It’s the same old, familiar story: Guy meets girl. Guy stalks girl. Guy writes a song about stalking girl, sells millions of copies. Here are my thoughts on the most memorable stalker pop songs.
10. “Hello” – Lionel Richie. By the time Richie started releasing solo albums in the 1980s, he’d already reached his peak creatively. Everything the Commodores did was better than what Richie did solo. But in terms of popularity, Richie was a monster hit-maker in the ’80s, and this was one of his biggest. Forget the romance with the blind girl that supplanted the lyrics for the music video and focus in on the words here, which begin, “I’ve been alone with you/Inside my mind/And in my dreams I’ve kissed your lips/A thousand times.” Creepy. Then in the chorus, “Tell me how to win your heart/ For I haven’t got a clue.” You can start by putting down the telephoto lens and brushing up on the small talk.
9. “Possession” – Sara McLachlan. This song is literally about stalking. McLachlan lifted the words from the letters she received from an obsessed fan. Now, I’m no expert in celebrity security, but common sense tells me that turning the crazed writings of a stalker into a singer’s biggest hit (sample lyrics: “And I would be the one/To hold you down/Kiss you so hard/I’ll take your breath away”) probably isn’t the best way to discourage extreme adoration from an overboard fanatic. The fan actually sued McLaughlin, then killed himself before the case came to trial. Which is good background information, just in case you might have been planning to use this song for the first dance at your wedding.
8. “Watching the Detectives” – Elvis Costello and the Attractions. Costello takes the stalker pop song to a post-modern level by doubling the voyeurism: the detectives are watching our femme fatale protagonist, and she’s watching them. Plenty of innuendo of illicit deeds are contained within Costello’s song, which borrows from film noir: sort of a post-punk Rear Window. “You snatch a tune, you a match a cigarette,/She pulls the eyes out with a face like a magnet./I don’t know how much more of this I can take./She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake.” Costello’s genius is that the lyrics seem so effortless and catchy that you hardly notice that he’s taking you to some dark places.
7. “Run For Your Life” – The Beatles. This is early-ish Beatles, even. Not too long after they sang about wanting to hold girls’ hands and about how she loves you yeah yeah yeah. But there’s nothing terribly innocent about this one. The very first line (!): “Well I’d rather see you dead, little girl/ Than to be with another man.” The chorus is an explicit threat. Now, I suppose, one could say that the threat is conditional: if she doesn’t go with anyone else, she’ll be safe, right? Well, let’s all agree that there are control issues here. And they involve possible murder. If there were any actual stalking going on (rather than just threatened), this song would be higher on the list.
6. “Hungry Like the Wolf” – Duran Duran. Double Duran was a triumph of style over substance. They successfully merged ’70s glam with disco and punk. This was one of their biggest hits and by far one of their creepiest. (My all-time favorite version is sung by Bruce Campbell shilling for Old Spice, but it doesn’t have the same vibe.) “Woman you want me, give me a sign/ And catch my breathing even closer behind.” Uh, yeah, because that’s just what women want—to feel your breath on the back of their necks as their running away. “I’m on the hunt, I’m after you” indeed. This one gets bonus points for actually using the verb “stalk.”
5. “Pictures of You” – The Cure. It’s a sublimely beautiful, simple melody, and seems pretty sweet, right? And I have no direct evidence that the singer is stalking anyone. Maybe he’s just sitting around his bedroom looking at pictures of his past love. But “I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you/ That I almost believe that they’re real/ I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you/ That I almost believe that the pictures are/ All I can feel” sounds pretty obsessive to me. And the visual that it conjures up reminds me of the scene in the TV crime procedural where they finally discover the psychopath’s lair and one wall of the apartment is entirely papered with photos of the same girl.
4. “Mr. Brightside” – The Killers. If you follow the lyrics (which are a bit silly in spots—this is The Killers, after all) you have to wonder what Mr. Brightside is doing obsessing over the two lovers he’s watching anyway. “Jealousy,” obviously. Something about “swimming through sick lullabies” (that doesn’t sound good) and “choking on your alibis” (whatever that means). And he doesn’t seem too clear whether it’s all happening in his head or not. It’s catchy, but not that sympathetic. Really, I think he should probably just let the two of them do their thing. I mean, I understand (I think) that she kissed you once, but hey, that happens. Just leave them alone. Other fish, man. Lots of other fish in the sea. Oh, and maybe some counseling also.
3. “Possum Kingdom” – The Toadies. Possum Kingdom is a city to the west of Fort Worth, Texas (the Toadies’ home town) known for its recreational areas, and Possum Kingdom Lake in particular. It’s only tangentially related to the song, and really has nothing to do with the song’s creepiness. But make no mistake, this is one creepy song. It would be creepy even without the “Do you wanna die?” refrain. The video plays it literal and makes explicit the song’s implicit threat. There’s a religious fixation as well as a death/mortality obsession going on here, in addition to the familiar over-possessiveness. My advice: whatever you do, do NOT go on a walk around the lake tonight with this guy. Let’s just let his dark secret stay secret, okay? Okay.
2. “Alison” – Elvis Costello. Another early Costello song. This one seems like a sweet song you might want to sing to your significant other, especially if she’s named Allison, as mine happens to be. At least, until you look at the lyrics. Then you realize that “my aim is true” is a double entendre—referring not just to the clear intentions of the first-person persona, but also to the fact that she’s standing right in his cross hairs. That’s right, he’s not just a stalker, he’s also homicidal. Yikes. Puts a new spin on these lyrics, doesn’t it?: “Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking/ when I hear the silly things that you say./I think somebody better put out the big light,/’Cause I can’t stand to see you this way.” Uh huh.
1. “Every Breath You Take” – The Police. This was easily one of the biggest hits of its decade, and yet most people who heard it seemed to think that it was just a sweet love song, not the prototypical liturgy of stalkers everywhere. If this were a poem written to a girl, I’m sure it would be Exhibit A at the hearing seeking a restraining order, and the judge wouldn’t need to take the matter under advisement. “Every breath you take/Every move you make/Every bond you break/Every step you take/Ill be watching you.” Yeah, and I’ll bet the night vision goggles come in really handy for that too. From the chorus (“Since you’ve gone I been lost without a trace/I dream at night I can only see your face”) you get the idea that the anti-hero once had a thing (either real or imagined) with the object of his affection and that she rebuffed him. It’s not her, it’s you man. Just let it go.
Bonus: The anti-stalking anthem—by which I mean the polar opposite, not some sort of stalking protest song—has to be “The One I Love,” by R.E.M. This is another one with lyrics that people often don’t pay too close attention to. It may have been the first time that R.E.M. ever used the word “love” in one of the band’s songs, but it’s not very sentimental. “This one goes out to the one Iâ€™ve left behind/Another prop has occupied my time.” You might want to keep those sorts of thoughts to yourself because that’s the kind of attitude that can result in your bunny being boiled.
Holiday Season Bonus: “Santa Clause is Coming to Town.” Hey, “He knows when you are sleeping/ He knows when you’re awake.” Yeah, how does he know exactly? No matter; he knows where you live, and he’s coming! No wonder young kids find him so scary. They’re just being canny.