Every day leading up to Valentine’s Day this year, The Key is recapping 14 songs that scream “love” just as strongly as they scream “Philly.” The Essential Love Songs of Philadelphia continues with “You Make My Dreams” from Hall & Oates’ 1980 album Voices.
The thing about hit songs, though: sometimes they become so massively, immensely popular, that pop culture completely takes over. It’s like that songwriter’s aphorism: it doesn’t belong to you anymore, it belongs to the world. And the world often steers it down a path that maybe the songwriter did not exactly have in mind, but probably they’re making such bank that they don’t care all that much.
I was thinking about this earlier in the week, when I heard “Bargain” from The Who’s 1971 album Who’s Next, a record that predated my birth by a solid seven years — meaning I never got to experience that song in its unadulterated form. What do I think of when I hear “Bargain”? I think of car commercials, obnoxious car commercials played ad infinitum on television and commercial radio. And even though it’s a perfectly fine classic rock song from a perfectly fine classic rock album, I will never hear that when it comes on; I will always hear a button-down shirt-and-tie guy with slicked-back hair and a booming voice trying to sell me a 24-month lease on a new Mazda with no money down and no interest for the first six months, or what the heck ever.
“You Make My Dreams” from Daryl Hall and John Oates suffers a similar fate; I will never hear that song without thinking of some drunk uncle archetype attempting to sloppily cut a rug at Sandy and Bobby’s wedding at the Pennsauken Country Club ballroom but it’s like 10:45 at night and he’s been going hard on the Jack and Cokes since happy hour and all the bopping and clapping pushes him over the edge, causing him to trip over Sandy’s train and shove past Aunt Gladys, relieving his GI tract of the salisbury steak and mashed potatoes from a couple hours before, all over the centerpiece no less. Poor, poor Hall & Oates.
Is wedding vomit a fair image to have in mind when listening to one of their most popular songs? Hardly. The Philadelphia born and bred, Temple University-schooled hitmaking duo might have leaned hard into the overly-polished, overly-saccharine production of the 80s as they entered their second decade of making music — they might have crafted their songs for maximum accessibility and appeal, at the expense of the nuance of the blue-eyed soul classics from Abandoned Luncheonette — but that doesn’t mean they’re not sincere. Hall & Oates are corny, yes, but they’re not monsters.
If you’re able to listen to listen to “You Make My Dreams” without the baggage of it being an incessant wedding playlist staple, you’ll hear an effusively earnest, incredibly sweet pop song where someone with a microphone extolls their better half — and clearly has that “better half” concept specifically in mind. This is not the “look, I know you want me” gross bluster and machismo of the Van Halen-led hard rock set; this isn’t the stalker-y obsessiveness of Sting and The Police, who will call the target of their affection a hundred times a day, lurk outside their house at night with binoculars, et cetera. This is someone who loves the person they are with, who feels like that person completes them, and they want to sing it from the rooftops.
After some tastefully crunchy guitar and keyboard played all brisk and staccato-like, Hall opens the first verse: “What I want, you’ve got / But it might be hard to handle / Like the flame that burns the candle / The candle feeds the flame,” nodding to Otis Redding’s “Hard To Handle” as much as he’s talking about the importance of compatibility in a lasting relationship, where each half has its role in supporting and reinforcing the other. And that compatibility can change a person: “I ain’t the way you found me / And I’ll never be the same.”
Beyond that, though, it’s a pretty straightforward song — “Well well you, oh oh, you make my dreams come true” and so forth. In a 2014 interview with Wax Poetics, John Oates joked about this:
We were kind of laughing, saying that this was too simple to be anything. When we wrote the words, we were really concentrating on writing some interesting words because the chorus was so simple. We thought the verses needed to have some meat and potatoes to support the simplicity of that chorus. I remember our manager at the time when we played the song for him; he was making a joke about the words in the verses. He said, ‘You guys are trying to sound like poets.’ He was laughing at us because he didn’t get it. After all these years, that’s probably the song that gets the most play out of almost any song we’ve ever done.
But as we saw earlier in this series, sometimes it’s the simple truths that connect in the biggest way. “You Make My Dreams” might spin at every nuptial ceremony until the end of time, it may play as the credits roll in every rom-com or pipe through the Scotiabank Arena every time the Toronto Maple Leafs score a goal. It may be, essentially, everywhere, annoyingly so — but that’s all because it neatly encapsulates the purity of love in a tight, memorable way…and with a dance beat that won’t be denied. Just go easy on the Jack and Coke next time it comes on.
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