Here’s what I have to say
I’ve made a big deal in several entries in this blog about rock artists that went disco in the late 70s and early 80s–despite the bad rap they received from most critics and “true” fans at the time, I find their crossover attempts to be usually among their respective artists’ most compelling works and almost always among their most fascinating. So when I heard about Carly Simon’s “Why?“–a flop single from 1982, including on the Chic-curated soundtrack to the even bigger flop movie Soup for One, and later resurrected by Ibiza clubbers–I was tantalized at the thought. The “You’re So Vain” and “Nobody Does it Better” singer/songwriter/would-be diva going 4/4, written and produced by the Gamble and Huff of the disco era and re-claimed at the Hacienda? Yeah, I think I could work with that.
“Why?” doesn’t sound anything like I expected or wanted it to. Frankly, I’m not sure exactly what it sounds like. It’s certainly not disco–it’s not nearly propulsive enough, simple enough, or even cathartic enough to qualify as that. What it is falls somewhere in between reggae, funk, and basic 80s balladry, space it shares with no other 80s single that particularly comes to mind and most decidedly not with any of Simon’s other hits. It’s funky but not particularly danceable, moving but not particularly emotional, and extremely of its time but not even particularly dated. With its shuffling rhythm, melancholy synths, bouncing bass line and off-beat guitar stabs, it’s completely hypnotic–musically perplexing, but all the more worthy of thorough investigation because of it.
The lyrics, and Simon’s vocal for it, does much to add to this affect. The lyrics are beyond minimal, consisting almost entirely of two main phrases-the plaintive question of the chorus, “Why does your love hurt so much / tell me why?,” and the song’s primary, possible Annie Hall-influenced lament, “La, di-da, di da…” There are some verses, and they’re effective enough, but it keeps coming back to these two phrases–phrases that don’t say particularly much, but are delivered by Simon with the same sort of flustered misery that the whole song is tinged with. Carly definitely rides the backseat to the production of Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Nils Rodgers on this one, but she does all she needs to do to get these phrases stuck in your brain for years and years to come (especially in the 12″ edit, which just makes you realize how the song still isn’t nearly as long as you’d like).
The video doesn’t help to simplify matters. It’s just as enigmatic as the song itself, with Simon splitting time dancing on the New York sidewalk (possibly outside the same building in which Debbie Harry and the Blondie gang were partying in the “Rapture” video), antogizing various people in the streets, and getting what appears to be the entire city to sing along with the “la, di-da, di-da” part. From the era before people really figured out how to properly use music videos, “Why” is a wildly inappropriate clip, asking Simon to look, act and dance like a pop star (none of which she is particularly up to the ask of doing) and then asking all of NYC (probably more people than ever bought the single itself, anyway) to sing along with a song that barely makes sense coming from one romantically perplexed individual, let alone a whole city. Yet, it doesn’t feel particularly wrong either–“Why?” is a song so puzzling that it is essentially video proof, so having an extremely unfit video ironically makes more sense for the song than having a logical one.
Perhaps most fascinating of all, however, is how enduring the song (a mere #74 ranking on the Billboard charts, at least 60 lower than her abysmal “Jessie” from a few years prior) has become to different musical scenes. Aside from the liking the late-80s UK dance crowd took to it (it does sort of have a Madchester groove to it, I suppose), A Tribe Called Quest used it as the backing track to a remix of one of their best early singles, “Bonita Applebaum.” Then about a decade later, British ragga-ist Glamma Kid cut it up with some of his own toasting for a UK top ten hit in ’99. None of these songs endured particularly well, but they demonstrate how the song sort of lingers in the public memory–omnipresent but never intrusive, forgettable for months until one day you start humming “La, di-da, di-da” and then you’re hooked for weeks.
Apparently a version of Chic doing the song themselves exists out there somehwere, too. I’m intrigued, but somehow I don’t imagine it’d be as good–the song needs a blank slate like Carly to work its bizarre ambiguity, and Chic might just be too musically committed an act for the song’s singularity to survive them.