Achy Breaky Heart of Darkness

Can you believe it? An entire quarter of a century has passed since one of modern civilisation’s greatest cultural catastrophes descended from the heavens like a satanic death-clown to be unleashed on an unwitting world. On that day, the course of human history was forever altered and life as we knew would never be the same again. I’m not sure how the anniversary will be marked. Stamp? Commemorative coin? Or, somewhat ironically, a minute’s silence? Whatever mode we choose, it’s inevitable that we’ll all pause in the coming days to wonder how it was that we were ever seduced by whatever meagre charms it possessed. I speak, of course, of the release of ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ by Billy Ray Cyrus.

No doubt, you recall exactly where you were when you first heard it. For me, I was sitting on the couch one Saturday morning watching ‘Video Hits’. It was something we regularly did in our St Kilda share house. As the morning progressed, housemates would find their way to the living room, wrapped in a dressing gown and clutching a coffee cup as though it contained all life’s answers (which, in fairness, it probably did). There, we’d sit and watch music videos. Mostly it was a chance to communally lament at the poor state of popular music. When songs we liked broke into the top twenty, it always seemed a victory against the odds.

From the safety of the big black couch, which was held together by a combination of duct tape and human sweat, we would hurl abuse and inanimate objects whenever a song that displeased us came on. As it happened, songs we disliked were most of what Video Hits had to offer. However, even we were lulled into a stupefied silence when confronted by the horror of ‘Achy Breaky Heart’.

In many respects, 1992 was pretty much like the opening sentence of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of grunge, it was the age of boy bands, it was the epoch of Seattle, it was the epoch of Right Said Fred, it was the season of Nirvana, it was the season of New Kids on the Block, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us. Most of all, we had Billy Ray Cyrus gurning at as whenever we so much as glanced at a television.

There is no way to describe ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ other than as a total assault on the senses. There’s the song itself, which consists of just two chords. Even punk bands that refuse to learn how to play their instruments on principle frequently manage more than two chords. The lyrics tell of a love gone tragically wrong and an invitation from the singer to take whatever steps his ex deems necessary to distance herself from what is obviously some kind of romantic disaster. It’s sage advice.

But, as always, there’s a limit to this magnanimity, and whilst Billy Ray is happy for his former paramour to disown him to all and sundry, the one exception is his ‘achy breaky heart.’ The song, however, is about so much more than the music – which of itself is so wretched that it would tempt anyone to accuse their own ears of treachery whenever the hear it. There’s also the small matter of the video clip.

There’s no nice way to put this – Billy Ray had a mullet so large that it could be seen from space. Traditionally, the mullet hair cut is the epitome of compromise; representing, as it does, ‘business at the front’ and ‘party at the back’. Given Billy Ray’s tonsorial state, the party must have been one where everyone stays up without sleeping for about a week and, at some point, all your furniture gets broken up and used for firewood. The thing was huge. The mullet, however, was not even the worst thing about the video. That honour belongs to the dancing.

Until that fateful morning on the lounge room couch, none of us had ever encountered ‘boot scooting’. For a generation raised on the notion that dancing represented freedom, (an ethos so memorably encapsulated by our hero, Kevin Bacon, in the movie ‘Footloose’) here was something that violated almost everything we believed in. The dancers (if, indeed, you could call them that) looked like they were marching together towards the exit before turning on their heels and marching right back again. It was as though they were struggling to make a decision in unison. Our comments were, inevitably, of the unkind variety.

The song rocketed to number one on the Australian charts and went three times platinum. In spite of that success, I’m not sure it holds up too well. Later, Billy Ray was put out to stud and ended up siring Hannah Montana. For me, there’s other music from that era that I continue to love. My housemate Kevin had a copy of ‘Badmotorfinger’ by Soundgarden. You didn’t see Soundgarden on Video Hits. Instead, you had to stay up to catch Rage. Then, as now, I seldom stayed up so late. But I loved that album and I loved the sound of Chris Cornell’s incredible voice. For me, it was an antidote to all the boot scooting shenanigans that dominated the airwaves. To mark ‘Achy Breaky Heart’s’ quarter century, I’ll do much as I did twenty-five years ago and slip on ‘Badmotorfinger’ instead.