Why This Song Is So Good: Give Me Back My Man

Song: “Give Me Back My Man” by The B-52’s

The title of this 1980 song suggests that it’s firmly within the lost-my-baby subgenre of pop music. But as soon as you hear its dance beat, you begin to wonder. Or perhaps you begin to suspect there’s more here than the title can support.

The opening verse, in third person, is sung reassuringly, if a little blasé, with a nice quiet rhyme in the middle:

      She cuts her hair
      And calls his name
      Wishin’ everything could be the same
      Like when she had him

Then the song shifts to a more assertive first person (as per the title) in the chorus, with its odd lyrics. You might think, did I hear that right? Yes, you did:

      I’ll give you fish
      I’ll give you candy
      I’ll give you everything I have in my hand

So who’s being addressed in the chorus? The man? The someone (or something) who took the man? This type of pop song has such a rich history that it’s hard not to hear echoes (or a pastiche) of other songs here. For example, Dolly Parton’s 1973 “Jolene” is an appeal to the woman named in the song’s title: “please don’t take my man.”

Toward the end of the song, you hear both the third-person and first-person voices singing over each other, practically screaming at one point. And always that relentless dance beat. Yet there’s something haunting about all this oddness, the way the verse speaker describes what’s happening to the chorus speaker, who then resumes singing, sounding more and more desperate.

So how did they do it? The video above is from an appearance The B-52’s made on TopPop, a Dutch TV show. Although nothing you see in the video comes through if you listen only to the recording, it’s useful for thinking about this song.

I think what makes this song work are its discordant elements: the odd lyrics don’t really match the dance beat, and neither of these really fit with the emotional intensity later in the song. Similar discordant elements are present in the video performance too, making it visually memorable.

The B-52’s were a quintessential New Wave band, interested in trying new things in their music and performances. Maybe that’s why the band members mostly stare straight ahead with affectless expressions, even while breaking out like Animatronic dance puppets, as though voguing to their own song.

And indeed that’s practically what’s happening, as Cindy Wilson is obviously lip-syncing to what is probably the original recording of the song. Toward the end you hear two voices, yet only Wilson appears to be singing. And then at one point you hear the chorus and no one is singing. Add to this the absence onstage of a clearly audible glockenspiel.

Historically lip-synced performances were the norm for TV, although usually not as obvious as this. But why did TV shows do that in the first place? Well, perhaps it was easier and faster to shoot good video without having to worry about audio quality. And of course the TV audience would then get to hear the exact same recording they would have been familiar with from radio and records.

And certainly, if you watch a live performance of this song, you see that it’s impossible to reproduce the double-tracked singing with only one singer. Maybe the band was fine with this. After all, such obvious lip-syncing gently mocks the whole premise of TV performances, perhaps a little like how their song gently mocks the conventions of lost-my-baby songs.

Here’s a live performance from later in the same year as the TopPop TV appearance. Wilson’s voice is rougher now, as though she’s been singing this song forever:

© 10 Franks 2022

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