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Culture, Music

Burn Out All My Love

by Brandon Edmonds / 27.06.2013

Great songs always operate a little bit like the best science fiction. They make the future present (if not possible) by imagining it as if it was already here. This can make them seem redemptive and optimistic and may just be the source of their power over us. Like wormholes, portals, and magic wardrobes, great songs break the glum Newtonian rules of the universe, defying entropy, by staying fresh forever.

As Jay-Z told Rolling Stone, introducing their mega list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, a great song “takes the emotions of a moment and holds it for years to come – it transcends time.” So Chuck Berry’s 1958 ‘Johnny B. Goode’ is still impossibly galvanic, alive and better on every listen than (almost) all the rock music it has brought into being in its wake. Marvin Gaye’s sublime 70s soul bulletin ‘What’s Goin On’ still outdoes anything by the Dream, Frank Ocean or Miguel. Hell, the Pixies’ ‘Debaser’ will never stop meaning something urgent and crucial to misunderstood teens seething in bedrooms. While Beyonce’s ‘Crazy in Love’ has only sweetened and deepened its headlong glory in the decade since it dropped. Time transcendence, Hunties.

Over the coming weeks, with freshness and the rare quality and in no particular order, Mahala offers up 20 of the Greatest South African Pop Songs Evah.

Church Street in Pretoria in 1983. Outside the HQ of the SA Air Force around four thirty in the afternoon, the working day winding down, a busy place at a busy hour, a parked blue Alpha Romeo explodes. Shit is instantly chaotic and gruesome. Bodies lay maimed and dying. 17 are dead. 130 injured. A plume of apocalyptic smoke rises over the city. Shop fronts shattered like a war zone because that is what South African cities had become.

The ANC planted the car bomb to end white minority rule, to usher in the society that surrounds us today. Ja. Tense, violent, on edge and murderous, arson, repression, bombs, a full blown state of emergency: that was 1983 in this country. The air force ignored international law and struck ANC bases in Maputo in revenge. The Supreme Court was bombed. Umkhonto we Sizwe was active and winning. People were terrified. Guerrilla war was everyday life. The “rooi gevaar” was never more empirically vivid to the cunts that ran the county.

And then ‘Burn Out’ happened.

From out of the toxic sludge of national dread and loathing it bloomed, cutting across racial divisions and suspicions, to become a monster “crossover” hit. Even white people liked it. 500,000 citizens would physically buy the single. Before the internet. They actually left the house to pick it up at a record store. That’s right. Here is a song so good it crossed over… in a State of Emergency! In the context of car bombs and armed struggle, all kinds of officially divided people could agree: this is a brilliant pop song. That is why art gets banned sometimes. Why real artists matter. They set the future in motion. They enable dangerous social connections, bringing folks together, generating what Deleuze & Guattari once called “lines of flight”. They take axes to frozen seas. Yet most artists can only dream of medical aid.

Let’s look a little closer. What a weird, disturbing pop song ‘Burn Out’ really is. The whole thing revolves around a revenge pomp. It’s your basic male revenge fantasy like Bronson’s Death Wish or Neil Labute’s The Company of Men and every Superhero movie ever made. The world is broken and someone did me wrong, so now my muscles, my brains and my dick are gonna set things aright.

Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse wants to “burn out” all his love on a girl who’s been “messing round with other guys”. In one fell swoop he’ll regain control and move on. “Tonight, I’m gonna hold you till you cry for more.” Swap “hold” for a verb more carnal and here is a guy who intends boinking himself into supremacy in a rocky relationship. Hot sex as a way to punish her and win. This may explain the crossover somewhat. All kinds of men can identify with Hotstix here. Do her till she begs for mercy. Show her who’s boss. And all kinds of women have no problem with being “held” until they cry out for more. Quite frankly, they’re counting on (and seldom getting) it.

Did the vengeful sexual dynamic in the song mirror the life or death intent of the armed struggle in the 1980s? The concept of making the county “ungovernable”? Probably. But who cares now? What remains are the effervescent, stick in your head wonders of the song itself. That distinctive xylophone opening. Then the great spindly piano riff that makes ‘Burn Out’ infinitely repeatable. There’s so much scorched earth in that riff. So much of the bare necessities of township life, the unadorned directness, and also the joys, the fraternity, the fun and games, and lastly, especially, the way it lands square in your heart if you’re remotely South African.

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