Not a man to mince his words, our Kenan. But good news for me, because it leaves me with plenty to say, since he’s, well, wrong.
I’m a longtime Gabriel fan, which is a somewhat inherently redundant statement, given that practically any Gabriel fan is a longtime one given that his last studio album came out ten years ago. But I’m talking Genesis era Gabriel. “A flower!?” era Gabriel. Gabriel back when he hadn’t figured out how to keep the religious imagery even slightly in check, giving us apocalyptic (literally) visions like Supper’s Ready, and not-even-veiled-at-all Christ figures like Rael in The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. (I’m an atheist, for the record, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate good imagery.)
So it was with great enthusiasm that I approached Gabriel’s new album, Up, and the first single.
Which brings us back to The Barry Williams Show.
Kenan makes the obvious point: that writing a song about trashy talk shows is, well, a bit behind the times. True enough. But irrelevant.
Yes, the material has been done before. Yes, the topic is not exactly a fresh or new one. But these same arguments would have led us to dismiss “In Your Eyes” all those years ago — it’s just another love song, and geez, how trite can you get with the whole “eyes” thing, really?
This, of course, would have missed the point that “In Your Eyes” wasn’t just a love song, it was in some sense arguably the love song. In the realm of modern pop, it achieved a level of perfection that made it the apotheosis of its form.
And it is just so with The Barry Williams Show. While Springeresque talk hosts are hardly a topic with the emotional resonance of, say, true love, the analogy still holds — particularly when you look beyond the surface of the song and observe its more general statement on humanity and our ills. Gabriel has taken a concept, drilled to its core, and handed that hot, powerful essence to us in a tune with hooks that will leave it bouncing through your head after the first listen.
And with Sean Penn’s able assistance, that sonic essence gets an equally powerful visual kick with the video. Gabriel appears as a fiendish, black-clad narrator, reminding me of early Genesis concerts where he would adopt outlandish, bizarre costumes for each song. Except here, I was struck with the feeling that he was wearing a Peter Gabriel costume. And looking rather fine at it, if in a decidedly evil way.
Gabriel serves as guide to the world of Barry Williams, as expected, a pitch-perfect rendition of a bottom-feeding talk show host (who is played splendidly by an actor I think might be Peter Gallagher in the video, but I may be mistaken). We see the twisted guests, the open fistfights, and the overall vileness of the genre. And then, this being Gabriel, we are naturally treated to an ambiguous, and disturbing ending. For me, it packed a punch — bad media hasn’t been this much of a guilty musical pleasure since Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” (which, I’ll admit, I still listen to sometimes while pounding out TTLB).
Interestingly, the video and song have apparently been banned from daytime presentation in the U.K. — they’ve been relegated to after-9pm only. Certainly, the imagery and lyrics are adult in theme, but I’m a bit surprised at the heavy-handed approach. Whatever do they do with Eminem over there?
Bottom line: with the beauty of the ‘net, you don’t even need to decide whether Kenan or I make the better arguments. Go judge for yourself. And perhaps you’ll be as convinced as I that the old guy has still got it.