Entry the Second: Kids in America I don't want anyone to get the idea that a 'weird' song is necessarily a 'bad' song. True, the first entry in this column, Styx's horrendous Come Sail Away, is a crime against nature. But sometimes a song is great because it is weird. Or, the apparent weirdness signals the presence of a vast wellspring of awesomeness.
Such is the case with our second weird song, Kim Wilde's uber-poppy new wave classic, Kids in America:
At first, nothing about this song seems particularly strange. It's got a catchy beat, nice hook, and everyone loves a vaguely British singer. Makes the song sound classy. And the slavering masses of 1981 tended to agree. The song charted at #2 in th UK, and reached a respectable #25 on the Billboard Hot 100. By any measure, a pretty 'normal' pop hit.
But if you listen to the song a few times, the germ of an inescapable idea begins to take hold. Kids in America is actually a badass punk rock anthem that somehow became disoriented in the Bowery, walked right past CBGB and ended up in the front office of a major record label. And that, dear friends, is weird.
I mean, check out these lyrics:
Looking out a dirty old window Down below the cars in the City go rushing by I sit here alone And I wonder why
Friday night and everyone's moving I can fell the heat But it's soothing Heading down I search for the beat in this dirty town
Down town the young ones are going Down town the young ones are growing
We're the kids in America Everybody live for the music-go-round
Bright lights the music gets faster Look boy, don't check on your watch Not another glance I'm not leaving now, honey not a chance
Hot-shot, give me no problems Much later baby you'll be saying never mind You know life is cruel, life is never kind
Kind hearts don't make a new story Kind hearts don't grab any glory
Come closer, honey that's better Got to get a brand new experience Feeling right Oh don't try to stop baby Hold me tight
Outside a new day is dawning Outside Suburbia's sprawling everywhere I don't want to go baby New York to East California There's a new wave coming I warn you
Urban decay, alienation, a sense of creeping nihililism punctuated by the idea that music is the only thing that matters? That more or less describes the entire recorded output of the Clash.
Even the musical arrangement displays punkish leanings. The discordant synths off the top, the chugging baseline--it's not hard to imagine this kind of thing rocking out of a dingy punk club in 1977. What stops the music from being truly punk, of course, is the baffling lack of an electric guitar. This song cries out, screams, for a distorted axe. When I first listened to this tune, I kept asking myself, "Where's the guitar? Where's the guitar?!" until I got so worked up I need to lie down for twenty minutes and drink some orange juice.
The fact that Kids in America is clearly a punk song masquerading as a top 40 pop hit explains it's popularity as a cover tune, mostly by bands who, while not punk, definitely want you to think they are. The Muffs, Len, The Bloodhound Gang, Kim-Lian...all of these bands suck, but they've all covered Kids as America in an attempt to look hardcore. That's right--covered a pop song to look hardcore. And then, there are the legitimate covers by actual punk outfits--the Bouncing Souls, Pennywise, and even Nirvana. They cover this tune not to be ironic, but because it actually says something meaningful about growing up in the great American Nowheresville. Except maybe Nirvana. There cover was a touch ironic, because that's what Nirvana did. They couldn't eat cereal without being ironic.
So, for one of the greatest acts of musical misdirection in the history of pop, Kim Wilde's Kids in America is a weird song, one that has managed to become somehow timeless despite being misfiled by the powers that be. And for that, it's also pretty awesome.