A Dance to the Music of Time — “Kids in America”

A Dance to the Music of Time is my attempt to pinpoint exactly why I like pop music. It’s entirely subjective, but if you’re interested in starting a conversation I’ll be down in the comments. It’s gonna be published whenever I feel like it and I’ve no intention to target specific songs — when a song gives me joy or makes me think hard enough, I’ll do it on the spot.


The Song: “Kids in America”
from the 1981 self-titled album by Kim Wilde
reached #2 on the UK Singles Chart

I only realised recently how everywhere the American Dream was. A friend of mine was writing on it for her thesis, we got talking, and now its shadow seems to follow me everywhere. The streets, the minds, the airwaves, everything seems to reflect the American ideal back at you. I am told that it is a wonderful land, full of opportunity, full of hope. Yet the news tells me a different story every day: pandemics, racists, natural disasters round every corner. For a place associated with so much promise, it sure seems to have a lot more problems than it can bear.

But still it persists. My fellow citizens, like many of those in the world, look to America as a paragon of virtue and optimism. Perhaps that’s because the USA is still firmly on top when it comes to cultural output: so much of the music, television, film we consume comes from that country, and there is something about just that way of American life that attracts us. If only we could live like that. If only love came so easily to all of us. Never mind that so much of that culture seems to trash those ideals, trash the state of present-day America: the Dream itself still holds strong. If you work hard enough, you’ll prosper; if you can make it there, you’re gonna make it anywhere — it’s up to you. We look at the land from afar, and it feels glorious. Such is the logic of the American Dream. Such is the pull of “Kids in America”.

“Kids in America”, as every person with access to Wikipedia will tell you, was not written by kids in America. Instead, it was the work of a British father-and-son team with the vaguely American-sounding names of Marty and Ricky Wilde. Pseudonyms, of course: Marty was born with the quintessentially British name of “Reginald Smith”, and normally you just don’t trust a guy with that name to write a song about being a youth in the USA. That distrust, should you care enough about this song to possess any, is well-founded: “Kids in America” has one of the silliest lyrical goof-ups of all time, the line where Kim goes: “New York to East California/ There’s a new wave comin’, I warn ya!” Now, I am not an expert in American geography, but I can confidently say that you cannot stop in East California if you are interested in sweeping the country. That Marty and Ricky were clueless enough to leave out the entire West Coast in their new wave revolution says a lot about just how much they knew about America.

Were they that clueless, though? The closer you look, the more it feels like the Wildes knew what they were getting into, that America was not all that it was cracked up to be. As the song begins, what we hear is not a sunny explosion of energy, but ominous synth-beats, little stabs that sound like they’ve been lifted straight from Psycho. It sounds like a cautionary tale, the storm-clouds gathering before the deluge. Then Kim sings the first line: “looking out a dirty old window”. Later: “I search for the beat in this dirty town.” The distinguishing feature of America, Wilde seems to be telling us, is dirt. Then the beat kicks in, and the feelings of squalor only increase — you can hear the new wave revolution going on, yes, but behind every new wave song is a punk aesthetic, all grimy and hard-edged, repetitive and blunt. In an instant, you picture yourself in that hotel room: faded furniture, creaky floorboards, dirt caking the windows. And even if you could look out of those windows, what is there to see? “Outside, suburbia’s sprawling everywhere.” Gone is the glitz and glamour of the Big Apple — all you can see is row upon row of flat little houses, all stifling in their twee homeliness. To quote one of my favourite books: “and what is America anyway, now that you have got there?”

That air of defeatism doesn’t go away. It spreads, seeps into the cracks, takes hold of your soul — and the Wildes don’t ignore that either. In the hedonism of the second verse, even as Kim grabs a boy and they knuckle down for the night, she’s already thinking about what’ll happen much later: they’ll hit problems, their kind hearts will sink into obscurity. When Kim shouts in the chorus “we’re the kids in America!” it sounds frankly desperate: holding onto a dream, trying her damnedest not to let that passion fade into nothingness. But you already know she’s on the losing side. You know life is cruel, life is never kind.

But then… so what if it is? In the Wildes’ depiction of America, you don’t just find dirt and domesticity — or at least, that dirt isn’t necessarily a bad kind of dirt. They might acknowledge the downsides, but that doesn’t mean their sublime innocence isn’t on show. Because even in that last same sentence, when she’s muttering about the things they might say the next morning, she says “never mind” — it’s all a part of life, a part of living in America. The sheer pleasure of being situated in all of this overwhelms her, carries away her feelings of uncertainty. And then in the chorus — that same chorus where we spotted a twinge of desperation — she’s still upbeat, defiant. The world around them, the music surrounding them, it’s still rough and crowded, hot and sticky. But they’re the kids in America, and nothing is gonna take them down.

And gradually the real magic of America comes into focus. As she continues her adventures, as she heads down on Friday night, she describes the heat of the crowd, the rush of the people pushing past. The bright lights shine in her face, the music of the streets and of the underground dives crash in her ears. Yet Kim sounds positively exhilarated to be there: she’s all caught up in the sounds, the opportunities, the people. You close your eyes and you feel the exhilaration mirrored in the beat — still the same beat, tough and unrelenting, yet the electricity and the synthetic nature don’t feel like they’re downsides now. Now it’s just energy, pulsing through your veins, looking to jump in every direction at once. You want to be a kid in America too. You want to feel that excitement in your blood.

But just being there isn’t enough for our Kim. Putting yourself in the ebb and flow of youngsters is all very fine, but you want connection, you want something more. You want somebody to share your passion with, mentally, physically. She asks you all to sing after the second chorus, and so we sing along to her chorus, but that’s not it. And so she finds someone: another boy, probably just arrived in America like her, a hotshot who doesn’t have enough time. God knows how many times she’s done this back where she came from — maybe a thousand times, maybe none — but this is different. When she softly purrs “come closer, honey, that’s better”, that’s the moment when my hairs stand on end and I unconsciously lift myself up on tiptoes — I want to come closer, I don’t want this to stop. I know this is special, I feel this is something new.

She doesn’t know me. She called me “boy”, told me to never check on my watch even though it’s forty years later and nobody really wears watches anymore. And yet I feel like she’s talking to me, that she means it when she says “I don’t want to go”. She sounds like she’s known me for ages, that we can make it work. And I believe her: I believe, just as she does, that outside a new day is dawning, that the sun rises even as she speaks, that when we walk out of this room we’re heading into an America that holds everything for us. I didn’t believe it — in face, I still don’t believe it, most of the time — but in that moment she convinces me. She turns everything around. Maybe that’s the allure of being a kid in America: not the decades of hard work that turn you into a hardened, grizzled boomer moaning about the cruelties of life, but the sudden turn on the music-go-round that flips your world upside down, in just one chance encounter, one blink of an eye. It’s a land where anything can happen, where anybody can happen. It’s a beautiful Dream to have.

There isn’t a day these days when I don’t look at the American Dream and wonder where it went. My friend who’s writing her thesis has a lot to say about it: she tells me about its vanity, its artificiality, its rampant corruption. Maybe it was always dead, a stillborn nightmare the moment it was conceived. But when I listen to “Kids in America”, for a few special minutes, I can’t help but believe. I believe in the cities she depicts, I believe in the energy she creates. I believe in the kids she longs to hold. I believe in America.

(Cover by Rak Records. “Kids in America”, performed by Kim Wilde and written by Ricky and Marty Wilde, utilized for criticism and review purposes.)

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