I Dare You To Find the Joke in Pat Benatar’s Music

Embracing melodrama allows me to write directly into the emotional truth

Woman with pink hair dancing
Photo by George Bohunicky on Unsplash

I grew up in San Antonio, a place forever stuck in 1999, where nu metal still thrives to this day. When I left for college in 2005, I met a lot of new people and became enlightened and got into real music. My new friends and I listened to Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors—all that classic stuff from the sixties and seventies—and made fun of people who listened to music we deemed to be garbage. We listened to the radio ironically and especially liked to dunk on artists from the eighties. They seemed especially ridiculous. Our favorites included Don Henley, Cyndi Lauper, and Van Halen, but one stood out above all others. One woman pushed the boundaries of lyrical silliness: Pat Benatar. On her 1983 hit “Love is a Battlefield,” she sings “We are young. Heartache to heartache, we stand. No promises or demands. Love is a battlefield.” A year later, she gave the world “We belong to the light. We belong to the thunder. We belong to the sounds of the words we’ve fallen under.” We laughed and mimed belting it out.

There was something unique about her, and I found myself listening to her on my iPod on the way to class and watching her music videos on YouTube when my roommate was gone. I was afraid he’d catch me and wouldn’t understand that I was watching ironically. I couldn’t afford that because I’d recently become a serious intellectual and artist. You see, I was taking Intro to Creative Writing. We read classic literary short stories, stuff by giants of the form like Denis Johnson, Amy Hempel, and Edward P. Jones. We were taught the tenets of serious fiction. We learned that less is more with dialogue and figurative language, and to avoid adverbs at all costs. I used another elective spot on a fiction workshop and kept writing. I tried to make sure my characters’ actions were well-motivated and believable, tried to keep things tight.

I tried to make sure my characters’ actions were well-motivated and believable, tried to keep things tight.

After I graduated, I found little time to write but wanted to at least keep reading. Without my professors and classmates, I no longer had anyone to tell me what authors to read next. I started following different book blogs on Twitter and checking out the “Forthcoming” sections on publishers’ websites. In early 2010, I scrolled down my feed and saw a striking black-and-white photo of a woman in a striped shirt, a defiant look on her face. It was a book cover for Between a Heart and a Rock Place by Pat Benatar, a memoir set to be released the following month. I laughed. It’d been a while since I’d thought of her, and all the songs flashed through my head. It was hard to imagine her as a kid, almost like she just came into existence fully formed. After a few weeks, I gave in and preordered it.

When it came in the mail, I dug in right away. Benatar was born into a musical family. Her mother, Mildred, was an opera singer who gave up her aspirations when she became pregnant with Pat. From there, she put her energy into her daughter, involving Pat in choir and theater from an early age. Through the guidance of her high school choir director, Pat became classically trained as an opera singer. She was set to audition for Julliard when her boyfriend decided to enlist in the Army. She writes, “Dennis pleaded with me to stay with him, to just blow off the audition, asking me not to go. And so I didn’t.” They got married and were eventually stationed in the Richmond, Virginia area, and Pat took a job as a bank teller. “Music faded far into the past,” she writes, “something I’d done in another life.” 

I get the impression that well before she left New York, she’d begun to feel disconnected from classical music. She talks about listening to 45s on her Victrola as a teenager with her friends. She writes, “When we were a little older, we got into the Beatles, and became obsessed.” Something about rock music resonated with her in a way that opera didn’t. It was wild and visceral. It broke all the rules she’d been taught about music.

In 2019, I moved to Illinois to begin my MFA. I was excited to have more time and energy for writing after spending the decade after undergrad with hardly any of either. I was back in the workshop setting, but this time with nearly three-hour-long classes and only five other people to help fill them. The tone was more serious. I was also in a class called The Craft of Fiction, where we could spend hours dissecting a single flash fiction piece. 

I learned a tremendous amount from the professors, but the solemn tone of the classes, along with teaching composition, left me in need of a release. I was lucky enough to find that in Chris, one of the other fiction students. We shared a love of fast food, psychedelics, and horror movies. He’d come over to my place once a week, and we’d take turns choosing the movie. I’d go with campy stuff from the eighties and nineties, whereas he favored whatever the newest release was. We usually felt the need to preface our picks with some kind of apology—“I’m not saying it’s a good movie, but…” It was similar to the apology I gave friends before turning on pro wrestling. We talked about watching indie arthouse dramas and Oscar-nominated movies. We “needed” to see them, but we never got around to it. There were too many horror movies to get through first.

We shared a love of fast food, psychedelics, and horror movies. He’d come over to my place once a week.

We started exchanging short stories outside of workshop, stuff we felt would get laughed out of the classroom. I gave him a story about the ghost of a dead SeaWorld orca, and he sent me a 9,000-word story about ghosts who wanted to be more present. They were funny stories, full of camp. I finally had someone to bounce ridiculous ideas off. I came up with a premise involving both D.B. Cooper and Bigfoot, and Chris encouraged me to see it through. These stories were fun but stifled in a way, hard to get through for reasons I didn’t understand. I assumed the premises just weren’t believable and tried to scale them back. I could have D.B. Cooper or Bigfoot in a story, just not both. I eventually set them aside and went back to writing stuff set firmly in reality. I needed to reel it in.

Benatar wasn’t a big Liza Minelli fan, but when her coworkers invited her to come with them to the concert in Richmond, she thought it might be a nice break from the monotony of her life. But it ended up being much more than that. “Something miraculous happened,” she writes. She wasn’t impressed with Minelli’s singing but by her showmanship, the way she performed and held the audience in her palm. Benatar was blown away, but at the same time knew she could do it, too. The next day, she quit her bank job and began seeking out singing gigs.

These moments are some of the most pleasurable for me when it comes to interacting with art, when I suddenly realize what someone is doing and what makes it work. One of these epiphanies came to me one night, sitting on the couch with Chris, eating calzones. It was my turn to pick, and I chose the lesser-known John Carpenter movie Christine. “It’s about a possessed killer car,” I said, and we laughed.

The opening credits played to the sound of a revving engine, and we looked at each other and smiled. We giggled when Christine, the classic cherry-red Plymouth Fury, claimed her first victims at the auto factory, smashing a man’s hand with its hood and killing another for ashing his cigar on the interior. Christine spares Arnie, the unsuspecting teenager who fixed her up, but soon begins to infect his mind. He goes from a nerd to cool to eventually paranoid and violent. Christine becomes jealous of his new relationship with Leigh, the prettiest girl in school.

We giggled when Christine, the classic cherry-red Plymouth Fury, claimed her first victims at the auto factory.

I settled into the movie and found myself rooting for Christine to take vengeance on Arnie’s bullies, and by the final act, I was rooting for Christine to be destroyed. She needed to be stopped. In the movie’s closing minutes, Arnie is killed while trying to run Leigh over with Christine before Dennis smashes Christine with a bulldozer. We then cut to a junkyard where Dennis, Leigh, and the detective watch as Christine is condensed into a cube. The detective looks at the teenagers and says, “I wouldn’t feel so bad if I were you two. You two are heroes.” 

“A real hero could’ve saved Arnie,” Dennis responds. This is incredibly silly, but Chris and I didn’t laugh. We were too worried about Christine coming back. I thought about Arnie before Christine got ahold of him. This is how I choose to remember him.

The legend Robert Ebert writes, “Christine is, of course, utterly ridiculous. But I enjoyed it anyway.” He goes on to nail it down perfectly, writing, “One grin and the mood would be broken. But by the end of the movie, Christine has developed such a formidable personality that we are actually taking sides during its duel with a bulldozer.” 

Listening to Pat Bentar with this mind, I realized why her music works. Melodrama can transcend its genre by refusing to laugh at itself, thereby not inviting the audience to laugh along. We look to the artist’s attitude toward their art to tell us how we should feel about it. Pat Benatar does not wink at us. She isn’t Rick Astley dancing in a Canadian tuxedo or Cyndi Lauper leading a line of dancers through her house. You may still end up laughing at her, but it requires more mental effort to get there—you have to get there on your own. You’re just as likely to get lulled into the story.

Benatar does such a great job of coming off as a singular force of nature, but the truth is it took time for her to build up to this. Of her first demo tapes, she says, “They didn’t sound like rock and roll. My attitude, which I honed through performing, was solid, but vocal delivery was too controlled, too trained.” She wanted to take it further. She wanted to indulge. She only needed the courage to make the leap.

Acknowledging the absurdity of a piece is the creator’s way of preempting criticism, of taking a critic’s ammunition away, but it also places a ceiling on the work. A vision seen through without apology opens itself up to more criticism but allows for a greater experience among a portion of the audience. Benatar’s refusal to wink allows me to get into her music on a deeper level than I would be able to otherwise. It transcends the intellectual mind and taps into the part of me that takes romantic love very seriously.

One criticism I often received in workshop was that key points in my stories felt rushed through or skipped altogether. They were scenes where the reader expected some emotional climax or payoff. In my killer whale ghost story, there’s a point where the narrator and his girlfriend argue over letting a friend stay over, but the actual argument isn’t on the page. There’s the first hint of an argument coming then a section break. We pick up after the argument, with the narrator explaining that they aren’t on speaking terms. I tried to make up for this with humor—the hope being that if the reader is laughing, they can’t be thinking about whatever narrative issue came before. At the core of that hesitation is a fear of feeling exposed. I was afraid of openly trying to pull something off and failing. I’d avoided writing anything that might remotely feel contrived at the cost of being stilted and unfulfilling.

I was afraid of openly trying to pull something off and failing.

Confrontation and sincerity, for me, are the hardest things to write. My professors told me I needed more of it, but it needed to be done with a deft touch. A little bit goes a long way. I think this is great advice, but melodrama offers another option. Instead of dancing around a moment, you can push directly into it. In the video for “Love is a Battlefield,” a clearly not-teenage Benatar plays a teenager who gets kicked out of the house by her parents. “You leave this house now!” her father shouts. “You can just forget about coming back!” This is dialogue I could’ve never written. I would’ve dismissed it as cliche and generic, but the truth is, we use cliches when we’re angry. Regardless of the material, Benatar chooses to just sell the hell out of it.

Recently, I’ve been writing more genre-leaning fiction than purely literary stuff. Last month, I read the first volume of a shared-world anthology set in an eighties pro wrestling universe. It is not a book that aspires to literary acclaim. It is strictly for the enjoyment of wrestling nerds, wrestling nerds like me. I wasn’t sure if they were open to unsolicited submissions, but I knew I had to try. I sent them a noir short story involving an alligator wrestler who may have disposed of a body by feeding it to his gators. It’s a genre story full of genre tropes, set in the already-campy world of pro wrestling. The editors may laugh at it when they read it. They might screenshot segments and send them to their friends to dunk on. They may think it’s a joke, but I won’t help them get there.

More Like This

A Black Comedy Clicked on My Metaphorical Light

How the quirky cruelty of "Ghost World" validated and ennobled my rebellious spirit

Jan 23 - Monica Macansantos

In The World of Tony Soprano, What Kind of Capitalist Are You?

Here’s what your favorite character says about the deal you’ve made with money and the depression that comes with it

Oct 1 - Marian Jones and Yuri Kavalerchik
Thank You!