My name is Lexi and I love 80s rock music. Well, I love the idea of 80s rock music. The compositions are great--big catchy hooks, wild bombastic singing, it's music you really want to just get swept up in--until you listen to what they're saying. This was, of course, nothing new for the world of music, but it feels like in the 80s they stopped trying to be subtle about anything and just let the brazen misogyny shine. Too often have I had a song come on the radio and instinctively start singing along only to catch myself as I realize what the words I'm about to say really mean. So as a cathartic exercise, I'm going to break down the lyrics of some of the worst offenders stuck in my head, starting with the one currently plaguing me, 1981's Centerfold, by the J. Geils Band.
First off: the music. Man this song fuckin' kicks. Wasting no time it starts right in with the iconic hook and just keeps that energy up nonstop. This was part of my high school's pep band repertoire and, along with fellow famous na-na-na piece Land of a Thousand Dances, was a strong argument for high speed repetitive hooks as the shortcut to the hype center of my brain. Shame about the, well, we'll get there now.
The song opens with a reference to common side-show hype patter, "It walks, it talks, it <third presumably more noteworthy thing>". In this case that third thing is "comes complete" which makes me think it was maybe a reference to an advertisement of some sort but I'm having trouble finding out what. In any case it immediately sets the theme for this song which is: beautiful woman as a commodity or attraction for entertainment purposes.
The woman in question is the singer's high school crush whom he refers to as his "homeroom angel", a phrase that could be accepted as sappily poetic in another context but here is the first in many examples of how men will put objects of their desire on a pedestal and set absurd standards they could never meet. The next line, "She was pure like snowflakes, no one could ever stain," furthers this framing. The man desires this woman and that desire comes with an expectation of "purity"--she exists for him alone and no one else. The line finishes, "The memory of my angel could never cause me pain." We'll come back to that one.
"Years go by I'm lookin' through a girly magazine. And there's my homeroom angel on the pages in-between." Here's the premise of the song. Dude's lookin' at a porno and sees his high school crush as the centerfold. So far so good. But then,
"My blood runs cold, my memory has just been sold. My angel is the centerfold." Here it is. "My blood runs cold," is an idiom people often employ to explain something truly horrifying, like seeing a former abuser. This experience for the singer is on par with an encounter from someone who has ruined your life. And why is it so chilling? Well, his memory has just been sold. His memory. "Angel" doesn't even have ownership of her own body here, because this man desired her once. That image is for him and him alone. "My angel is the centerfold." His angel, the woman whom he desires and thus must remain exclusive to him, has sullied that purity by broadcasting those exclusive images to the world. It's a betrayal of the highest order.
Alright time for a flashback. This will fill in the gaps, let us understand just how much she meant to him, help us make sense of this betrayed reaction. "Slipped me notes under the desk," oh okay so it wasn't a one-sided crush, she liked him too, "while I was thinkin' about her dress," oh right okay I see now. So while this girl showed genuine interest in him, he really only cared about how hot she was. "I was shy I turned away before she caught my eye." oh yeah were you shy or did you realize you were straight creepin' and on some level you knew how fucked that was and didn't wanna get copped?
The next few lines are just about how attractive she was--ironically, fetishizing the idea of her before complaining about the physical fetishization of her in print. "Those soft and fuzzy sweaters, too magical to touch. To see her in that negligee is really just too much." Listen I get it, obsession over your crush's clothing is a common part of teenage infatuation, but that second bit there is getting into Mike Pence "can't be alone with women other than my wife" levels of hung up, my dude.
After another bout of the chorus, the singer capitulates a bit. "It's okay I understand, this ain't no never-never land" "Sure I just spent a couple minutes bitching and moaning about how dare you advertise your attractiveness to anyone other than myself but fine, I begrudgingly accept that I'm not the only man in the world." "I hope that when this issue's gone, I'll see you when your clothes are on. Take your car, yes we will, we'll take your car and drive it. We'll take it to a motel room and take 'em off in private." "I'm going to accept this grave injustice you've committed but I expect in return that I can reclaim my superior claim to you by having sex with you. My precious memories from before just aren't worth anything now that other people have also just seen how attractive you are or whatever. You fuckin' owe me."
He summarizes, "A part of me has just been ripped, the pages from my mind are stripped. Oh no, I can't deny it," so what's his conclusion? "Oh yeah, I guess I gotta buy it." A breakthrough. The singer finally realizes that he can't reasonably expect to maintain exclusive claim to a woman who only really even exists for him as a long off memory from his youth. Now, enlightened, he's prepared to objectify and debase from afar an attractive woman alongside the entire rest of that magazine's audience. Such growth, such magnanimity, such maturity. It would be insulting that he's willing to so gladly cast aside genuine feelings in exchange for base desires, but base desires were the only part of that memory he was ever engaging with in the first place.
So what we have here is a story steeped in women-as-a-commodity. It details how a man's ego is so preoccupied with a sense of ownership over a woman's image, over the very idea of her as a desirable thing, that her decision to show off her body publicly is seen as a personal betrayal, despite this man having no current personal connection to her. This song posits a status quo in which any man who has ever developed an attachment to you (or even just to the idea of you) has the right to feel entitled to your likeness, to your image, an attitude that remains disturbingly prevalent to this day. Of course the mechanism that lays bare this pathology is a nudie mag, itself a commercial endeavor that commodifies women's bodies, perpetuating the delusion even as it challenges it. Part of me wonders if Seth Justman based this on a true story, if some poor woman heard this on the radio one day and had an "oh my god" moment.
The beauty of the pep band version of this song is it retains all of the great musical qualities and lacks the awful story contained within. Short of that, perhaps it's best to stick with J. Geils' other hit from this album, Freeze Frame, a song about, *checks notes*, obsessing over a momentary encounter with a beautiful woman, oh dear.