CK 2014: JODY ROSEN

Song: Shania Twain and Lionel Richie: Endless Love

Written by Jody Rosen

If you look at Billboard’s top-selling albums of the year 2012 you may be surprised to find, in the eighth spot, Tuskegee, the duets record that paired Lionel Richie with country stars in new renditions of hits from Richie’s back catalogue—covers, if you will, of Richie, by Richie, with help from the likes of Blake Shelton and Darius Rucker and Little Big Town and, lord help us, Rascal Flatts, who mauled “Dancing on the Ceiling” in that special way that only Rascal Flatts can maul. And, of course, there was this song, “Endless Love,” a No. 1 smash in 1981, in Richie’s original duet with Diana Ross, whose place is taken on Tuskegee by another diva with a slight voice, Shania Twain.

The success of Tuskegee was eye-opening on a couple of counts, at least for me, highlighting the genetic links between Lionel Richie and the kind of adult contemporary balladeering that has found a home in Nashville over the past few decades—a trend that may have begun, come to think of it, with “Lady,” the Richie song that Kenny Rodgers took to the top of country charts in 1980. Tuskegee also underscored the subtle twang in Richie’s work (think of a song like “Stuck on You”); but mostly, the album reminded me, with a force that took me by surprise, that Lionel Richie is totally fucking awesome, and even if Tuskegee was basically a crass cash-grab, tossing a little mandolin and banjo and pedal steel at Richie’s greatest hits to sell them again—well, who cares, because any chance to luxuriate in Richie’s boudoir is a chance I’ll take.

Richie is the biggest American pop star of the 1980s who is, you might say, not-quite-canonized. Commercially speaking, he’s up there with Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, and Springsteen. But he’s not charismatic like they are; nor, unlike those other 80s legends, has he gotten anywhere near the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Richie is a demure star, genteel in both his art and his affect. His songs are extravagant, reveling in grand emotions and lavish melodicism, but Richie presents himself with courtly restraint. Courtly is indeed the word with Lionel—“Lady, I’m your knight in shining armor, and I love you,” he wrote in that big Kenny Rodgers hit—and you can hear him being a gentleman on “Endless Love,” making the relatively straight and colorless singing of both Ross in the original and Twain here sound great, enfolding them in his plush, precise harmony vocals. In any case, the point of a song like “Endless Love” isn’t to grandstand vocally, but to ride the cresting and tumbling waves of Richie’s tune. He is a supreme writer of High Schlock melodies; his only rival in the category is the Stevie Wonder of “Ribbon in the Sky” and “All in Love Is Fair,” and forced to choose, I’d take Lionel.

“Endless Love” is, for me, Richie’s greatest song. If you pull the song apart you find it has a conventional form: a verse, a kind of pre-chorus, and a chorus. But the song conceals its structure, presenting itself as a series of crescendos, a ravishing flow of melody and harmony, which makes sense—the melodic rapture, like the romantic and sexual rapture it thematizes, is endless, boundless, untrammeled. As for the lyrics: they’re typical of Richie, who’s one and only subject was love, and who’s one and only way of expressing it was by pressing the point. He’s pop’s master of tautology, or at least of the charmingly gratuitous repetition. To Lionel Richie, you’re not just a lady: you’re once, twice, three times a lady. And we must never forget the full title of his 1983 hit, with the greatest parenthesis in 80s pop: “All Night Long (All Night).” Richie loves love, but more than that he loves saying I love you, and he loves saying how much he loves saying I love you. The elaborately gallant knight-errant pledge of devotion: that’s what gets Lionel Richie off. Consider a couplet from “Hello”: “I long to see the sunlight in your hair/And tell you time and time again how much I care.” Or these lines from “Lady”: “Girl, tell me only this/That I’ll have your heart for always/And you want me by your side/Whispering the words, ‘I’ll always love you.’” Or this famous chorus: “Say you, say me/Say it for always/Naturally.”

I’m fortunate to have woman in my life who not only is brilliant and beautiful but who loves Lionel Richie the way I do: endlessly. And so—maybe this is a critical karaoke first—I want to send out a long distance dedication to Lauren, back in Brooklyn. Lauren, no one can deny the love I have inside. And I give it all to you: my love, my love, my love—my endless love.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *