Sunday, February 04, 2024

Weekend Diversion: 1984, Part 2

It's five weeks into the year, and in this week in 1984, a new song went to Number One—but it was only the second new song of the three to reach Number One song that year, as I mentioned last time.

On February 4, 1984, ”Karma Chameleon” (video up top) by Culture Club became the new Number One song. It was the group’s biggest hit, and their only Number One in the USA, though they had Top Ten hits. The song was the lead single from their second album, Colour by Numbers.

This song is exactly the sort thing I think of when I think of pop music from the 1980s, the mid-1980s in particular. Because the song was everywhere at the time, spending three weeks at Number One on the “Hot 100”, it’s a song that was definitely part of my life’s soundtrack at the time.

The music video was shot in England, standing in for 19th Century Mississippi river and a riverboat. I liked the video for “Karma Chameleon” more than those for most of Culture Club’s other songs, possibly because the song was such a big hit, or maybe it was Roy Hay’s haircut, which I really liked (I was, and proudly still am, often shallow about such things). In any event, the peppy song and its video really appealed to me.

According to the Wikipedia article on the song, Boy George explained what the song is about:
"The song is about the terrible fear of alienation that people have, the fear of standing up for one thing. It's about trying to suck up to everybody. Basically, if you aren't true, if you don't act like you feel, then you get Karma-justice, that's nature's way of paying you back."
This explains the imagery in the video, where “the bad guy” meets his comeuppance when his thievery and cheating is revealed, and he encounters karma at the pointy end of ladies’ parasols. Not that I necessarily got that at the time, though I suppose I would’ve, or at least could’ve, if I’d paid any real attention to music videos. My ability (or willingness…) to do that came along much later.

One of the things I most remember about Culture Club in general was the negative reaction so many people—well, mostly men—had to Boy George’s appearance. Most of it was toxic homophobia—and pretty much as irrational and bizarre as modern US rightwingers’ current reflexive hatred of Taylor Swift, though for different reasons. The bigoted reactions to George certainly didn’t hurt Culture Club’s record sales or airplay, though, and George is still recording, so I’d say he and Culture Club pretty much won that early edition of the Right’s culture wars.

I was already a grassroots LGBT+ activist when this song came out, and I remember some more conservative gay men were quite adamant about their dislike of Culture Club, or Boy George specifically, because they thought he was projecting a “bad image”, or “perpetuating stereotypes” of gay men. As an activist, I ran into anti-gay and homophobic prejudices and bigotry all the time, but it really annoyed me when I ran across a version of the same thing coming from my fellow gay men.

Some of my colleagues dismissed such complaints from gay men as “internalised homophobia”, and for some perhaps it was. To me, though, it suggested they were reacting not because they were gay so much as because of fear: They were well aware of what being identified as gay, different, or “other” could result in. I thought that it was more about their own feelings of insecurity because if the majority identified them as “just like” Boy George, their safety, livelihoods—and even their lives—could be in danger. Those weren’t irrational fears in the mid-1980s, and in far too many places, it’s still not irrational even now.

Because pop music is the background to many of our lives, for better or worse, that inevitably means it can drag up unpleasant memories as well as good ones—and sometimes, like with “Karma Chameleon”, it can do both. That’s a pretty powerful thing.

The 1980s was a pivotal decade in my life for all sorts of reasons, and that’s certainly part of why to this day so much 1980s music still resonates with me. That’s part of what led me to start this series last year: More often than not, a hit song reminds me of all sorts of other things. In this case, the song touched directly on the life I was building for myself 40 years ago, something that's not always true of a Numebr One song from that era, or any other, for that matter.

“Karma Chameleon” reached Number One in Australia, 1 in Canada (2x Platinum), 1 in New Zealand (Gold), 1 in the UK (Platinum), and Number One on both the USA’s “Billboard Hot 100” and on the Cash Box “Top 100”; the song was also Gold in the USA.

The album Colour By Numbers reached Number One in Australia, 1 in Canada (Diamond), 1 in New Zealand (Platinum), 1 in the UK (3x Platinum), and 2 on the USA’s “Billboard 200” chart (4x Platinum).

So, that’s the second of two Number One songs OF 1984, and the third IN 1984. The next post about a 1984 Number One will be in three weeks, on February 25. And knowing myself as I do, by then I'll probably already have forgotten about the OF/IN 1984 trivia. Probably

Previously in the “Weekend Diversion – 1984” series:

Weekend Diversion: 1984, Part 1 – January 21, 2024

No comments: