Friday, August 29, 2014

Human League -- "Don't You Want Me" (1981)

I picked you out, I shook you up
And turned you around
Turned you into someone new

Svengali, a character in George du Maurier's 1895 novel Trilby, exploits and manipulates the title character -- who is a young English girl -- making her into a famous singer.  Since then, the term "Svengali" has been used to describe someone (usually an older male) who dominates and controls a singer, actress, or other performer (usually a younger female).

In "Don't You Want Me," a modern-day Svengali transforms a humble cocktail waitress into . . . what exactly?  

The answer to that question isn't clear.  Perhaps her transformation had more to do with emotional maturity than with fame or fortune -- he made her a star, but more importantly he taught her about love. 

In his 1980 television special, Comedy Is Not Pretty, Steve Martin played such a Svengali.  "They come to me as girls," he told the audience.  "But they leave me as . . . boys."  (Martin's character later showed his savor faire when a waiter asked him if he and his female companion would like red or white wine with dinner.  But man-of-the-world Martin had a better idea:  "Do you have any beige wine?  Or maybe a nice plaid wine?")

The lyrics to "Don't You Want Me" -- which were penned by the Human League's lead singer, Philip Oakey -- were inspired by a story in a teenage girl's magazine.  Oakey originally conceived it as a male solo.  

But after seeing the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born (in which Kris Kristofferson portrayed a somewhat benign Svengali), he decided to turn the song into a duet.  Susan Ann Sulley, one of the group's two female backup singers, was picked to record the female character's part.

Oakey hated the take of the song that was released.  He thought it was too soft and poppy, and argued against releasing it as the fourth single from the group's third studio album, Dare.  

But "Don't You Want Me" was a huge hit for the British synth poppers, reaching the #1 spot on the pop charts in both the UK and the United States.  (The stubborn Philip Oakey still thinks the song is overrated.)

By the way, the song is not autobiographical.  Susan All Sulley was only 17 years old when the song was recorded -- which was too young under UK law for her to work as a cocktail waitress.

The first verse of "Don't You Want Me" is sung by a male, and the second verse is sung by a female.  Marc Costanzo of the Canadian group Len was inspired by this song to use the same structure when he wrote Len's 1999 hit, "Steal My Sunshine."  (Marc sings the first verse and his sister Sharon sings the second verse.)

Here's the official music video for "Don't You Want Me":

Click below to order the song from Amazon:

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