‘Bette Davis Eyes’ Through Jaundiced Eyes
Every now and then there’s a gold title that radio programmers don’t want to play, even if it tests playable (or far better than that) with listeners. Sometimes songs are challenged by arbitrary cutoffs (e.g., the PD’s logic that says, “’Margaritaville’ is from the ‘70s, and we don’t play the ‘70s anymore, but ‘Escape [The Pina Colada Song],’ while it’s from 1979, crossed into 1980 and is thus still okay.”) And then there are some songs that just seem beyond the pale to certain PDs. The audience hears Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” as anthemic; for PDs, you might as well be asking them to play “Because I Got High” or any other novelty.
I have a lingering affection for “Bette Davis Eyes” as one of the bright spots of Spring/Summer ’81. Recently, I’ve had a surprising number of conversations with radio people who seem to consider it of a piece with the rest of the Christopher Cross/Air Supply docility of the era. It’s a surprising level of antipathy; at the time, I don’t remember it being blamed for much more than popularizing the use of “trash drums” in popular music.
As soft-rock artists of that era went, I already liked Kim Carnes. She’d already made cameo appearances on two of my favorite mid-charters of that era, Gene Cotton’s “You’re a Part of Me,” which she wrote and recorded solo first, and Randy Meisner’s “Deep Inside My Heart,” the up-tempo country rocker that sounds plodding now, but sounded great among the wimpy competition of fall 1980. (She had even given longtime friend/associate Kenny Rogers one of his okay moments.) Even if she’d stuck with the remakes that drove her previous project, I would have been interested in what she did next.
Instead, “Bette Davis Eyes” was a surprise: an artist making the record that you didn’t know she had in her. Artists from soft AC to mainstream rock had been showing interest in records with more energy and punk-rock edginess. Billy Joel, Linda Ronstadt, Kenny Loggins, Jackson Browne, Journey — they had all surprised in their own way over the last year. But “Bette Davis Eyes” felt like it came out of nowhere, especially once they started playing snatches of the Jackie DeShannon original on American Top 40.
That spring, “Bette Davis Eyes” replaced “You Light Up My Life” as the (much better) song that still defines the trajectory of a surprise hit for me — going from “hey, this isn’t bad, and, wow, it’s Kim Carnes?” to “wow, this is going to be something” to suddenly heading for “song of the summer” territory (at least before “Endless Love” also showed up). Occasionally, I will declare a song to have reached the point where it seems unstoppable — sometimes I make the mistake of saying it in public, because neither “Praying” nor “Shallow” turned out to be “Bette Davis Eyes.”
At the time, “Bette Davis Eyes” picked up some surprise airplay on Album Rock radio. In fact, Carnes played up her vocal resemblance to Rod Stewart with an AOR-only track, “Break the Rules Tonight,” which also got rock radio play. An “AC artist” at rock radio wasn’t entirely inconceivable at a moment when Rick Springfield was also transitioning from obscure teen idol to grudgingly accepted rock radio artist. But it was still 18 months ahead of “let’s try Prince … let’s try ‘Beat It’ … let’s try anything,” as rock radio struggled for its bearings.
“Bette Davis Eyes” became the template for other female AC artists to stretch out. Technically, Olivia Newton-John had made the transition already with “Grease,” then “A Little More Love.” She was back a few months later with “Physical,” a song then even more phenomenal than “Bette Davis Eyes.” But Melissa Manchester seemed to take notice. So did Sheena Easton, whose “Morning Train (9 to 5)” had been pushed out of No. 1 by “Bette Davis Eyes.”
It’s hard to be the best record of a bad moment — think of “Two Princes” by Spin Doctors. Any decent up-tempo pop record during a bad stretch will be played enough to both rub the joy away and to make future efforts suffer by comparison. By the time Carnes tried to repeat the formula the next summer with the harsher “Voyeur,” there was plenty of actual new-wave pop in circulation, not just new-wave-inflected pop. (By comparison that summer, the No. 1 song in the U.K. when “Bette Davis Eyes” topped the charts in the U.S. was “Stand and Deliver” by Adam & the Ants, unimaginable on pop radio here.) Carnes continued to deliver interesting-enough up-tempo synth-pop — “Invisible Hands,” “Crazy in the Night (Barking at Airplanes)” — but in 1983-84’s time of plenty, it was only interesting enough.
I remember “Bette Davis Eyes” disappearing from the radio not that long after its mega-hitdom, not just because Carnes didn’t become anybody’s core artist, but also because CHR radio’s comeback took hold about 18 months later and most stations didn’t go back even that far. (I remember a CHR jock on WAVA Washington promising in 1983 to play “some old Stones” and that “relic,” “Start Me Up,” about as far back as libraries went in that era, was still three months newer.) I don’t particularly recall how it came back to the radio, except that I started to see it as a reliably testing song at Classic Hits and AC when I became involved with music research in the early 2000s.
In doing so, “Bette Davis Eyes” became the only song in that category of hipper excursions by female AC acts to endure. “You Should Hear How She Talks About You” is gone from broadcast radio. “Physical” comes up in conversation only so it can be compared to “Don’t Stop Believin’,” the lesser hit of the same period that now occupies a much more prominent place in the firmament. Sheena Easton’s “Strut” still sounds good (and prescient) to me when I hear it on the radio, but that’s not very often.
And yet it’s an issue for many programmers. I understand why artist image separates it from, say, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” a song of similar tempo and texture that was probably written around the time “Bette” was on the radio. But nobody tags Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night” the same way, although it’s another medium-weight pop record that is its non-rock artist’s only enduring hit, at least in America. Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose” and “Danger Zone” allowed him to shake off his AC past permanently (and probably ennobles “Danny’s Song,” which outlasted so much other early ‘70s folk rock).
It might be the opening. I like “Bette Davis Eyes,” but I still find it hard to schedule in a music log. The serpentine first notes are part of what makes the song build so effectively. (They also seem to presage the current production law that even our most up-tempo current hits must start airy and build in intensity.) But it’s not “Sweet Dreams” or “Sunglasses at Night” in terms of coming in hot. I’m never unhappy to hear it, but I always wonder if my segue will work.
Era may play a part, too. These conversations are increasingly with people who likely discovered “Bette Davis Eyes” after it was a current. That doesn’t diminish “Don’t Stop Believin’” or “I Love Rock & Roll” or “Jessie’s Girl.” But I’m starting to see the second tier of pre-1983 hits fall off the radar. As with all discussions of this sort, give it time.
Maybe because it gets underplayed, at least slightly, proportionate to its strength, “Bette Davis Eyes” is still a record I can listen to for more than professional reasons. I don’t dispute the presence of the mega-hits, but it’s still hard to leave them on the radio when monitoring. In any event, its place in the canon now is not as one of its era’s many problems but as a bridge to the next, better era of pop music.