I’m not quite sure how I stumbled upon Will Powers, but as soon as I heard their life-affirming mantra, I was hooked. This was what had been missing from my life. Not self-help tapes, per se (although, who knows), but rather this level of incisive, intelligent satire. Deep in its observational humour and implications, but light-hearted in delivery. Borat simply didn’t cut it anymore. I needed something that I could groove to, but that could, in equal part, cause me to chuckle. What the fuck am I talking about? Well, allow me to explain to you, because it’s you. Only you. And you are an important person; a rare individual. There has never been anyone just like you.
As postmodernism reached its nadir towards the latter half of the 20th Century, self-help came to the fore to alleviate the ever-expanding and fluid subjectivity postmodernity imposed upon lost individuals. Whether it was Zig Ziglar or Tony Robbins, this horse shit became a major trend, so much so that it began to be reflected – and parodied – in much contemporary pop culture. One individual, however, cottoned onto how ludicrously – and inadvertently – hilarious motivational speaking could be very early-on. That person was Will Powers.
Will Powers is the nom de plume of photographer Lynn Goldsmith – but hold up, let’s start right there. Will Powers? Lynn Goldsmith? What’s happening here?
First and foremost, Lynn Goldsmith ain’t nobody. Goldsmith is, amongst other things, a highly-celebrated photographer who, notably, specialised in rock photography (including some of my favourite photos of Prince, amongst a plethora of other heroes). Sadly, this is not a photography blog, but I could spend a lot of time evangelising just how fucking cool Lynn Goldsmith is as a person. This album, however, is testament to that truth and serves as the vehicle for me to espouse my love and praise for this phenomenal woman.
You see, as with many creative folk, photography wasn’t all that Goldsmith was interested in. She was into Music and Film, too (she is an Artist). And so one day, in 1983, she downed tools, mortgaged her home and decided it was time to record an album. She would make only one in her life (to-date), but by God would it be a testament to original, creative thinking. Thus was Will Powers born.
Dancing For Mental Health is, above all, a concept album. At its core, the record parodies self-help tapes, but it is married with infectious disco-pop leanings, which, in fact, render the end-product a wholly deeper – and more enjoyable – listen, transforming a simple parody into niche-Pop gold.
Goldsmith, given her career, knew a fair few musicians (she was also friends with Iggy Pop in her youth) and, after describing the concept to some of these nice Rock & Pop folk, her idea finally clicked with Chris Blackwell (Island Records) and, shortly thereafter, the likes of Sting, Todd Rundgren and Nile Rogers were roped in on the project. You read that right. This record features some massive fucking heavyweights of the music scene – Nile Rogers worked on this record! As did Carly Simon and Steve Winwood. The album is veritable showcase of real talent (including Goldsmith’s own), and yet it is a parody.
We will come to the music, but it is the deeply satirical lyricism which really carries the whole project. Goldsmith was absolutely on fire and came up with lines that are so believable as self-help mantra that the fact that they are parody renders the whole thing more amusing: “Make it habit, make it happen,” and “just remember: you cannot get pregnant from kissing” are just some great examples. The whole tone of the record is so consistent that many who hear it for the first time – out of context – believe it to be an authentic self-help record. Then, there are the characters Goldsmith creates. Opportunity, the third track on the record provides a low-key musical overture to a work of aural theatre as characters Donna, Miguel, Sophie, Ellen and Bruce share their “problems” with hilarious candor before revealing how Will Powers helped them turn their life around. Powers’ own closing commentary (“These people are willing to identify themselves because his record is authentic. If you wish, the record company will send you their full names and addresses”) only serves to cement the aforementioned ambiguity inherent to the record, which underpins its tongue-in-cheek humour. Part of that is because, in fact, Will Powers is not entirely a piss-take: Goldsmith herself believes that people helping one another can cause life-changing things for the positive. It’s hard to disagree with such an optimistic perspective, but I am so grateful that this album has a sense of self-awareness, underpinned with humour.
Primarily, however, without thinking too deeply, you can dance to this record (I can attest to this fact). From album opener, Adventures in Success (music crafted by Sting), I guarantee you will be hooked – it is already a known cult Disco classic, so infectious is its groove and mantra. If you aren’t smirking, yet tapping your foot, within one minute, you may actually need Will Powers’ message in your life. This record could be for you. The pièce de résistance, however, is Kissing With Confidence (peaking at #17 in the UK charts, back in its day – America was less receptive to Will Powers). Featuring the very obvious handiwork of Nile Rogers and uncredited, infectiously catchy chorus vocals from Carly Simon, alongside additional help from Todd Rundgren, Jacob Brackman and Steve Winwood, the lead single from the album is a truly delicious piece of ’80s pop that is chronically under-appreciated today. With melodic hooks that will have you humming the tune in your head for days after listening and lyrics to make you smile at the thought of the song (“do you have spinach in your teeth?”), Goldsmith crafted a veritable banger that is stand-out in its singularity, perfectly channeling the core message of the Will Powers concept and marrying it with enough popular sensibility to create a hit single. This is not something easily-achieved and wholly deserving of praise.
It is difficult to continue eulogising this record without labouring the point so much as to spoil the enjoyment of discovering it for yourself, and so I must at this point simply implore you to listen to this album, back to front and two or three times, at least. Recently, a very dear friend was on an ’80s binge and I cheekily sent him a track from the album out of context as “a great ’80s track.” The reply came back moments later: “this is great!” followed by a fair bit of laughter.
A few weeks later, I received a package in the mail. It was a copy of Dancing For Mental Health on vinyl. “Happy Birthday,” came the message from my friend.
I don’t think I’ve smiled so much in weeks.