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Secretly Horrifying Song Lyrics: "Don't You Want Me" by The Human League

October 4, 2013  |  12:36pm
Secretly Horrifying Song Lyrics: "Don't You Want Me" by The Human League

In Durham, North Carolina, 98.7 FM plays everything.

That’s not strictly true, or even remotely true, but it is the station’s slogan. And since most radio is terrible, and my 1992 iPod nano battery dies when exposed to oxygen, 98.7 is my go-to for the occasional fun ‘80s hit and at least one song by Heart every 30 minutes. I tend to reserve it for short drives, and it was on a recent jaunt to the grocery store that I found myself jamming out to “Don’t You Want Me” by the Human League.

We all know the song. Super-catchy, super-sad, with a plaintive dude pining for lost love. It’s a known fact that 56 percent of all men choose “Don’t You Want Me” as their main karaoke tune, and it’s not just for the awesome chorus. The truth is, this song resonates. There was a point in everyone’s childhood, back before we built up our defense mechanisms, when we met rejection with that very innocent expression of hurt: Don’t you want me? It’s a naked declaration of unrequited love, and it’s superb.

For whatever reason, though, I’d never really listened to the words beyond the chorus. That changed on my drive to the grocery store, when I overcome my usual distraction and let the rest of the song sink in.

And you know what? It gets real crazy, gang! It’s not innocent or melancholy at all; it’s vicious and angry! It turned my entire world upside down, and I’m worried that it’s going to ruin a fun, wistful pop song forever. As such, it MUST undergo a thorough, line-by-line analysis. If nothing else, this will help me pass on my disturbed feeling to you, the reader. When we’re done, I’ll give it an official rating on the Horrifying Scale and we’ll all assume the fetal position.

One last important note: I’m purposefully not reading any backstory until I’m finished. I want to revel in the horror without preconceptions before I Google the song meaning. So let’s get to it! Lyrics in bold, my comments after.

“You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar
When I met you”

Okay, pretty innocuous start. Unless, that is, you know what’s coming next. Because do I detect a whiff of sexism here? That’s kind of a stereotypically demeaning place to work, right? You imagine really short skirts and the awful kind of male clientele who call the waitresses “sugar” and always find excuses to touch them as they order. I’m getting the chills just thinking about it. Is the narrator trying to tell us that she was good looking but not much else? Is he asking us to make a value judgment? Is he trying to shame her with memories of her past? Nahhh, I’m probably overreacting…

“I picked you out, I shook you up
And turned you around
Turned you into someone new”

Nope. He’s a dick. Five lines in, and he’s already a confirmed dick. He’s saying she was nothing before she met him, basically just a sex object, until he came along with his big savior complex and rescued her from the lesser men that make up the cocktail bar landscape. (To be fair, men who go to cocktail bars to ogle the waitresses are definitely lesser in the eyes of God and Man.) (But wait, why was the narrator in the cocktail bar in the first place??? To pick up waitresses by promising to make them famous? New layers of creepy! New layers of creepy!)

“Now five years later on you’ve got the world at your feet
Success has been so easy for you”

Yay, she succeeded! This makes me wonder, though—who is this guy? A talent agent of some kind, right? And now she’s an actress, or a singer? And the guy is clearly John Hinckley Jr., who tried to impress Jodie Foster by shooting Ronald Reagan?

“But don’t forget it’s me who put you where you are now”

Condescension and bitterness. Always fun in a partner. If he’s attempting to win her back, he’s definitely going about it the right way. Personally, I can’t count the number of break-ups I’ve avoided by shouting things like, “you’re nothing without me! NOTHING!”

And I can put you back down, too

Wait, what?! If she’s already successful, and it was so easy for her, how could he take it away from her? His bitter tone seems to indicate that she’s flown beyond him in terms of fame, so this can only mean he’s threatening her, right? Perhaps…with violence? (Or pictures of the times they had sex, because pretty clearly that would inspire a strong, “Oh God, you had sex with that guy?” reaction from the general public.)

Don’t, don’t you want me?
You know I can’t believe it when I hear that you won’t see me

Oh man, this guy doesn’t even speak to her directly anymore! He has to hear her answers through an intermediary because he’s freaked her out so much. That either means there’s a restraining order in place, or one is coming. This is starting to get sad.

Don’t, don’t you want me?

Pretty clearly not.

You know I don’t believe you when you say that you don’t need me

Believe it, dude. She’s super successful now and you’re some guy who frequents cocktail bars.

It’s much too late to find
You think you’ve changed your mind

Why is it too late for her to change her mind, terrifying narrator? Doesn’t she have the same license to choose her romantic partners as you or I? WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO TO HER?

You’d better change it back
Or we will both be sorry

AHHHHHHHH!!!!

He’s going to kill her.

AHHHHHHHH!!!!

And maybe himself?

AHHHHHHHHH!!!!

Don’t you want me, baby?
Don’t you want me?
Oh!
Don’t you want me, baby?
Don’t you want me
Oh!

What I’m trying to tell you is that no, she doesn’t want you, man! She pretty clearly doesn’t, and I think deep down you know that. And why are you trying to win us over with this catchy melody after you’ve basically threatened her life for the entire song? It’s not going to work. There’s no melody in the world that can overcome such hate, and….

And…wow, it is, uh…it is catchy, but there’s the whole thing with the rage…and the misogyny, and, uh…I’m growing weak….

sings at the top of my lungs

DON’T YOU WANT ME, BABY!!!!

I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar
That much is true
But even then I knew I’d find a much better place
Either with or without you
The five years we have had have been such good times
I still love you
But now I think it’s time I lived my life on my own
I guess it’s just what I must do

The waitress strikes back! I’m glad we get to hear her perspective. And actually, this is a pretty tame response. She tells him she would have succeeded with or without his help, and even says she still loves him.

Quick question, female narrator: Did you notice the part above where he seemed really, really dangerous? I don’t often use the phrase “intent on harm,” but it feels like this guy may be intent on harm. I wish you’d acknowledge that aspect for your own safety. It seems like you fixated on the cocktail waitress comment, which, believe me, is the least of your worries right now. Do you have any cop friends? Do you walk alone at night often? Do you carry a gun? Do you think electric toothbrushes are better than the normal ones? (That last question is just for me…I’m thinking of getting an electric toothbrush.)

Also, female narrator: Five years with this guy?! Definitely was not expecting that length of relationship. Based on how you didn’t react at all to his earlier threats, I’m guessing you might have missed a few disturbing signs along the way. Did he become hysterical on city streets when he thought other men were looking at you? Did he bury his head in your hair and take long sniffs? Did he own a lot of photos of you that he posted all over his bedroom wall with words like “PERFECTION” and “IMMORTAL DIVINE” written in aggressive magic marker? In your next relationship, look out for things like that.

Don’t, don’t you want me?
You know I can’t believe it when I hear that you won’t see me
Don’t, don’t you want me?
You know I don’t believe you
When you say that you don’t need me

Back to our old friend the sinister weirdo. Apparently he thinks that asking her a second time will make a difference. “Actually,” she might say, “I do sort of want you now, after your earlier attempts at intimidation. That’s a huge turn-on.”

It’s much too late to find
You think you’ve changed your mind
You’d better change it back
Or we will both be sorry

I think I’ll start using the phrase “we’ll both be sorry” in regular interactions. When you separate it from the terror of whatever’s happening in this song, it’s actually kind of funny. It implies that you’re such a train wreck you’ll ruin everything when provoked. Usually when you threaten someone, you’re focusing on them. But in this case, you’re essentially saying, “If you pull anything on me, I am such a loose cannon that we are BOTH screwed, amigo.” It’s somehow even more terrifying, right? If your enemy doesn’t care about himself, that just makes everything way more dangerous.

Don’t you want me, baby?
Don’t you want me?
Oh!
Don’t you want me, baby?
Don’t you want me?

Andddd that’s a wrap. I know this is a song and therefore fiction, but I’m still worried about that young lady. The three options, as I see them, are that the guy killed her, killed himself, or both. There’s just way too much instability here for a scenario that doesn’t involve death. If anyone still has newspapers saved from 1981, please check this out for me.

So, before we assign “Don’t You Want Me” an official Horror Rating, it’s time to look at the backstory. As you might guess by the appearance of the female narrator, lead singer Philip Oakey designed the song as a meta-commentary. In his words, it’s a “a nasty song about sexual power politics.” And in that case, I say well done! Contrary to what I said before, this actually raises the song in my estimation. How often do you see pop tackle issues like that anymore?

(Funny side note: Band member Susan Ann Sulley frequently has to explain that the song isn’t about her, and that she never worked as a cocktail waitress. Suffice it to say, this irritates her.)

Oddly enough, Oakey didn’t even want it released as a single because he thought it was too poppy, but it’s certainly made him a lot of money since. And because he’s depicting a creepy scenario to make a point rather than acting one out because he’s deranged, we’re going to have to give “Don’t You Want Me” two separate scores.

Human League Horror Rating: 3.2

Male Narrator Horror Rating: 9.1

If you’d like to submit a song for consideration to “Secretly Horrifying Song Lyrics,” send an email to mailbag@pastemagazine.com. Gratitude and full credit on these pages will be yours, and both are eternal.

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