The Number Ones

December 21, 1985

The Number Ones: Lionel Richie’s “Say You, Say Me”

4/10

Stayed at #1:

4 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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If you were making a big movie in 1985, you wanted a Lionel Richie song in that movie. You would do whatever it took. Lionel Richie couldn’t figure out a way to work your movie’s title into the song? Fine. Whatever. Roll with it. Richie’s song couldn’t be on the soundtrack album, either? That sucks, but you can deal. You’ve still got the song. You’ve still got a music video where Richie sincerely emotes over scenes from your movie. You can still sell this thing.

In 1985, Richie had a hot hand. Two years earlier, he’d released Can’t Slow Down, an album that had sold a kajillion copies, won the Album Of The Year Grammy, and propelled two singles to #1. After that, Richie had co-written the massive all-star charity single “We Are The World” with Michael Jackson. Richie had safely made it out of ’70s soft-soul balladry and into the high MTV era, and he had a comfortable spot in the highest tier of pop’s A-list. Richie’s next record was going to be a big deal, whatever form it took. So the producers of White Nights, the Taylor Hackford movie about the Russian-defector ballet dancer trapped back in the USSR, did everything possible to get Richie to write a song for their film.

Taylor Hackford isn’t anyone’s favorite director, but the man had a good track record for putting big, drippy ballads in his movies. An Officer And A Gentleman had Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes’ “Up Where We Belong.” Against All Odds had Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now).” White Nights also had Collins and “Marilyn Martin’s “Separate Lives,” which topped the charts a few weeks before Richie’s song. All three songs were big adult-contemporary radio jams, and all three songs went to #1. “Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)” and “Separate Lives” were both nominated for Oscars; “Up Where We Belong” won one. Somehow, Taylor Hackford movies and drippy ballads just went together like champagne and strawberries.

Hackford personally asked Richie to write the title theme for White Nights, and he showed Richie a print of the film. Richie liked the movie, and he agreed to do it, but he couldn’t figure out how to write a song called “White Nights.” Instead, Richie came up with a ballad called “Say You, Say Me,” and the film’s producers were happy to take it. But there was another hitch. Richie was signed to Motown, and Motown didn’t want the next Lionel Richie single to show up on a soundtrack album that would come out on a competing record label.

Motown withheld “Say You, Say Me” from the White Nights soundtrack album. Without Richie’s song, the White Nights soundtrack is a truly strange time capsule that features “Separate Lives” alongside Robert Plant and Roberta Flack and a heavily vocoderized Lou Reed song called “My Love Is Chemical.” Motown’s refusal to cooperate definitely hurt the White Nights soundtrack. If you wanted that Lionel Richie song, though, you had to play ball. Columbia Pictures played ball.

It’s weird to think that anyone heard “Say You, Say Me” and figured out that it would be an automatic smash, one that was worthy of all that trouble. It’s a weird song, a true relic of its moment. In some ways, “Say You, Say Me” is a pure autopilot Lionel Richie ballad. In others, it’s a bizarre fever dream with nonsensical lyrics and a mid-song dance-pop break that has nothing to do with the rest of the track. Maybe those bits of weirdness are why “Say You, Say Me” hasn’t continued to resonate in the way that something like “Hello” has. But those bits of weirdness are also the most likable parts of the song.

On the most basic level, “Say You, Say Me” is just Lionel Richie in his bag. It’s got swelling strings and vague love-ballad lyrics and a big, sweaty chorus. It’s Lionel Richie doing Lionel Richie things. But the track’s lyrics are sentimental psychedelia. Consider the opening verse:

I had a dream! I had an awesome dream!
People in the park! Playing games in the dark!
And what they played was a masquerade!
And from behind of walls of doubt, a voice was crying out!

What the fuck?

Let’s parse this out. Richie’s narrator has an awesome dream about people in the park playing games in the dark. OK. Sure. Playing kickball at night is fun. I don’t know if it qualifies as an awesome dream, but it’s a good time. But then: What they played was a masquerade? That’s not a game! They’re having fancy-dress balls in the park at night? And then maybe someone is doubting their outdoor costume parties? I don’t know, man. He lost me. It’s not usually a good idea to take pop lyrics literally, but I can’t figure out any way to read all that figuratively, either. It’s just a bunch of vaguely passionate sentence-fragments that don’t fit together.

Musically, too, there’s something off about “Say You, Say Me.” Richie recorded the song with many of the same session-musician aces who played on Thriller, including Toto’s Steve Lukather. Most of the time, the song works as a bright, keyboard-heavy ’80s version of the easy-listening ballads that Richie had been cranking out since his Commodores days. But then, instead of a proper bridge, the song suddenly switches tempos and lurches into a jarring uptempo synth-rock thing about how the whole world has got you dancing. That part only lasts about 20 seconds, and then it’s right back to the ballad.

Something about that mid-song break is so bracing and disorienting. It’s like some other song was trying to force its way out of this one, Alien-style. Like those lyrics, that bridge doesn’t make any sense. And you know? I like it. This demented little part wakes the song up. “Say You, Say Me” is still a bad song, but it’s at least bad in some interesting ways. There’s something endearing about those bizarre-ass lyrics and that illogical structure — like Lionel Richie was reaching for something that he couldn’t quite grab.

Of course, “Say You, Say Me” turned out to be massive, thus justifying all the work that the movie producers put into securing the track. “Say You, Say Me” held down the #1 spot for four weeks, and it won a Golden Globe and an Oscar. At the Academy Awards that year, Richie defeated two different #1 hits, “Separate Lives” and Huey Lewis And The News’ “The Power Of Love,” and he also defeated himself. Richie was nominated twice in the same category — for “Say You, Say Me” and for “Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister),” from The Color Purple, which he’d co-written with Quincy Jones and Rod Temperton.

“Say You, Say Me” won the Oscar, and Richie accepted the award from Singin’ In The Rain stars Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor. He used the word “outrageous” twice in his speech. (Richie was really trying to get “outrageous” over as a catchphrase. He’d yelled “outrageous” a bunch of times while hosting the American Music Awards in 1985, and he headed out on his Outrageous tour soon afterwards. I should probably point out that Lionel Richie is not outrageous in any way. If anything, he’s inrageous.) Years later, Huey Lewis said that he figured out that he’d lost the Oscar when he saw that Richie had an aisle seat.

Richie was planning on calling his next album Say You, Say Me, but he spent too long reworking it, and it didn’t come out until August of 1986. “Say You, Say Me” wasn’t a current song anymore by then, so Richie called it Dancing On The Ceiling. Including “Say You, Say Me,” four of the album’s singles went into the top 10, though none of the other songs made it to #1. (The title track got as high as #2. It’s a 6.) Dancing On The Ceiling sold 4 million copies. That’s a great number by just about any standard, but it was less than half of what Can’t Slow Down had done a few years earlier.

“Say You, Say Me” turned out to be Richie’s final #1 hit, the end of a pretty amazing run. In fact, Richie hasn’t made any top-10 hits since the Dancing On The Ceiling single “Ballerina Girl” peaked at #7. But this wasn’t a case of Richie suddenly launching up a series of bricks. Instead, Richie went a full decade before releasing another album. Maybe he needed time off to deal with personal issues. (Richie and his high-school-sweetheart wife went through a very publicized divorce in 1988.) Maybe he just decided that he’d made enough money.

Whatever the case, Lionel Richie eased into an elder-statesman role pretty gracefully. When he got back to making music, Richie had become an adult-contempo legacy artist. Over the past few decades, Richie’s records have sold in decent numbers, and he can tour whenever he wants. Richie spent a couple of seasons as an American Idol judge. He played in the legends slot at Glastonbury. His adopted daughter became one of the first real reality-TV stars. Richie now exists as a living reminder of pop music’s smoothed-out past. Considering how things turned out for so many of his ’80s-superstar peers, that’s not a bad fate.

BONUS BEATS: Richie’s most recent album, 2012’s Tuskegee, is a collection of his older songs, re-recorded with country stars. The album did well, peaking at #1 and going platinum. Richie turned “Say You, Say Me” into a duet with Jason Aldean, a guy I once had a beer with. Here’s Richie and Aldean performing the song together on Letterman:

(Jason Aldean’s highest-charting single, 2011’s “Dirt Road Anthem,” peaked at #7. It’s a 7.)

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