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Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Who Did It Better? The Power of Love

Who Did It Better? 
The Power of Love

A suggestion by our beloved Anne Marie of Philly a few weeks back blew the criteria for this series wide open. While these versions were not competing on the chart at the same time, they were competing for the honor of truly 'owning' the song. Released as singles within years of one another, these versions of The Power of Love make for an intriguing episode of Who Did It Better?

The Power of Love  was written by Jennifer Rush, Gunther Mende, Mary Susan Applegate and Candy de Rouge. Rush wrote the lyric about her boyfriend, Harvard graduate Steven Engebretson. He was only her second relationship and the two remained a couple long after the song was released.

Rush's songs always began life as a poem, which she then put to music written by her producers, Mende and DeRouge (neither of whom spoke English.) For The Power Of Love, poet/lyricist Mary Susan Applegate was also brought onboard. 

Originally recorded by Jennifer Rush, it was released in the US in late 1984, but not as a single. CBS held off on releasing it in the US because the powers that be felt it sounded too European. However, it was issued as a single in West Germany in December of 1984 and in the UK in June of 1985. In the UK it topped the chart for five weeks in October 1985, going on to become the best-selling single of the year. Notably, Rush's version was the first ever million-seller by a female soloist in Britain and the bestselling single ever by a woman (until Whitney Houston came along with I Will Always Love You in 1992.) As of March 2017, her version had sold 1.45 million copies in the UK alone.

In addition, it also topped the charts in several other European countries (Austria, Ireland, Norway, Spain), as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. 

So with all this activity overseas, you would think that CBS would be hot to see how it would fair in the states, right? But, no! Rush's version was not released in the US and Canada until January of 1986! Because CBS failed to seize the moment and despite it going #1 in Canada and appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in March 1986 and American Bandstand in April 1986 Rush's version only managed to reach #57 on the Hot 100 before stalling out. 

Clive Davis over at Arista Records recognized an opportunity when he saw it. He had his super successful Australian discovery, Air Supply bash out a version for their 1985 eponymous album. The gender roles were reversed in the lyrics and the title altered to The Power of Love (You Are My Woman) so that it as not to be confused with The Power of Love by Huey Lewis and the News which was on the charts at the same time. Released as a single in the US in  July 1985 and later in Canada and New Zealand, Air Supply's version, while a moderate success in New Zealand and Canada, (reaching the Top 40 in both countries) peaked at a disappointing #68 in the US. 
Laura Branigan had built a career recording and bringing songs popularized overseas to the states.  She altered the title to Power of Love for her fifth studio album, 1987's Touch. The track was released in October of 1987 as the album's second single, reaching #26 on the Billboard's Hot 100 and #19 on the Adult Contemporary chart in December. It would prove to be her final Top 40 hit.

Enter Celine...

Celine Dion recorded a version for her third English-language album, 1993's The Colour of My Love. Produced by David Foster, it was released as the lead single from the album in November of 1993 in the US,  December in Japan, and early 1994 in the rest of the world.

The Power of Love became Dion's first US #1, topping the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks in February of 1994. It also topped the charts in Australia and Canada, and reached the Top Ten in France, the UK, Belgium, Sweden and New Zealand. In the US alone, it sold 1.5 million copies. 

And there you have it... the whole story.

Now? On to the competition!

The Song: The Power of Love
The Competitors: Rush vs. Air Supply vs. Brannigan vs. Dion 

The Power of Love - Jennifer Rush

The Power of Love (You Are My Lady) - Air Supply

The Power of Love - Laura Brannigan

The Power of Love - Celine Dion

Jennifer Rush
So, right from the get go I can bet you dollars to doughnuts that as Rush aged, that vibrato got crazier and crazier. She already sounds like 60 year woman doing Kate Smith. But... okay; that's mean of me. And I am only into this by two phrases. That lilt of hers? A tad rigid. I do like the pulsating synth. That's fun. And the reverb on her voice works. Okay. We're now four phrases in. That secondary synth? Meh. A little too period for me. Remember those terrible space movies they would make for television? The soundtracks would always feature that secondary synth. 

My word. She E-NUN-CEE-ATES. And has no intention of going home, so she's going big right out the gate. As for that rhythm track - taken straight from Vangelis' Chariot of Fire - sort of. This? This sounds a bit hollow and tick-tock like. Why do I remember 1984 as more sophisticated than this? 

There's a lovely lift of her cleft, a nice trill on 'time'. I continue to be flabbergasted that this is a 24 year old woman singing this song. Her style is so old-hat. And they keep upping the reverb. Oh, dear... those early synth drums. This is odd and very thin sounding. Keep in mind that Phil Collin's In The Air Tonight came out in 1981, so there were certainly better drum sounds to use. These sound cheap. That said, I like the change in tone in Rush's voice once the big push hits. It's still a bit old-lady-ish, but more palatable. Unfortunately, because she started so big, she has nowhere to go. She has no choice but to stay big. 

She rolls her 'r' on 'ready'. Why? Why would you do that Jennifer Rush? Between the lilt, which makes me think Irish, and the over-enunciation, which makes me think of Swedish pop singers, and the odd occasional vocal flourish (the rolled 'r', the trill on 'time'), which makes me think of Latin singers, I have to say that Rush may be too European for my taste (and she's an American, folks!) The keyboards on the bridge sound like something from a roller rink. 

Her reading is so bereft of emotional content. She is a singer who hits notes and makes wonderful, big sounds, but there's no story here. I'm rather sad about that. I have not heard this song in ages, and, while I know I have heard her version, I guess I never really listened to it critically. This is fine. I have heard karaoke performances that were it's equal. I wish more thought had gone into her vocals. The lack of dynamics not only firmly places this as early 80's, it also sinks this version of the song for me. 

I am shocked it sold as well as it did overseas. But then, keep in mind that David Hasselhoff was a pop star over there. So... good for her. 

Air Supply
Finding a single edit of this was difficult. Russell Hitchcock's voice is so feminine. I like his entrance on this. His dynamic works with the lyrics, his delivery precise and that bed of synths adds a lot of warmth. I don't mind the secondary counter melody synth as much; a better fit than Rush's version. As we get to the chorus, Hitchcock turns up the heat two degrees, nice. I still believe he has somewhere to go. 

The Vangelis influence remains strong with this version. The synths now gurgle with the second verse. That hammer tap rhythm track is annoying. Okay, things heat up considerably with the second chorus. Not in love with the accompaniment. I realize the mid-80's were all about the industrial/mechanical vs. human warmth, but this is a ballad and all this clanking muscle feels harsh and unsupportive. I like tension in music, but I do not enjoy struggle. This is an interesting build. Note how the underlying synth melds into that see-saw note structure, increasing the sound pad a bit. They've been doing that from day one; merely adjusting and increasing as the song progresses. The downside? The more they tinker, the colder the sound becomes. 

Oh, dear. They miss the boat with the bridge. They should have opted to pull the bottom out, everything but save a single-stringed sustained synth and allowed Hitchcock's vocals to stand on their own; becoming confessional and more relatable. Instead we power on and while Hitchcock does pull back a bit, it's not enough and that terrible synth pad now sounds somewhat bloated. The choir sounds straight out of 10cc's I'm Not In Love. The one thing the bridge reveals is that this arrangement is, more or less, built on the sound of a heart beat. That's rather clever. 

As we go for the gusto, it's a flourish of synths and a vocal choir masking the fact we've no place else to go. It makes for a rather hollow emotional peak. And then we get 'the money note'; 12 seconds worth. It's nice. We finish it all waving good-bye as those hulking synths lumber away like elephants at the end of a parade. Not bad. In fact, this version is much better than I expected. I suspect that due to Air Supply having released a greatest hits album prior to this release, that everyone - the public and the industry - assumed they were 'done'. They'd fallen out of favor by 1985, which might explain why this was not a bigger hit for them. As their work goes? This is very good. 

Laura Brannigan
I will tell you right from the get go, and regular readers of this blog know, I have a soft spot for Brannigan. That said. This is not her best moment. The key is all wrong for her voice at this stage in her career. She strains and screams and shreds her poor vocal chords. I am not sure what the producers were thinking, but let's give it a listen. 

It starts well. I like those synths reined in and tight, immediately creating a kind of tension. Brannigan is a great storyteller. In those first four phrases we are provided with a wealth of color and a variety of dynamics conveying something quite heartfelt. Her voice is raw - all cracks and pops and a bit ragged out, but, with the assist of that slight reverb on her voice, it works. I am emotionally invested by the end of the first verse. However, from the word 'forsake', into the chorus and beyond, the vocals become horribly strident; like a Clydesdale stomping forward. 

I like this arrangement. It's more complimentary to the melody - allowing it to reign supreme and uncontested - less Vangelis/Euro inspired. Those strings are real and so subtle under the second verse. However, by the second chorus Brannigan is in caterwauler-ing mode and this thing becomes a pain to listen to. Suddenly the whole thing - right into the bridge - is pitched so sharp and she doesn't so much sing the song as attack each syllable. I mean how strident is 'I CAN'T go on'? You wouldn't speak it that way. No one talks that way. Why is it okay to sing it that way?

It really comes down to how you feel about shredded vocals. They can be enormously, emotionally powerful. Tina Turner uses her shred like no one else. But her vocals come from a deeper place, often pitched in a much lower key. Brannigan's voice is too thin and her vibrato too reed-like to handle that much force. It hurts my ears. My throat automatically constricts in pain as it remembers the days of getting through a show on vocal chords in desperate need of a rest. 

And then... they decide to do a key change? WHY? And Brannigan seems to think she can take us somewhere new (?) and that would be to Screamy-Mimi land. Don't you just want to run up to her, put your arms around her and tell her, 'No, dear. That will do. That will do.' But no, it goes on. Her version is just ripe for parody. Like key change after key change until she sounds wound up and insane. 

Love me some Laura Brannigan. This? 'No, dear. No.'

Celine Dion
I like her kick-off. We have the tension-filled synths. Listen to the way she lifts and lilts through 'rolling by like thunder now'. That's real singing, folks. I also half admire the way she pulls a note - back. But it's something she does way too often. So after a point it loses its charm. Have never liked the way she sings 'body'. Bod-day? What is that? Bod-day? Ah, the Celine quiver. It's like a cat that gives away when they are about to pounce by wiggling their bottom. 

And, kaboom, we have full-blown Dion. 

I can hear why people adore her. It's a tad calculated for my taste. I tend to appreciate organic singers. Oh, I don't like that Spanish guitar on the counter melody at all. The second verse begins with a little Johnny Mathis trick, before moving into 'far away' - which? I don't get. Why did she sing it that way? It communicates nothing, though it is very showy. 

Little trills. Pulled notes. Dion's voice is so piecing. 

Second chorus, big dead back beat. I know at the time David Foster could do no wrong. And perhaps this is due to having listened to three other versions of this song, but this arrangement doesn't seem to have any magic to it. This is all about Dion's voice. I feel like I'm watching a cute, precious, circus dog perform. Man, she is beating those words mercilessly. I like the little shred she brings to 'frightened but I'm ready to'.  She is simply this wall of sound all on her own. That is one big azz voice. Hate the guitar as we go into the bridge. I like the rhythm section here. 'A-waaaaaay' sounds edited... weirdly. Do you you hear the breaks? 

Oh, dear, did you hear that scooped fuzz pedal oomphing us into the chorus. Eek. Cheesy.

There is nothing subtle about this, except the opening four phrases. That harmony doesn't feel harmonious. It's like adding additional fighter jets. Huh. Chime synth. Icy, but they sound warm compared to the harshness of Dion's attack vocals. 

She does such odd things with her vowels sometimes. And, if you listen to all the choruses, she chooses to muck up a different vowel each time. Like 'thing' she utterly mangles at one point and then in this, the final, she opens it up and it's lovely, but then she turns around and takes 'been' and invents a new word. I don't get what she's hearing. 

I term these laser beam vocals. And then suddenly, she begins to return to her human form. I like the fade out the most. Not only is it the end of the song, but she also seems to be experimenting a little. 

The Verdict
Oh, this is just strange. Going in, I thought... well, Dion's got a lock on this. The song belongs to her. 

But it's not the best version. 

Strangely... and you must realize how much time over the years I have spent loathing every sugar-coated, dopey love song they ever spewed... my choice is Air Supply. Musically, I think it's more interesting. And, it's simply more musical, as in, they serve the song. 

Dion has never been my favorite singer. With the exception of her first two pop hits, I don't like her catalog. But I knew that this song sort of belonged to her, so I was expecting... way too much? I dunno. She wrestles the damn song to the floor and then proceeds to go dominatrix on it's azz. With her? It's like every song is Ride of the Valkyries

Brannigan is all sorts of wrong, here.

And Rush? Her style is so strident and her sound so old-ladyish. I get why housewives got onboard and bought this thing. They could or wanted to relate, so they ate it up like a nice comforting pudding.

--- ---

Those are my thoughts. By the way, I don't know if you can tell, but I am writing my critique of each version as I listen to them. I have to pause a bit now and then, but it's really sort of a play-by-play approach to music appreciation. 

I know some people adore Dion and her style. I'm not saying she's untalented... quite the opposite. I think she's a master manipulator. She has such control of her voice. It is an art form unto itself. But, for me? It sounds calculated and bloodless and I bet she can reproduce those performances nuance for nuance every single time... she's such a professional. For me? That's not fun. That's not music. That's trick pony in the center ring time. 

That said... what are your thoughts? Leave them in the comments section. I could be all wet on this one. Do you like the song?  I do. It's very well written and has a lovely melody. I like the sentiments conveyed. But I don't think we've heard the ultimate version, yet. 


Shirley Bassey recorded a version in 1991, but it was never released as a single. I wanted to include it because I know how much our dear Mistress Maddie adores her. Enjoy!

And thanks for reading. 

The Power of Love - Shirley Bassey


whkattk said...

Celine leaves me cold. I've seen (suffered through) her show at Caesar's via comp tickets.
While I'd never heard Rush, I still have to give this to Laura Brannigan. There's just something about the tenor of her voice that pulls me in.

Jimmy said...

I always think of this song as a Celine anthem, and didn't know Air Supply did the song. I did like their version. No to Brannagin and Bassey (sorry Maddie).

My vote is for Celine. Though I'm not a fan.

anne marie in philly said...

celine's version rules! I always imagine she is singing that song to her husband.

air supply = flaccid rock. YUCK!

the other two are ok, but meh.

Mistress Maddie said...

Alas....the only Power of Love I like is the one by Dee-Lite....a completely different song.

DESPISE Celine. I will refrain saying from what I think of her.

Mistress Maddie said...

@ whkattk said...

You deserve an award alone for sitting through that. I'd rather be water boarded and have ice picks taken to my ears drums.

Deedles said...

All of these grate on my last nerve. Maybe it's the song.

Sixpence Notthewiser said...

OMG I love that you were listening to them as you wrote your impressions! That's the way I read them, literally LOL, mainly because I know nothing about music.
Now, I thought this was an Air Supply music (have that album) and I thought that Céline had done an update. I had no idea Jennifer Rush had written it (didn't she have other hits? I'm too lazy to google it).
I find the song to be utterly 80's (you mentioned Phil Collins, and yes, the reverb!).
I think Céline's version is my fav, followed by Air Supply. I didn't know Branninan had recorded it. I love Laura and all her bombastic productions!
Good move with Miss Shirley Bassey!