Only my closest friends know of those secret nuggets tucked away behind playlists boasting a taste for “garage electropop” and “minimalist instrumentation” are thumping disco anthems and aging one-hit wonders by British girl groups (“Cleopatra comin’ ‘atcha!” …Anyone? No? I’ll be in the corner).
I don’t think I’ve even seen the movie Running Scared, nor must I, as I’ve taken away from the film all I’ll need to know: Michael McDonald’s Sweet Freedom. Between McDonald’s Hawaiian shirt, Billy Crystal’s comedic delivery, and Gregory Hines in a leather jacket, does it get any better? The short answer: no.
It doesn’t get any better because, frankly, it couldn’t be any worse. To his credit, this song came out in the 1980s, a time referred to by most social historians as The Era Of Nastiness, a period when all pop cultural products — from Dynasty to Nell Carter — virtually functioned without consideration of irony or quality.
McDonald, to today’s youth, might best be known as the butt of a joke in The 40-Year Old Virgin, when Paul Rudd’s character begs the manager of the electronics store at which he works to turn off the live concert of McDonald that plays on all the TV sets in the store, all the time. Jane Lynch’s character — a hypersexual yet stern old bag — won’t budge.
And that resistance to change is a sentiment echoed in McDonald’s career, which has found phenomenal success in a voice as recognizable as Aaron Neville’s or Macy Gray’s, but with a throaty timbre that sounds as if he continues singing in spite of the jumbo marshmallow remnants constantly stuck in his throat.
Sweet Freedom, however, takes that froggy vibrato and plays to its advantage, resulting in a song that is so over-synthesized, so extraordinarily gooey that I can’t help but love it (listen to the end of the bridge when McDonald lets out a whispered melismatic rift, followed by the signature of eighties R&B: electronic harmonica). In this case, it seems solid cheese breeds solid gold — a Lite FM hit that will forever make trips to the dentist almost worthwhile.
And, really, Gregory Hines in a belly shirt? Seriously.