This month, to celebrate the Internet’s unbridled love for wallowing in nostalgia and even greater relishing of talking about why certain cultural artifacts are horrible, Sound of the City presents First Worsts, a series in which our writers remember the first time… they ever hated a song enough to call it The Worst. (And to be fair, we’re also going to see how these songs have stood the test of time.)
THE SONG: Chris de Burgh, “The Lady in Red.”
THE YEAR: 1986.
THE REASONS: Unrelenting fromage; high-grade weaponry used for impregnating women after anniversary dinners across America.
“The Lady in Red” is the song equivalent of a Hallmark card of airbrushed red roses replete with drops of dew. It belongs to the world of televised French kisses between soap stars, faux pearls gnawed on by a come-hither JCPenney model with goopy red lips, and couples making out in public, his hand stuffed in the back pocket of her acid-washed jeans, squeezing a pound of flesh. It isn’t just romantic; “The Lady in Red” is the triple-layer, drizzled in chocolate with whipped cream, Sara Lee dessert platter of romance. But I’ve always suspected that it’s not the real thing; it’s an approximate to romance that falls woefully short.
Chris de Burgh, “The Lady In Red”
I remember the exact moment when I first declared my hatred for this saccharine simulation. I was 10 years old, and hanging out with my best friend Molly at the local 7-Eleven. We spent about 70% of our time there renting Top Gun and screwing up the courage to steal a pack of Virginia Slims from the front counter display, only to horde them unwrapped in a shoebox for the next four months. Naturally, the man behind the counter hated us.
We were idling around the store holding giant cups of frosted blue sugar ooze when “The Lady in Red” kicked in with its tinny drum machine. It caught my ear right away; I would even say I was intrigued by the echo-drenched production. But then came Chris de Burgh’s lyrics of being blindsided by the beauty of his dancing queen. As I listened, the cumulative effect of so much swooning—especially the part where de Burgh whispers “I love you”—piled on me until I broke.
I shouted, “I fucking hate this song!” The cashier said in an exhausted voice, “Please don’t yell,” but it was too late. Molly and I laughed in spasms as I proceeded to give de Burgh’s ode to rediscovering his sweetheart a thorough lashing. I resented its easy pandering, its unabashed attempt to wrench tears from a living Cathy cartoon with a spiral perm on her fifth-anniversary dinner date. If this is what adults were calling romantic, then I wanted no part in this maudlin exercise. My timid forays into love up until then included such moonstruck moments as my fifth-grade boyfriend standing on a stair to give me a peck (I was taller than him) and both of us wiping our mouths with the backs of our hands afterwards. But if I kept venturing, would I eventually find myself a cornball adult getting teary hearing this song while shopping for Crystal Light? Was becoming a sap with no taste just an inevitable pitfall of maturity?
SO HOW IS IT NOW?
Good news for my older self: Some 25 years later, “The Lady in Red” still doesn’t feel or sound like romance to me. You know what romance really feels like? It’s the tiny humble moments—your boyfriend’s gaze when he thinks you’re not paying attention. But that’s so much harder to make a song out of, especially for mass consumption. (Just ask a band like Yo La Tengo, whose gentle story in “Our Way to Fall” feels incredibly romantic to me but will never saturate adult-contemporary radio the way “Lady” did.) Maybe romance and love is so confounding in our regular lives that most people want it sung loudly at them and in very specific terms. “It’s the lady in red, dammit, and you fall in love with her on the dance floor. Got it?” Who can fault anyone for wanting a clear message in this sea of confusion we’ve charted as love?
I heard it while grocery shopping the other day. A fellow shopper passed by me humming it under her breath, clearly in the throes of its melodic embrace, and I couldn’t possibly have joined her. I wish you well, “The Lady in Red,” but “the way you look tonight?” Well, I’ve seen better.