Every now and then, I used to spend the whole day alone. In the mid-2000s, my family lived just outside the small town of Perry, Kansas, and my parents worked during the summers. So, while school was out and I was old enough to stay home alone, I was bound—I’m still unclear whether the proscription was real or imagined—to stay inside, lest I face grave injury in the unkempt woods that filled the vague space behind our home. While indoors, I read and played video games, but most of those uninterrupted hours were spent watching VH1 Classic. There, and predominantly in their program “I Love the ‘80s,” between Ronnie James Dio and Bret Michaels, I discovered an uncomfortable and deep connection to Bonnie Tyler’s masterful 1983 song and video “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
Spending 29 weeks at number one on the Billboard chart and becoming the fifth best-selling UK single in 1983, “Total Eclipse” seemed to capture the spirit of the eighties. The song’s popularity continues in our present but is remembered as something of a joke—a relic of the overwrought performances, bad hair, and ridiculous emotion of its era. Stylistically, the song relies heavily on enjambment for its effect, as images and lyrics link up in an insistence on history’s inherence in our emotional experience of the present. The lines of the song never really end; they just feed into one another, in a series of undifferentiated but increasingly intense moments. Tyler works herself up to the point where because we’ll never be wrong together becomes sutured by the “together” that belongs to the song’s following line: together we can take it to the end of the line. Across its five and a half minutes, it’s hard to tell when the chorus or any given verse begins or ends, and this unknowing seems like one way to endure an unendurably long song (at least by pop standards).
Bonnie Tyler seems unable to perform short songs. The titular song on her 1983 album Faster than the Speed of Night, from which “Total Eclipse” was a single, runs to 6 minutes and 44 seconds and ends with a piano melody that seems to rehash the entire song that came before it, but now in double time. “Total Eclipse” is one of many places where Tyler throws herself into Meat Loaf-esque theatrics (Meat Loaf being the eighties’ other great bard of infinitude), thickening a world through her vocals, and insisting that going faster does not shorten duration. As her heart beats ever more quickly, the night only stretches on longer. Her songs, delivered in contradiction of the desires that they express, suggest that if we really did go faster than the speed of night, we could do so forever.
As a durational performance, “Total Eclipse” relies on its recursive emotional intensity. Tyler repeatedly sings, heightening the emotion each time, Every now and then I fall apart, breaking once again into her pre-chorus:
And I need you now tonight,
and I need you more than ever,
and if you only hold me tight,
we’ll be holding arms forever.
Tyler’s voice magnifies its sentimentality. The anaphoric “and” strings together cliches that capture some account of a lost love. But the song doesn’t pretend to particularity. Instead, a generic heartbreak saturates every moment. Rather than capturing something new, Tyler gradually stretches her delivery to exude pain, strain, and the necessarily irrational attachments we have to whoever it is that we think we need “now” and “tonight” and the moment when “holding arms forever” promises to actually embody that foreverness.
Staying home alone multiple days in a row, my twelve-year-old self was probably drawn to the song not just because it played at least twice an hour on VH1 Classic but also because it is, in its most basic sense, about someone also staying home for a seemingly interminable period of time, conjuring the emotional fantasies that we use to weather that interminability. The bizarre music video features an ethereal Tyler roaming an abandoned mansion, alone except for the myriad male spirits who seem to embody projections of her tortured emotional experience. The Edwardian drapery and woodworking provide the backdrop for a cast of schoolboys, swimmers, ninjas, football players, leather daddies, gymnasts, and—most especially—choir boys.
Here, we are in the vicinity of camp. Whereas Susan Sontag equates the “unnatural” with “artifice and exaggeration” with “things-being-what-they-are-not,” Tyler’s song shows us that, sometimes, exaggerated intensity is things-being-what-they-are. Reading the music video as camp might note the disjuncture between these extravagant visuals and things-being-what-they-are, but “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is a lesson in the reality of needing something that the world cannot provide. Tyler plays this out in the temporality of “forever,” as her exaggeration and duration create the possibility of being met in our desire, no matter how impossible it is. Desire’s reality thickens around Tyler singing every now and then I fall apart ad nauseum, but also through lines like once upon a time, there was light in my life/but now there’s only love in the dark and images of an altar boy throwing a dove in slow motion.
The realism of “Total Eclipse,” then, is not in the images it depicts but in the psychic reality it expresses. The song promises an ability to inhabit a space of ridiculous and contradictory desire—to the point of self-dissolution—without feeling ridiculous or contradictory. As a kid, I would cry, often for little or no reason, and would stand in ways that read as too effeminate but also did not identify with the few queer figures to which I had access in the Midwest (What Not to Wear was delightful, but Clinton I am not; and the original Queer Eye offered up even worse liberal homonormativity than Jonathan Van Ness). Instead, I found a home in Tyler’s reality. The video’s editing is seamless, alternating Tyler’s close-ups with shots of her fantastical mansion and its inhabitants, adding a sense of grandeur and sincerity to Tyler belting out I really need you tonight. My experience of the song is not of its failure to express any of these things but rather its success despite such foolishness.
When I fell apart recently and found myself watching Tyler’s video for at least an hour on repeat, I couldn’t figure out how to explain the absolute joy I felt listening to a song that is ostensibly about heartbreak. Crying happy tears, I watched frankly absurd visuals played out in the most melodramatic, but tender, fashion. I texted a friend,
There’s something about foreverness onto which Tyler holds and from which she desperately wants to escape. Something about the lavish but disturbing mansion, and the company it houses, suggests that this fantastical realization of desire is precisely what turns eternity into interminability. In temporal infinitude, Tyler doesn’t have to choose between “falling in love” and “falling apart” because she’s always doing both at the same time. This is part of why I still can’t let go of “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” long after my adolescence (and even longer after the eighties, a decade through which I did not live). Because the phantasmatic insistence that forever’s gonna start tonight embodies the impossible hope that we might never need to relinquish an equally impossible desire. Rather than giving up ourselves, the world might budge instead. Pain, loss, and confusion might have put us where we are now, but “now” could possibly become a better forever, if we only hold onto it.