Glenn Rubenstein asks, Who’s Johnny?
Glenn Rubenstein puts a lot of thought into things.
Sure, sometimes it’s an important thing, but other times it’s something that’s might only be important to Glenn.
I hadn’t heard the El DeBarge song Who’s Johnny in over two decades before having the odd impulse to download it last year.
I won’t lie: My initial impulse wasn’t based out of any deep or artistic appreciation for the musical stylings of El DeBarge.
Rather, I was having a conversation with someone about pop music from the mid 80s and said, “Hey, remember that really obnoxious DeBarge song from Short Circuit? The one that was almost as bad as Rod Stewart’s Love Touch (from Legal Eagles) or Billy Ocean’s When the Going Gets Tough (from the Jewel of the Nile)?”
The person I was talking only vaguely remembered the song, and then, after I spent a good five minutes defending the Tom Hanks and Dan Akroyd jam, City of Crime (from the movie Dragnet), it seemed imperative that I download and listen to El DeBarge’s Who’s Johnny.
After all, I already had the other three songs on my iPod.
So I went online and actually purchased Who’s Johnny via iTunes, because apparently it wasn’t in enough demand that I could find it via illegal means in the MP3 format.
Sure, Who’s Johnny is a bit obscure as far as 80s pop music goes, but it was a Top 10 hit in the United States – El DeBarge’s first solo hit, in fact – and yes, it was released as a soundtrack tie-in to the movie Short Circuit in the summer of 1986.
However, it’s not as well-remembered as the hits that El DeBarge had when he was still in the group DeBarge with his siblings. Songs like Rhythm of the Night and Who’s Holding Donna Now? seem to have stuck around for the better part of the last two decades, popping up now and again on the radio or in a movie, television show, or advertisement.
But unlike those chart toppers, Who’s Johnny has the distinction of being parodied by Weird Al Yankovic, in his track Here’s Johnny from the album Polka Party.
(I know this, of course, because I owned all of Weird Al’s albums on cassette back in 1987, when I was 11 years old and just barely into the onset of my “awkward phase” that lasted until the age of 25).
Flashing back to the year 2007:
Having spent my 99 cents, I started playing the track and was actually surprised at how much I was digging the song – and it was also a little shocking how it didn’t sound as dated as I had thought it would. Rating it 4 stars via iTunes, Who’s Johnny quickly became one of my many guilty pleasures when shuffling through music on my iPod. (A guilty pleasure in that I normally wouldn’t admit that I like the song…except of course here on my blog, the one with my name, Glenn Rubenstein on it, which clearly links it to me).
Granted, I’ve had this sort of re-discovery happen to me with a few songs that I’ve revisited in recent years, such as Harvey Danger’s Flagpole Sitta, which I despised upon its initial release in 1998 but got into it through its use as the theme music on the UK comedy Peep Show, or The Toadies song Possum Kingdom, which I thought was overplayed in 1995, but I had it randomly stuck in my head one day in 2004, and I fell in love with the track after listening to it again.
Yet with Who’s Johnny, I couldn’t remember what had inspired my 20 year break from listening to this strangely catchy pop song in the first place – I wasn’t really listening to the radio in 1986, so how could it have been overplayed?
Then I remembered that MTV was still showing music videos in 1986! But still, even though they played this video a lot, they had MUCH better rotation and variety back then – so it couldn’t have just been overexposure that turned me off the song.
Out of curiosity, I went on YouTube to re-watch the music video… and I remembered why I must have purposefully blocked Who’s Johnny from my memory:
The music video for Who’s Johnny is pretty “80s bad” for its own reasons… but it’s hard to separate them from the video’s painful ties to the movie Short Circuit, complete with Ally Sheedy co-starring alongside El DeBarge in some odd musical version of a court trial over the events of the movie.
I didn’t think it at the time, but re-watching the video twenty years later, the court proceedings in the Who’s Johnny music video don’t even make sense.
First and foremost, what is El DeBarge’s relevance as a witness? He wasn’t in the actual movie, and therefore could not possibly testify as to the events that transpired. Fisher Stevens’ character would have been a much better choice.
(And speaking of which, Fisher Stevens had some range as an actor: You’d never know he was the same guy from My Science Project. Sure, he may have had the bad judgment to star in Short Circuit 2, but he did also marry Michelle Pfeiffer).
Also, how is it possible that Johnny 5 is sneaking around the courtroom and performing hijinks on an unsuspecting prosecutor and judge in this video? That robot was hardly stealth, and even though we never see more than his arm and hand in this music video (because at the time his full appearance was being kept secret, I believe), it’s obvious from the physical dimensions of the courtroom set that a big, bulky robot could not nimbly play pranks while a trial was underway.
But most curious is the life-size black and white cardboard cut-out of Steve Guttenberg, just chilling out behind the bailiff for the video’s duration. Clearly, Mr. Guttenberg had the good sense to sit out making a personal appearance in the music video, as this must have been during his brief A-list status, which began with 1985’s Cocoon and ended with 1988’s Cocoon: The Return.
Ally Sheedy did not exercise such restraint, and her appearance in the Who’s Johnny music video might have actually done more to hurt her career than her role in the movie Short Circuit.
Having solved the mystery of my previous mental block, and having vowed to never watch that music video again (except to write this), I began to wonder about the song’s backstory and I have actually grown a bit curious about its history over the last year or so.
Upon repeated listening, I sometimes wonder whether it was written before or after El DeBarge was commissioned to add a song to the Short Circuit soundtrack. If you forget about the movie itself, which by all means, you should, is it even clear what the song is about?
After all, it doesn’t take Robert Goren to deduce that the song was chosen for the soundtrack simply because of the character named Johnny 5, even though the song has nothing to do with the movie.
If you follow the actual lyrics of the song, it sounds like a guy talking about a woman he is in love with who is denying she has a boyfriend or some other guy she is hooking up with, whose name happens to be Johnny. She’s asking who Johnny is because she doesn’t know any Johnny, yet the singer of the song suspects otherwise.
But then there is that line near the end that says “that girl’s pretending she can’t remember my name,” which leads me to believe that the singer of the song is actually the Johnny in question and the girl is really his girlfriend who is messing with him by asking Who’s Johnny.
Personally, I think this revelation that the song is sung from perspective of this “Johnny” is completely lost on most people since the artist singing the song isn’t named Johnny. Or at least I’m using that as my excuse for not figuring it out until just recently.
So if the song is indeed sung from the perspective of Johnny, what is also a tad confusing is that at the end of the song, El sings that the girl walked off with another guy. He also sounds strangely upbeat about this fact, but granted, with his high vocal range, anything El DeBarge sings about sounds upbeat with a dance groove behind it.
Either that, or perhaps the character in the song has a masochistic streak in him to be cuckolded by his women.
But in all fairness, the song was actually written by Peter Wolf (the Australian songwriter/producer and not the vocalist from the J. Geils Band). Peter Wolf was also responsible for co-writing Starship’s We Built This City, and he also wrote Wang Chung’s Everybody Have Fun Tonight and the Kenny Loggins classic Playing with the Boys.
As for another possible (yet incorrect) theory about the song’s meaning:
Back in the summer of 1986, someone tried to convince me that the song was about Johnny Carson and Joan Rivers, given that Joan Rivers had just quit her gig as the guest host on the Tonight Show for her own (ill-fated) late night talk show. Nothing but the chorus backs this theory up, but when you’ve just completed the fifth grade, this was the kind of thing that qualified as a “topical discussion.”
(Although, coincidentally enough, a few months later Weird Al’s parody Here’s Johnny came out, which is actually about the Tonight Show, Johnny Carson, and Ed McMahon).
Anyhow, this whole experience led me to learn more than I ever thought possible about the El DeBarge song Who’s Johnny, and I came to two conclusions from my re-discovery of it:
1. The song is actually pretty good (especially for 80s pop).
2. I hate the movie Short Circuit.