Thursday, December 16, 2010

"That's the Way I've Always Heard it Should Be" (1971)

18. Carly Simon, "That's the Way I've Always Heard it Should Be" (June 5, 1971, #10)

Carly Simon's first hit is far and away her best, not least because it manages to escape the soundalike formula she basically struck on with her next, "Anticipation," which subsequently led to her biggest, "You're So Vain." Don't get me wrong. It's a formula I like. I count Carly Simon as my favorite female pop singer guilty pleasure of the '70s, analogous to Petula Clark in the '60s and Sheena Easton in the '80s. But this is way beyond that—yes, all right, it's more proto-Adult Contemporary, and not just in its soft, wispy textures, its lulling piano, whispering vocal, aching strings, but in its themes, both adult and almost painfully upper-middle-class: "My friends from college are all married now / They have their houses and their lawns." This might be coming from the same general geographical vicinity as "Be My Baby" but it's a continent apart in terms of class. Yet there's something entirely universal here, and arguably even more enduringly so. The cold and distant family, the almost perfect isolation of the singer confronting the next stage of her life, the fearful prospect of that next step, marriage, which even in the midst of the burgeoning feminism of the day remained practically inevitable, one she feels compelled to take without questioning, except for this brief song. She can't articulate why any better than anyone else in this song can articulate anything ("My father sits at night with no lights on / His cigarette glows in the dark"). It's almost overwhelmingly terrifying, yet so utterly baseline familiar. I was in high school when it was all over the radio, I had not even had a girlfriend yet, and still the sadness and the terror of this deceptively quiet plaint could devastate me. It still can.

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