Hey! Sundays are for music. As a music-maker working in a less-than-musically focused world, this is my way to connect what I’m doing, thinking, and feeling with my favorite mode of expression This week I’ve been listening to…
“Take On Me.” You know the song. You know the video. BUT, here’s how an Unplugged performance from 20 years after its original release can show us the power presentation has over perspective.
First, it goes without saying, but I LOVED this video when I was growing up. The half real, half cartoon reality was all brain candy for an 80s kid. But, because of the visuals, I never really listened to the lyrics until about a week ago. It took a revelatory performance to make me dive into this song and we’re going to break it down below.
My friend Kevin Casey (@Factoryman) tweeted a comment about a 2005 MTV Unplugged performance of “Take On Me.” He baits his comment with, “Tone matters. As a salesperson, how you say it matters more than the words.” That was all I needed to pull it up. Before we go on, watch at least 20 seconds of this:
It’s an acoustic ballad. Classic Unplugged move. And now we can really hear all of the lyrics. Classic lightbulb moment opportunity. (Classic me, all you have to do is take the cartoons away and I start paying attention).
My first take was: “Cool. It’s a really sweet love song. It’s got this whole chase and pull, the tension of him going away while she shys away, and, “it’s not better to be safe than sorry” is a killer line. Kids in love, right?
But it’s not just a love song. There’s so much indecisiveness here in begging her to “take me on” (pleading) and “take on me,” (almost confrontational). This is begging us to look deeper. Now’s when we head over to Genius to find out… the lyrics Norwegian origins(?!).
In Norwegian,“Take on me” is “Ta på Meg,” and “take me on” is “ Ta meg på.” The fun starts in the alternative translations. “Take on me” also translates to, “touch me,” and “take me on” also translates to “put me on” (in the way you put on clothes).
If we combine the layered meanings of the English and the Norwegian, “take on me” is underlined by “please give me a chance” and “touch me.” “Take me on” simultaneously says “fight me” and “try me on like a pullover hoodie.” This isn’t just push and pull, this is punch and pinch, or even huff and hug. The song just got more romantic.
The subtext to the lyrics, especially when presented as a ballad shines through. “Take On Me” is about a more challenging and nuanced type of love. Just like the mixed-reality lovers in the video, the lyrics are about a relationship threatening to destroy two people or make them stronger.
“Take On Me” isn’t just an 80s classic, it’s is a brilliant piece of layered pop craftsmanship. Listen to it with fresh ears. Get into the lyrics and the subtext. Follow how the different performances make you feel it from different perspectives. Start with the accoustic ballad and sit with the indecisive tension. Then go back to the original and dance your feels out. This is brilliance at play.
Kevin’s right. Tone matters. How you say it makes all the difference in how it’s perceived. Plus, if you throw a change-up, it can force a person to re-examine all of the material they thought they already knew too well. Brilliant.