Coerced Mania

Ben Parker

At this distance, the British post-punk and synth-pop bands of the 1980s all tend to run together. We are apt to forget how deeply weird a band like Tears for Fears must have been. You can play a game of “one of these things is not like the others” with their band name, alongside the other bands of their moment. “Joy Division” conjures up sex slavery in Nazi concentration camps. “Depeche Mode” invokes the trivial urgency of a fashion magazine. “Bauhaus” and “Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark” suggest the high seriousness and blind orientation of modern architecture or abstract choreography. But “Tears for Fears” paws at you with unseemly intimacy. It gushes at you. It is the moistest name in rock history. 


The name is foremost a reference to primal scream therapy, a treatment fad pioneered by psychologist Arthur Janov. (Primal therapy was in the air at the same time as synth-pop: in David Cronenberg’s The Brood, from 1979, traumas are bodied forth as bizarre tumors in spasms of resentment.) Taking its direction from primal therapy, the first Tears for Fears album, The Hurting, drags the wounds of childhood out into the open. The title track goes, Touch the hurt and don't let go…Learn to cry/Like a baby. None of this is subtle.

“Shout” is the first song on the second Tears for Fears album, Songs From the Big Chair. (The “big chair” refers to occupying the analyst’s position.) It was a huge hit, going to number one on the Billboard singles chart in 1985. It remains an inescapable staple of the radio station that plays at your laundromat. But its earnestness means that it has not been appropriated as a signifier of “the eighties.” So many other songs serve as a shorthand for the cynicism, the detachment, and the compromised horniness of that coked-out decade: Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf,” Depeche Mode’s “Everything Counts,” or Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth.”

“Shout” doesn’t really fit in with that idea of the era. Its music video is completely non-erotic. Instead of the sexual intensity of Prince, Sting, Billy Idol, Michael Hutchence, all you see are British teeth. These teeth are in the mouths of two separate men—Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, the guitarist and bassist—but there is no possibility of telling them apart. When, midway through the video, the band performs the song to a crowd, it is not directed at a mass of screaming fans, but is set in the midst of a well-mannered assembly of small children, grannies, and awkwardly swaying teenagers. It is almost a parody of the gathering of coiffed, magnanimous celebrities who belt out “We are the World” in the U.S.A. for Africa video. A woman is dandling a baby. A microphone has been set up in the middle of these nice people, who are encouraged to “shout” along. They have not, apparently, rehearsed their “performance.”

The effect is to completely undercut the sentiment of the song for any grandiose, anthemic (or “stadium”) recuperation—something like Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumper” or Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” Rather than channeling that kind of collective, world-conquering aggression, “Shout” is a depressive protest. It is actually somewhat difficult to say what the song wants, other than to bare, with undisguised scorn, lingering resentments and bruises.  

The perverse genius of the song is that this wounded privacy is presented, musically, as an escalating roar. The song starts with a chiming alarm—not a note of caution but a signal of awakening, arousal. At first the only other sound is a low synth “wah,” but more and more pieces are layered on top, including a sort of digital kazoo, a bass solo, a Hammond organ (the same ebullient organ heard on Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”), and a plaintive, drawn-out guitar solo. New Order would take this kind of cacophony to a ludicrous extreme, like with the digitized frog croaks on “A Perfect Kiss,” but the wall of sound in “Shout” never becomes an absurdist hurdy-gurdy. Rather, it is as if the piling-up of voices escalates with that familiar rhythm of resentment: oh, and another thing…. As we know, that well of reminiscent slights is endless and can be drawn on indefinitely. “Shout” stops adding layers somewhere before the texture of the song becomes an overloaded impasto.

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 “Shout” is not about primal therapy, even if it is quite literally about shouting out one’s discontent at one’s parents. The imperative in the song is, after all, to “let it all out” at those who first “gave you life.” But the song is hardly an inchoate yawp of repressed harm. It is an overture to reasoning out what should and ought to be redressed. If primal therapy is about letting loose some indecipherable affect in a torrent of tears, “Shout” insists instead on acts of acknowledgment. The lyric, These are the things I can do without, is offered as a kind of script. Orzabal does not then fill in what the things are that he can do without. It is meant for you to proclaim: I can do without this, I can definitely do without that…. What matters is the addressee: I’m talking to you. The words are not cast into a void, they are a demand for recognition and response. The complaint in “Shout” depends on being heard out, registered: They really really ought to know

The verses are motivated by frustration at the compromises and resignations mandated by the world: You shouldn’t have to sell your soul. The form this takes in our age is a coerced insincerity: You shouldn’t have to jump for joy. This exuberance is actually a kind of compliance that is demanded. The gestures of joy are really to be handed over to the inert, gray dimension of power that can only be jolted into life, like Miss Havisham, by watching the coerced “play” of others. Hence the manic quality of much of eighties culture. The lyrical response, you shouldn’t have to, is of course a child’s view of unfairness. But should is not a feeling. When my therapist asks how something makes me feel, if I answer that someone should do something—well then, we just have to start over. “That’s not a feeling, Ben. How did it make you feel?” 

Should is not a primary experience. It is not a need, a pain, a want, a connection. Should is already the translation of something underneath. It is probably a modification first of a parental failure: “Why are you [Mom, Dad] so bad at this? You should have cut the crust off my piece of toast. Now it's ruined.” So it is really a way of saving that loss, imagining it could be otherwise. Should wants to keep the ideal parents, instead of giving up on them, seeing them for the delinquents they are. And then should carries over to our own deficiencies. It converts the bad feelings of disappointment into shortcomings. It translates the objective boundaries of no and can’t into a fault in our being. “Get down from the chair!” is one thing, but it quickly becomes, “You should be more careful…instead of the way you are.”

There is only one moment where “Shout” departs from pleading a case and stating grievances. It is in the last verse, which goes: And when you’ve taken down your guard/If I could change your mind/I’d really love to break your heart. Here you find no hope that raw feelings will break through on their own. Neither is the point to achieve reconciliation through the changing of minds. To shout, as we learn anew every time this song comes on, is not to express primal emotions, but to inflict them on others—to bring the other into their own pain and powerlessness. 

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