Friday Request Line: “Jessie’s Girl”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on April 30, 2010
Reader Noir writes:
As long as I’m here, how about Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” for the Friday request line? Nobody I have ever known named Jesse has spelled their name with an i.
Me neither, actually. I would think that the “ie” spelling would imply femininity, too, because that makes it look like it was a nickname for “Jessica.” (Which very briefly inspired me to wonder if there were gender layers to this song that I had not yet considered, but the “he’s a good friend of mine” line in the opening stanza kinda puts that to rest. Oh well.)
Anyway, it’s just as well that you bring that up, since as far as I can tell, it’s the only semi-legitimate grievance one can really have with “Jessie’s Girl.” In the post-MTV era in popular music (which actually can be defined as the “post-‘Jessie’s Girl'” era, since that was the #1 single in the country when the channel launched) you’d be hard-pressed to find a dozen hit songs as note-perfect as this song, as immaculately crafted and structurally sound. It blows my mind a little bit that according to Acclaimedmusic.net, music criticism’s most reliable aggregate compiler of consensus opinion, the song is not even one of the 3000 most-acclaimed songs of all-time, beaten out by such timeless classics as The Coral’s “Pass It On,” Beastie Boys’ “Ch-Check It Out” and Primal Scream’s “Country Girl.” (Seriously, “Country Girl”? I don’t even think Primal Scream liked that song). It’s always a shame when the rock critics of the world are outclassed by web comic Penny Arcade, whose Gabe was once absolved of co-protagonist Tycho’s murder on the grounds that he said that “Jessie’s Girl” wasn’t “all that great.”
I’m not sure what it was about the late-70s and early-80s that made it such a fertile breeding ground for such bile-venting, but the New Wave era was an absolute golden age for songs about romantic and/or sexual envy. The Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl,” Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?,” Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby,” and of course “Jessie’s Girl”–these were basically the definitive songs on the topic, summing up the associated feelings and actions so perfectly that no musicians afterwards would even attempt writing about the subject. (Probably not actually true, but I choose not to think about it hard enough to prove otherwise at the moment). But even in this esteemed company–and really, once you’re talking about songs of this caliber, you’re talking about songs I love so intuitively that the mere idea of having to try to defend them to haters gets my blood up–“Jessie’s Girl” stands tall as the absolute final word on the subject. If you looked up romantic envy in the encyclopedia (assuming such things still exist in book form), there’d be a picture of Rick there, smashing a mirror with his guitar.
First and foremost, there’s the title. If you gave 100 songwriters in 1981 the topic of “Jessie’s Girl” to write a song about and told them you had to put a name in the title, you’d get 95 or so “Laura”s and “Sarah”s and “Exene”s, but only a handful would have thought to center it around the friend’s name. But that’s the song’s true genius, since it cuts straight to the core of why lusting after a girl that one of your friends is seeing sucks so much worse than just feenin’ on some random chick. There’s a line of thinking, in pop music as in life, that the worst kind of one-sided love affair is with a girl who’s seeing a real jerk–as essentially argued by Joe Jackson in “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”–but Rick believes, as I do, that when you actually like the neighbor whose wife you covet OK, it’s much harder because you know there’s nothing you can really do about it. It should be weird that Springfield starts the song with a sort of ode of Jessie himself (“Jessie is a friend, well you know, he’s been a good friend of mine”), but in the song’s larger context, it’s an appropriate and completely heartbreaking opening, one where Rick basically admits defeat before he even begins.
Lyrically and vocally, the entire thing is a killer. Every line trembles with a palpable delirium, making even awkward phrasings like “You know I feel so dirty when they start the talking cute / I wanna tell her that I love her but the point is probably moot” (referenced in a hilarious-if-only-marginally-appropriate Venture Brothers moment)* strike with surprising emotional resonance. My favorite part will always be the pre-chorus, where the trembling, almost shamed whisper of the opening lines erupts into a seething shout: “‘‘Coz she’s watching him with those eyyyes / And she’s loving him with that body, I JUST KNOW IT! / And she’s holding him in those arms, late late at night” It’s brilliant in the way it manifests Springfield’s jealousy in a series of specific horror-fantasies about the two of them together, which just about anyone who was ever kept up at night by the thought o two people together will no doubt be able to relate to all too well. Best, though, is the way he sneaks the “I just know it” part into the second line–even though the measure was already too overstuffed with syllables, and the interjection has it nearly spilling over into the third line. It makes the whole thing feel so much more natural, guttural, and pissed the fuck off. And like I alluded to in the Request Line two weeks ago, any decent song about irritatingly uncontrollable lust should pack at least a hint of violence to it.
Of course, none of this would mean all that much if the song itself wasn’t so catchy. The chords couldn’t be much simpler–I found this out first-hand when learning to play the song on the guitar recently–but there’s a perfect sort of creep to them, a tension that beautifully underscore’s Rick’s mad ravings. The Pixies tend to get a lot of the credit for creating the now-cliched rock archetype of quiet verse / loud chorus, but damned if Rick Springfield didn’t beat them to the punch by over a half-decade here, and with better production, too. The bridge is a stunner, too, even if it’s just the same exact riff as the chorus moved down a couple of frets–the change in key is jarring enough, as is the drum part slowing to a resounding thump, that it really makes the section stand out, grungier and angrier than the rest of the song. It’s almost like a particularly nasty drum break in a 70s funk number, and it’s the perfect climax to a song (and video!) like “Jessie’s Girl.” (Speaking of the video, though–why does the guy who’s presumably Jessie graffiti the phrase “Jessie’s Girl” on the wall at the beginning? Are we supposed to believe that even Jessie himself refers to his ladyfriend as “Jessie’s Girl”? Or can he just overhear Rick’s singing, and wants to rub it in a little further? Ouch, Jessie.)
A final testament to the song’s mastery: Apparently the song is based on a true story, about the girlfriend of his buddy Gary, both of whom were his classmates in a stained glass class in Pasadena. (Thus making “Jessie’s Girl” easily one of the top five songs in pop/rock history to be arts & crafts-inspired). When writing the song, though, Rick decided not to use the name Gary, not because he didn’t want the guy to find out or be embarrassed, but because he knew that Jessie would be a better name for the song. And he was absolutely right–as great as the song is, it goes absolutely nowhere with “Gary’s Girl” as its title. That’s the Working Class Dog for you–dude’s songwriting instincts were as sharp as his piercing brown eyes.
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