The beginning of S.O.S. Band's "Just Be Good to Me," off their 1983 album On the Rise, is just incredible. There is a cry from what sounds like the urban wilderness. It is the cry of a woman. She seems to be suffering in the worst way. What kind of trouble is she in? We know that whatever it is, it is unrelated to war, or work, or politics. "Just Be Good to Me" is an '80s R&B tune (produced by the legendary Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis—see Janet Jackson for more information), so we can be certain that the matter has something to do with love, with the heart, with the state of a sexual relationship. That cry is followed by a blast of synthesizers. The chords move with the thickness of a giant walking out of the sea, across the beach, and into the city; the melodies swirl like leaves in the wind. The suspense is terrific. What is the singer going to tell us? What is on her mind? We must wait for more than a minute before she, Mary Davis (the original and defining voice of S.O.S. Band), opens up and tells all. Can you imagine a tune in our day spending more than a minute just preparing us for a confession? We are no longer that kind of animal.
In our late and pop-impatient age, we want to know right away what's the matter with the singer. What's his/her worry? Are they in love with someone who does not love them? Do they want to get laid? Have they been caught fucking someone they should not be fucking? With, say, Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," we know what's up almost immediately: the dispensing of important relationship advice to "all the single ladies." With Usher's "Yeah," we know exactly what it is about—yeah—in 11 seconds flat. But "Just Be Good to Me" is nine minutes long! After that first minute of just music, the rest seems to go on forever. What concern could justify so much time and energy? We learn that Davis is in love with a man who has other women—many other women—but she does not care about that. She wants her man to just be good to her.
The story gets more interesting. Davis, who is truly one of the greatest R&B singers of her generation—and not because she has a great voice, but because she never overdoes it, never overflows, never tries to razzle and dazzle, but always sings within a normal human range of expression and emotion—is telling her boyfriend that she does not care about the rumors or what society thinks about his philandering and cheating. She knows what he is all about, and what she wants is for him to treat her better than he treats the other women in his life. If he can do this, she will be happy with their situation. Now recall Tanya Stephens's 2004 dancehall hit "It's a Pity." Recall how she laments that the man of her life "already has a wife," and how she imagines a utopia in the distance of time, a place in a future world that has "evolved enough" for her and this other woman to share the man they want to fuck in "a civilized manner." Davis has no such fantasies; she knows her society does not like the way her man sleeps around, and she knows the man she loves is a dog.
More curious still, Davis, on the title track, "Just the Way You Like It," of the album that followed Rise (this record was mostly produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis—see the Roland 808 for more information), sings about how she has no problems with the fact that the man she is romantically involved with keeps other women on the side. It's just the way he likes it. And besides, he has been single for a long time. And she does not want to cramp his style. In fact, he is the one who wants to settle down with her. But she is not buying it. She knows better. He will not change overnight. Her solution, the one that comes to her mind, is that she be his number one. This song is a conversation between her and the man in question.
But on the great 1986 S.O.S. Band album Sands of Time (their last with productions by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis—see Prince during his early period with the band the Time for more information) something really strange happens. The tune "Borrowed Love," which has almost the same beat as "Just Be Good to Me," finds Davis in a completely different state of mind. She is now singing not to her man, or to her girlfriends, but to herself. And what is she saying? "What could make me think that I could live on borrowed love? Now I see that I could never live on borrowed love." (By the way, "Borrowed Love" is by far my favorite S.O.S. Band tune, as well as its video, which is set in the ruins of a city that once thrived in what looks like a North African desert.) All of that talk about not caring about the other women turns out to be total rubbish. She was always in love, but like a dying person who lives on borrowed time, she was only living on borrowed love. "The pain of too much pleasure is all so clear to me. After you go, nothing but ache to fill my emptiness... Emptiness, emptiness."