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"Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" by THE EURHYTHMICS
Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart were broke and had broken up as a couple, and their musical partnership was headed the same way. This is what The Eurhythmics' Sweet Dreams were made of.
Everybody's looking for something
Annie Lennox was curled up on the floor in a fetal position. She was living her dream as an artist, only it was one of those anxiety dreams of being unable to find the place where you know you need to be. Her band The Tourists had broken up on tour in Australia, and she and Dave Stewart broke up as romantic partners on the flight home. They resolved to continue making music together, taking the name The Eurythmics, and even convinced a sympathetic, music-loving bank manager to lend them £50001 for new equipment, but her experience with the music business had left her broke and maybe broken.
Stewart was struggling to make that equipment work. They were fighting; Stewart was on speed and Lennox lay depressed on the floor of their studio. In the wake of The Tourists’ split, the duo decided to embark on a more experimental, electronic direction. Stewart put the bank loan toward a Movement MCA Percussion Computer, a short-lived British-made drum machine, and a Roland SH-101 analog synth, both of which were brand new to the market. “What the hell was that?” Lennox said after he managed to produce what’s a now-familiar beat and riff. She stood up and went to another synth, a borrowed Oberheim OB-X, and began to play its sustained strings. It worked, and she improvised a vocal line, a dispassionate rant about being caught in the gears of an unfair system.
“Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” was the title track to The Eurythmics’s 1983 second album. Still, their record label RCA said there was no chorus and didn’t see it as a single, releasing three other tracks first. It was only after a radio DJ in Cleveland2 gave it a single spin, causing request lines to light up and earning the song consistent airplay, that the label released “Sweet Dreams” as a single. The song went on to be a global top 10 hit, reaching #2 in the UK and #1 in Canada, France, and the U.S.3.
Sweet dreams are made of this
Who am I to disagree
I travel the world and the seven seas
Everybody's looking for something
The tension between the Roland riff that pulled Lennox off the floor and her revenge-is-a-dish-best-served-cold vocal phrasings gives the song its compelling edge. Lennox’s vocal isn’t strident; she sings beautifully, but there’s something menacing in her restraint. Real power is not having to use it, and there are moments in the song where you hear the heights Lennox’s voice can reach, which furthers the song’s authoritative tone — she’s calmly explaining how things are as if you are hopelessly naïve to believe otherwise.
Much of synthpop succeeds by exploiting the man-machine dichotomy — human voices contrasting with silicone-driven sounds. Here, Lennox has a different machine in mind — not one driven by circuit boards, but one of men and the music business. This being a hit song in 1983, it’s impossible to fully divorce the music from the images of it’s MTV-blanketing music video. Lennox wears a business suit, claiming the power of the boardroom and presenting herself as Stewart’s equal, the antithesis of the girl singer sidekick; her close-cropped hair is dyed the color of a traffic cone; and her ice-blue eyes stare straight down the barrel of the camera4. She mimics the beat of the drum machine snare by tapping a riding crop on her palm. It’s clear who is in control, and it’s not the audience.
Some of them want to use you
Some of them want to get used by you
Some of them want to abuse you
Some of them want to be abused
Here’s where the lack of chorus works in the song’s favor. There’s no central hook for the audience to hang onto. The opening verse is catchy if unsettling. The second, with Lennox opening up her vibrato a touch is even more so; she sings about desires to abuse or be abused. Armchair interpretation of song lyrics seldom ambles off the twin paths of sex and drugs, and the deployment of a riding crop in the music video only furthered assumptions that the song is about BDSM. The users and abusers Lennox sings of, however, are most certainly execs and opportunists in the music business. That The Eurythmics went on to a long and successful career — including Lennox’s solo albums, the pair sold over 83 million albums — doesn’t change the urgency that put Lennox on that studio floor that day. She felt the weight of a system designed to put artists in debt5.
Stewart had the idea to counter the darkness of those lyrics with the “keep your head up/ hold your head up/ movin’ on” bridge. It is a respite, and perhaps therein lies hope, but the effect of hearing those uplifting lyrics sung by Lennox as a pop music angel is whipsawing. And in that is the real hook in “Sweet Dreams” — its disregard of the pop song rulebook. For all its doses of pop pleasure, the song leaves some assembly required on the part of the audience, which is its way of making its truths your own.
“It’s not a normal song so much as a weird mantra that goes round and round,” Annie Lennox said of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” “but somehow it became our theme song.” It became The Eurhythmics’ theme because they made a not normal song so compelling that it became mainstream. There is great power in that. You can hear it on oldies radio now, its edges worn smooth by nostalgia. The song’s mantra, however, remains as true as it ever was in our anxiety dreams and perpetual seeking — everybody is still looking for something.
20 Song Playlist
Arranged mostly by mood: Eurhythmics, then Annie Lennox solo and around back again.
Living Out Loud
Reading your work out loud has always been good writing advice. If trying to speak a sentence requires supplemental oxygen, maybe you ought to cut it down to size. But reading my writing to make it into a podcast has done more than curb my tendency toward super-long sentences. It’s made me conscious that you have less control over how someone hears something than how they read it. People don’t hear punctuation; they hear vocal inflection. Audiences are engaged differently. I have no wisdom to dispense here — it’s just interesting to me. I love what I still think of as The Page when writing, but audiences are always going to be engaged differently as media evolves, which is destabilizing and inspiring in equal measure.
Thanks to my old WRSU chum Jules Herbert for commenting on how he digs the footnotes. I fear he’s only encouraged me further.
I’ve always admired Jules, who could chew you out for something and somehow make you like him more. A favorite college radio memory is getting a call from Jules around midnight asking if I could do an emergency overnight fill in. “I don’t care if you’re drunk,” he said. I headed across campus to the radio station, grabbing a gyro from a Grease Truck (a food truck in Rutgers parlance) along the way. When the weekend country DJ Herb Sudzin relieved me at 6 am, he said “Boy, does it ever stink in here. Does it ever stink.” I got a call on the request line at about 4 am from a woman who wanted to talk about scorpion birth. I wish I had a tape of that show.
In a later interview, Lennox suggested it was £3000. In any case, £5000 in 2023 money is about $18,000.
Is the station WMMS? Does anyone know the DJ? I feel if it were Kid Leo we’d have heard about it by now. There are dozens of references to the Cleveland station breaking the song, but I haven’t found the who and where, and my best Cleveland contact is busy moving to Amsterdam.
The song also went to #36 on the Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. Everybody really was looking for something.
There was also a cow. which Stewart noted was to “represent reality.” It made sense in the ‘80s. Stewart also noted that the cow pissed all over the place.
I very briefly was an artist manager. I had an artist signed to Interscope and ate dinner at Jimmy Iovine’s house. Which I mention just as context for how I’ve represented the music business. I should also mention that I was a terrible manager. That I’m still friends with one of the artists I managed is more a credit to him than me.