'I Touch Myself' ended up being a sad song [June 24, 1991]
Still quite racy after all these years
This week’s Number 12:
‘I Touch Myself’ - Divinyls
The single most depressing fact about 90s music is this. Deborah — who was born within an hour of Jarvis Cocker and whom we were all going to meet up with in the year 2000 — died of cancer a few years ago.
The second most depressing fact is that the classic bean-flicking anthem ‘I Touch Myself’ by Australian group Divinyls is now associated with breast cancer awareness. Singer Chrissy Amphlett expressed a desire that the song be used in this way shortly before the disease killed her in 2014.
What’s depressing about both of these events is that both of these songs felt like an explosion of life when they first hit the airwaves. ‘Disco 2000’ is perhaps a bit male gaze-ey, but it is definitely a bop that bottles up the nervous fin-de-siecle energy we all felt on the brink of Y2K.
‘I Touch Myself’ is the polar opposite of the male gaze, an unashamedly lascivious track about a woman masturbating to the thought of her absent lover. And it’s not just about sex, it’s also extremely sexy. Some songs make you tap your toes, other songs make you wave your hands in the air, but the relentless groove of ‘I Touch Yourself’ seems like a direct command to the hips, making people do a slinky snake-like shimmy whenever they hear it.
Which begs the question, how did this ever get on the radio? There’s no metaphor or double entendre here. Maybe there’s a slight playfulness in lines like “you’re the one that makes me come… running”, but Amphlett makes sure to eliminate all doubt in the outro by singing, “I touch myself/I honestly do”.
My theory that the lyrics slipped past the censors by hiding its meaning in plain sight. Each time Amphlett purrs “when I think about you I touch myself”, cognitive dissonance tells you that she can’t really be saying that, because otherwise they wouldn’t play it on the radio at 4pm. So your brain constructs some other meaning. Maybe by “touch myself”, she means gently putting her hand to her cheek and falling on her fainting couch? Surely those “oooh-oooh-aaahs” in the bridge are just because she is eating a nice cake or something?
My theory is that the lyrics are so blatant, they caused cognitive dissonance. People heard this woman singing these words, and thought, “look, women don’t talk about masturbation this openly, so she must mean something else.” Then we formed this other image, like what she meant is that she touches her face to her cheek and then collapses on her fainting couch, like a Jane Austen heroine.
‘I Touch Myself’ is co-written by the guys behind hits such as ‘Like A Virgin’, another song with explicitly sexual lyrics that nobody understood until Quentin Tarantino explained them in Reservoir Dogs. Again, I think ‘Like A Virgin’ got away with it because people assumed that “virgin” had to be a metaphor for something less overtly sexual. A bottle of virgin olive oil, perhaps?
Or maybe it’s just that it’s so catchy that no one cared about the lyrics. Perhaps the censors and puritans found themselves shaking their hips and couldn’t get stressed about the topic of the song.
Elsewhere in the charts
Number One: ‘Any Dream Will Do’ - Jason Donovan (=1)
The worst Number 1 of 1991.
Number 3: ‘Chorus’ - Erasure (New Entry)
In my humble opinion, Erasure are the most underrated band of all time. They deserve to be as revered as, say, Sparks or Pet Shop Boys. The problem with Erasure is perhaps that they’re too good at making pop songs. They make it look effortless.
Number 6: ‘Do You Want Me’ - Salt-N-Pepa (↑6)
Okay, if we’re talking about sex songs, then 1991 was the year of Salt-N-Pepa. This is glorious.
Number 11: ‘It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over’ - Lenny Kravitz (↑15)
One place above ‘I Touch Myself’ is Lenny Kravitz’s soulful study of his rocky marriage to Lisa Bonet, ‘It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over’. Kravitz was often criticised at the time for being so blatantly in thrall to the 70s and stealing so much of Jimi Hendrix’s schtick.
‘I Touch Myself’ is also a real throwback, with Dusty Springfield vocals and early 70s soul groove. Both of these songs, in a way, express the true spirit of the 90s, which was very much about looking backwards and trying to make sense of the century that was ending. Even newish genres like house and hip-hop were drawing on old ideas. And maybe this is good. Maybe it’s reincarnation rather than recycling. Maybe no one ever really dies.
Number 20: ‘Get The Funk Out’ - Extreme (↓19)
Every Red Hot Chilli Peppers sounds like this to me.
I am planning to do 16 issues of this newsletter in a row about ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’.
I really want to hear from other people, so if you have any memories or thoughts about the song that just would not leave Number One, please leave a comment or reply to this mail.