Despite the title, the main reason for this post is not to write about the rightfully derided late-80’s drama Heartburn, in which respectable performances by Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep fail to resurrect banal, somewhat emotionally solipsistic material– no, the main point of this post is to talk about the song “Coming Around Again” by Carly Simon, which is featured in the film. The song, which is often wrongfully lumped in with 80’s singer-songwriter tripe, has a genuine, lived-in feel. For instance, at one point, she doesn’t really hit the notes right on the “don’t mind if I fall apart” line, but she misses them in all the right ways and brings a measure of vulnerability to the song. The lyrics are also very good. As someone who appreciates hyper-specific lyrics that evoke larger emotions, the lyrics in “Coming Around Again” play against my general preferences: with the exception of an odd line about toasters, the lines are broad and generic. For instance, the song begins, “Baby sneezes, mommy pleases, daddy breezes in.” But the chorus, which references a vague “game” that will “come around again”, is marvelously evocative. What is “the game”? Is it life? Is it some upper middle class idea of social climbing (via the theme of Heartburn)? Is it something teasingly sexual? As with another, inferior Carly Simon hit “You’re So Vain”, it’s not clear. The ambiguity is what makes the song bigger than itself. Also, I admit to feeling a not insignificant amount of nostalgia when listening to the song. When “Coming Around Again” was playing on the radio in 1986, I was in the midst of a one-year stay in Tennessee while my dad was on sabbatical there. I think it was seeing my mom, for the first time, outside of our native L.A. surroundings that made me understand her outward persona in a new way. And I think this is somewhat a red-letter, right of passage for a kid. This song seems to perfect fit that time for me. Fortunately it’s also, without a doubt, one of the most effortlessly good pop songs of our time. [FN1]
And yet, somehow, the reprise version that ends both the soundtrack album and the movie, the aptly named “Itsy Bitsy Spider” (since it incorporates the children song), sounds better musically than the original version. I think it is because those iconic 80’s synths are isolated more than on the original and are given longer to develop. Of course, the results are, nonetheless, a net negative, because the infusion of the children’s song “Itsy Bitsy Spider” is a devastatingly bad artist decision. Whereas the above-discussed chorus to the regular song gives it universal appeal, the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” lyrics of the reprise instantly limit the song to a narrow audience: namely, young, suburban moms. Not to mention that, objectively, the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” is a horribly cloying song. [FN2] Carly Simon might have had the excuse that she wrote the second version specifically for the movie, which features some horrid scenes where Meryl Streep is singing that song with her real-life baby (Mamie Gummer), and culminates with that version of the song. However, if that was the case, then there was no excuse for launching into a full on blended rendering of both versions as the closer to her live album recorded at Martha’s Vineyard. [FN2] If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the “Itsy Bity Spider” mishap embodies the excesses and missteps of the 80’s more generally, and, in that way, it is historical.
FN1: But I could do without the toaster line.
FN2: The two versions of the song are only available together that live release. Perfect audience for Carly Simon, though, right? The wind blowing against her as she belts out her hits. Totes idyllic. Until the kids come in: