Graded on a Curve: Lionel Richie, “Dancing on the Ceiling” b/w “Love Will Find a Way”

Let’s get one thing straight from the start. I don’t like Lionel Richie. I don’t like the cut of his jib, his taste in white suits, or the fact that he looks like a black John Oates. His songs pander to the lowest common denominator and the vast majority of them are pure treacle. I had a dream a while back. I was making love to a beautiful woman. Then I looked up and saw she had the head of Lionel Richie. I had to go see a shrink, who told me I had post-traumatic stress disorder. And that I wasn’t her first patient to suffer through such a terrifying experience. She directed me to a support group that meets weekly, where we can weep and pass Kleenex and rage against a universe that could allow such an abominable thing to happen in the first place.

That said, I have a confession to make. I like one Lionel Richie song. Exactly one. Not two, or three, or four. One. And it’s “Dancing on the Ceiling.” When it comes on the radio, I don’t reach desperately for the dial to find another station. Instead I sing along. I wonder what the people in my Lionel Richie support group would think. They’d probably throw me out on my ear. But what can I say? The damn song, which was released by Motown in 1986, is damned catchy, damn it.

And strange. Dancing on the ceiling? That’s some crazy hoodoo LSD type shit right there. I can’t believe the former Commodore, who works exclusively in the medium of maudlin, actually wrote the lyrics. As for the music, it’s perky instead of ballad slow, and while it will never wash the taste of “Hello,” “Three Times a Lady,” or “Easy” out of my ears, it is a trifling recompense for such dastardly drivel. Seriously, if I possessed dictatorial powers, I would sit Richie in one of those glass booths the Israelis parked Albert Eichmann in and put him on trial for crimes against music. But I lack such powers because we live in a democracy, which H.L. Mencken described as “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

The eighties were a benighted decade, and Richie, a schlockmeister of the first order, prospered. He was as ubiquitous as Phil Collins, and splitting the difference between the two is hard. Both plied their banal wares and the people ate it up, like a dog chained to his own vomit. I think it was then I gave up on my fellow Americans. Because in the end there’s no point in blaming either man; they just gave us what we wanted and so richly deserved, and gave it to us good and hard.

Anyway, back to “Dancing on the Ceiling.” The album it was on marked the end of Richie’s chart supremacy, and good thing. It was his Alamo, his Battle of Big Horn, and his swan song as a King of Kitsch. And while I love “Dancing on the Ceiling,” it has its detractors; indeed, Blender magazine put it at No. 20 on their list of the 50 worst songs of all time. (On the other hand, the hard-to-please critic Robert Christgau gave the album a B+. I can only think he wrote the review on belladonna.) As for the Blender ranking I call bullshit, because what I hear is a perky anthem to the nightlife, with Richie singing about “climbing the walls” and “going round and round until we’re upside down.” And oh what a feeling! I love the infectious melody, the way Richie says, “Everybody clap your hands” (and they do! They do!) and even the guitar solo. And the video’s even cooler, because it features a keytar, lots of really abominable hair, and Rodney Dangerfield walking into the party, looking up, and saying, “I shouldn’t have eaten that upside down cake!”

As for the B-side, “Love Will Find a Way,” it features a programmed drumbeat and lots of synths, and is nondescript to the point where no matter how many times you listen to it, you will retain no memory of having ever heard it. Which is a good thing with a Lionel Richie song. You don’t want to remember a Lionel Richie song. You want to forget it more than you want to forget the time you mixed that shitty cocaine with White Russians and puked on the Christmas tree, while sitting with your extended family in the living room. I can tell you it’s R&B lite, and reminds me vaguely of a latter-day Steely Dan song without any of the smart lyrics to save its ass, but beyond that it’s a blessed blank, a pop tabula rasa, and therefore one of the best songs Richie ever recorded.

To sum up, “Dancing on the Ceiling,” good. Every single other song Richie has ever recorded, bad. It’s simple, unlike dancing on the ceiling, which is hard. I’ve done all manner of drugs but never made it work, and frankly I’ve given up. But I will always love the tune, just as love will always find a way, even if it has to make its way through Lionel’s oeuvre of schlock pop to do it. Fiesta, forever, forget it. My advice to you is to stay on the ceiling where it’s safe.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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