The Asymptotic Regret of Charlene's "Never Been to Me"
Some pop songs are so odd that you can’t quite believe they were ever recorded, let alone released as singles. The Osmonds’ “Crazy Horses” for instance, or The Carpenters’ “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.” Many of them have become less bizarre over time, thanks to repeated exposure. I’m thinking of songs like Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights,” or Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” No doubt, most of these strange tunes come from the late 1970s and early 1980s, when drugs were such a part of the scene that they were sweating out of the recording studio walls. But I submit that no song is as profoundly weird, nor as existentially queasy, as the 1982 global radio hit, “I’ve Never Been to Me,” by Charlene.
Truly, this track deserves its own case study, since it is a kind of sonic pathology. It produces in the listener an uncanny sense of being simultaneously patronized, seduced, and violated; leaving an unpleasant affective residue in the soul. Through a combination of naive schmaltz and knowing sleaze, it makes you feel as if you’ve just spent the day at your aunt’s house. The aunt that your mother—quite rightly, it turns out—warned you about.
In fact, I’m not being modest when I claim that it is beyond my powers of description to really capture the utterly singular flavor of this gormless piece of auditory kitsch confection, since I think it’s probably beyond even the most agile wordsmith. You can really only listen to it, and submit, in steadily mounting awe and perplexity, to the compelling awfulness on display. (So why don’t you do that now. It will save me reaching for further purple descriptors ... I can wait …. Just type “Charlene Never Been To Me” into YouTube, and “enjoy.”)
Ok? There. You’re welcome.
Now, I suppose we could pretend that that never happened, and we could pretend that I’m writing about a much cooler song. Say, “Complicated Game,” by XTC, or a Nico live b-side. But no, I’m kind of stubborn, when it comes to playing chicken with the worst artifacts of popular culture. (Especially from this time period, described by some as the long hangover of the 1970s.) I agree that it would be “better for everyone”—to quote an Italian waiter, who once asked me to leave his restaurant—if we just, as a culture, wiped this abomination from our collective memory banks (both organic and technical). But on the other hand, I think it’s instructive to stare at our aesthetic nadirs without blinking, if we’re to really understand what we’re capable of, as a species, and learn how we might never repeat such abominations in the future.
So if you’re feeling brave, and agree with this methodology in principle, then let’s parse the lyrics together, stanza by stanza, so that we aren’t overcome by the negative sublimity of the totality, taken all at once.
The opening lines establish a relatively rare conceit. A jaded, cosmopolitan woman—let’s call her “Charlene”—addresses a far less glamorous woman (who we can call “not-Charlene”).
Hey lady, you, lady, cursin’ at your life
You’re a discontented mother and a regimented wife
I’ve no doubt you dream about the things you’ll never do
But I wish someone had a talked to me like I wanna talk to you
Ooh I’ve been to Georgia and California, oh, anywhere I could run
Took the hand of a preacher man and we made love in the sun
But I ran out of places and friendly faces because I had to be free...
Ok. So this song has already failed the Bechdel Test, right from the get-go, since “Charlene” is expressing regret for her worldly ways and experiences; now willing to swap personal liberty in favor of the more conventional comforts of domestic life. Hence the kicker, in the early chorus: I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to me.
I mean, this is a lot to process, for a pop song.
“Charlene,” the narrator, is essentially making a complex philosophical claim, in which paradise has been lost in the very process of its finding. And to make matters worse, the search for paradise resulted in such disorientation—such deictic uncertainty—that she can no longer claim to have ever (ever!) coincided with her own subjectivity. In other words, “Charlene” is not even a bad Venn diagram of Charlene, the true person. There is no overlap whatever. And so, this rather nightmarish “Charlene”/Charlene chimera is essentially a dislocated and fractured monad, forever never arriving at the destination of her true self.
Quite a lot for the poor “not-Charlene” to take in.
The next section reinforces the established dynamic, laying on the emotional vampirism:
Please lady, please, lady, don’t just walk away
Cause I have this need to tell you why I’m all alone today
I can see so much of me still living in your eyes
Won’t you share a part of a weary heart that has lived a million lies
“Charlene’s” heart is a burden she can no longer carry alone. Like the haunted narrator in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, she is compelled to find a random witness to suffering, and pour forth a confession.
It’s in the next stanza, however, that things really start cooking:
Oh I’ve been to Nice and the isle of Greece
While I sipped champagne on a yacht
I moved like Harlow in Monte Carlo and showed ‘em what I've got
Our protagonist, no longer content with the gentlemanly attentions available in the US, has now moved to Europe—the geographic locus classicus of decadent depravity. Moreover, while we are not privy to the original socio-economic circumstances of “Charlene,” she has clearly moved in exalted circles, as she continues:
I’ve been undressed by kings and I’ve seen some things
That a woman ain’t s’posed to see
It was this last line that haunted my eleven-year-old mind, when I first heard this song on the radio, in the decidedly unglamorous suburb of Canberra, where I grew up. And it was the ambiguous, unspoken connection between these two lines which added to the confusion. What is it, exactly, that women are not supposed to see? A king’s willy, perhaps? It all sounded and felt very taboo and grown-up: the kind of thing whisperingly alluded to, between the pages of my stepfather’s Playboy magazines, but never explicitly shown.
Clearly, exciting things were happening on foreign shores that I, as a young boy in Australia, was not at all privy to. And yet, this troubled woman with the slightly husky angelic voice seemed to want to share her secrets as much with me as with the housewife who functions as a pater confessor in the song.
So once again: I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to me.
How extraordinary, my eleven-year-old self thought, during this first brush with pop-ontology. If this poor lady has never been to her, I speculated, then perhaps I will never be to me either. What a terrible ordeal, to live life in the negative space created by the ever-beckoning absence of one’s own existence! How cruel, to list one’s own name on the top of one’s bucket list of desirable places to visit.
But I’m jolted out of my pre-adolescent musings by a sudden monologue, which enters the song like a further confession, smuggled deep within the first:
Hey, you know what paradise is? It’s a lie. A fantasy we create about
People and places as we’d like them to be. But you know what truth is?
It’s that little baby you’re holding, and it’s that man you fought with
This morning, the same one you’re going to make love with tonight.
That’s truth, that’s love
Cue the sweeping synthetic strings, building to a bitter emotional crescendo.
It may not surprise you, at this point, to learn that this song was written by a man. Specifically, by Ron Miller, a company writer at Motown, who penned several of Stevie Wonder’s big hits. (Charlene was in fact the first white woman to have a hit for Motown.) Miller was moved to write a “female” version of a similar transitive lament that he originally wrote from a man’s perspective, inspired by the character of the captain from Jaws, after hearing Charlene’s voice on a demo tape. (Feel free to read that sentence a couple more times, if you aren’t quite in tune with the surreal muses of 1970s pop cultural production.) Charlene now claims to have wept after hearing the first few lines of the song, since they resonated so strongly with her own life, as an abused wife, who had recently had an abortion. Truly, she had been here before—she related to this lyrical avatar of herself—even if she had never been to her. Long before our current acknowledgement of the slippery significance of pronouns, Charlene—born Charlene Marilynn D’Angelo Duncan Oliver—was unconsciously flipping between genders, and playing with the notion of “being singular plural” (to quote French philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy).
In any case, as the song draws to a close, Ron Miller has Charlene ventriloquize these words:
Sometimes I’ve been to cryin’ for unborn children
That might have made me complete
But I, I took the sweet life and never knew I’d be bitter from the sweet
I spent my life exploring the subtle whoring that cost too much to be free
Hey lady, I’ve been to paradise ... but I’ve never ... been ... to me
Of course, my eleven-year old ears and mind lacked the equipment to really pick up the phrase “subtle whoring.” But I intuited the idea from the cloying nature of the music and the oh-so-seventies music video that went with it. (A kind of beige phantasmagoria, seemingly decanted from Richard Clayderman’s melancholic champagne unconscious.) No question, there is a perfect and perverse genius in the way this song performatively echoes the beauty, glamor, and yawning emptiness of its own theme.
Four years later, I was smitten with my first serious girlfriend; my very own “Charlene,” who also had long brown hair, and liked to wear lacy Stevie Nicks dresses. While we even lived together for several years, beginning at the tender age of fifteen, she was also determined to test the limits of her feminine freedom. She did this by sleeping with most of my friends, while I burned with the incandescent self-righteousness of the jealous and cuckolded youth. (Its own kind of addictive jouissance, as Proust well knew.) While I lay on the floor, listening agonistically to Roger Waters whine about the pre-ordained treachery of the fair sex, my girlfriend was doing what all teenagers should really be doing: exploring physical and emotional pleasure with many different people, rather than submitting to the entropic rituals of compulsory monogamy at such an early age.
Granted, she could have done this in a more sensitive manner. She could have got her own ride to her latest paramour’s place, for instance, rather than ask me to drive her at two o’clock in the morning. She could have spared me the lurid and enthusiastic details of her conquests. (I still vividly remember the smell of burning flesh and the sound of sizzling, when one of my friends pulled a log from the fire and held it to his wrist for several seconds, to demonstrate the guilt he felt at being seduced by her.) And most importantly, she could have refrained from following me to a new city, where I had moved to break the cycle, and then systematically, and rather vindictively, start the pattern all over again. But ultimately, I now appreciate the complex quadratic equations of human libidinal economy enough to understand that this “subtle whoring” is something we should all learn to do, as a culture, in sensitive, generative, and generous ways, rather than mythologizing the various denials and compensations of the nuclear family, as Charlene’s song does.
My own Charlene ended up sipping champagne on yachts and being undressed by kings in Monte Carlo, as she became part of the paid entourage of the Saudi Royal family. When I saw her again, several years later, she strongly intimated to me that she had “seen some things that a woman ain’t s’posed to see.” However, she could not tell me about any of them, as she had signed a non-disclosure agreement with the House of Saud. Once again, the dark side of the global elite was left up to my imagination. An imagination that isn’t really up to the task.
Today, my ex-Charlene makes the kind of art that “Charlene,” the narrator of the song, might hang on her wall. The kind of large pastel canvases that Charlene herself might spend her ongoing royalties on, hanging next to her white piano, tiger-print rug, and translucent plastic chairs. These paintings are pretty, empty, and kitsch: the art of someone who has, perhaps, finally coincided with herself, but then quickly becomes disenchanted with the view.
1. This song was first recorded and released in 1976, but only caught on with the listening public several years later, by which time Charlene had left the business in disappointment, and was now working in a sweet shop in suburban London. Motown convinced her to return to the US, however, to promote this sleeper hit, which subsequently went to number one all over the world.