railings and sway in time to the music. His outfit is black, with zippers and tassels and a stiff collar, as futuristic as anything one would have found at a suburban shopping mall in the early ’80s. There may be a stowaway on board—we catch quick glimpses of a woman’s eyes, or see her silhouetted against the spaceship’s bright lights; later, her form appears to dance in space as the ship passes through interstellar clouds—but she may also be only some absent presence, the ghost Score wishes to see. (Susan Sontag: “A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence… The sense of the unattainable that can be evoked by photographs feeds directly into the erotic feelings of those for whom desirability is enhanced by distance.”)
The song Score sings catalogs his desire for this missing other, but only through the negation of reasons—it’s not the way she looks or smiles, it’s not the way she wears her hair, it’s not her makeup or how she dances. The closest he can come to an explanation is to note that he appreciates the way her “eyes are laughing as they glance across the great divide”: his feelings are those of a Romantic poet encountering the sublime. Actions and words are insignificant: “Well, it must be something more,” he confesses. Most of all, he wants a photograph of his beloved; he believes that this representation will supplant the real, so he won’t “spend [his] life just wishing.” At one of the spaceship’s computer terminals, he watches a photograph of a woman’s face take digital shape, then prints out this image on pinholed, continuous-feed computer paper, but, disillusioned, tears it in half.
Score performs a studied melancholy we might trace back to nineteenth-century Parisian flaneurs; although the song yearns, the great divide of space and time has rendered him unable to muster enthusiasm even for the thing he claims to want most. The four members of the band take turns staring into a video console, where they play their instruments with robotic precision. The spaceship, glowing blue, hurtles from a bright galaxy of stars into darkness, and the earth’s clouded orb—photographs of which forever changed our sense of the planet—spins and diminishes behind it.
Or Guy Debord: “Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation… The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images… [R]eal life is materially invaded by the contemplation of the spectacle, and ends up absorbing it and aligning itself with it… The alienation of the spectator… works like this: The more he contemplates, the less he lives; the more he identifies with the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own life and his own desires.”
Or Jean Baudrillard: “It is the fantasy of seizing reality live that continues—ever since Narcissus bent over his spring. Surprising the real in order to immobilize it, suspending the real in the expiration of its double.”
Def Leppard’s “Photograph” and A Flock of Seagulls’ “Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You)” were both recorded in 1982 and released on LPs in the first months of 1983. Both are exquisitely overproduced, catchy, cynical pop songs that borrow enough tropes from other genres (heavy metal and new wave, respectively) to pass; both present a lonely narrator separated from the object of his desire. Since both bands’ videos appeared regularly on MTV during that network’s early years, it is unsurprising that these two songs foreground visual representation.
In the ’80s, we knew Def Leppard and A Flock of Seagulls as much from their videos as from their songs’ radio play, and the visible signifiers of their style allowed us to differentiate them more than their layered, multi-tracked pop songs did: a shirtless drummer wearing Union Jack shorts and sweatband, and banging away at a full kit, conveyed virility; a balding drummer wearing a black vest and awkwardly bashing two Rototoms did not. These two videos shaped how we received the songs, of course: Def Leppard’s video, with caged women, a spectral switchblade, and a lead guitarist apparently orgasming during his solo, pleased creepy kids with designs on sexual harassment; A Flock of Seagulls’ video pleased creepy kids who felt too shy for real human contact and just wanted to be left alone.
Record collectors often want to be left alone. In 1983, I retired to my bedroom and my stereo and began forging relationships with things as much as with people. I preferred the Flock of Seagulls song—it’s marginally subtler than Def Leppard’s song, and its repetitions and the way Mike Score implicitly curses his life’s longueurs spoke to my own adolescent ennui—but I also preferred it because we who collect embrace mediated experience; otherwise, we wouldn’t selectively hoard objects. The photograph fixing a person’s likeness at some specific moment is perfect in a way the person can never be; photographs, like recordings, collapse distance and time, and enable fantasies of owning some enduring, always-available past. Joe Elliott’s desire for contact is the same urge that brings music fans to concerts in search of an “experience,” itself mediated, commodified, and existing primarily in our imaginations. I used to expect the real to correspond to its representation—at least on the concert stage—and was inevitably disappointed by the great divide between sloppy live musical performances and the records I’d idealized through repeated listening.
Though I probably wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone, I liked the Def Leppard song, too. No matter how expansive my record collection, then or now; no matter the ardency of my desire for a certain record; no matter how much time I might spend listening to records: in the words of Joe Elliott, “It’s not enough.” John Berger has claimed that “photography is the process of rendering observation self-conscious.” Once collecting records progresses from keeping a few favorites around the house to alphabetizing shelves one hopes one’s friends won’t touch, it is the process of rendering listening self-conscious.
We understood desire as it was fabricated and promoted daily on our newly cabled TV sets and the networks that were developed to fill those channels. We were told we wanted our MTV, and soon enough we did want it. We slumped into our couches and stared, and spoke to each other mostly on vacant phone calls from our bedrooms, their walls screened with posters and glossy-magazine clippings and photo-collages we’d hung there to reflect ourselves to ourselves. We were always observed, always observing. We knew the crucial question—“How do I look?”—even if the answer eluded us. We learned how to gaze pensively into middle distance and how to clench a fist and pout at the mirror, learned the values of leg warmers and jelly bracelets and strategically deployed bandannas and Adidas track pants and leather jackets and earrings in one ear and Swatch watches and giant T-shirts emblazoned with what Frankie said. We spiked and dyed and rat-tailed and crimped and shaved our hair, moonwalked and pegged our jeans and practiced curled-lip sneers, wished our bedrooms were halls of mirrors outfitted with fog machines. We walked into stores and saw ourselves reproduced on monitors overhead. So many of the videos we watched—“Borderline,” “Billie Jean,” “Don’t You Want Me”—showed their subjects being photographed or filmed, and revealed the format as artifice even as they hoped we’d believe the stories they told. We did believe. We wanted to pose for our own photos and videos and invent our own stories, and we would, as soon as we looked perfect.
Joshua Harmon’s most recent book is Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie, winner of the 2010 Akron Poetry Prize. History of Cold Seasons, a collection of short fiction, is forthcoming from Dzanc.