In Brief: I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this, but twenty years later, Heart in Motion still holds up as a reasonably solid pop record with the occasional deeper thought.
Ah, the early 90s. What a weird little footnote in the history of pop culture they were, wedged right in between the rainbow-colored and over-synthesized excess of the previous decade, and the cynical, grungy, too-disheveled-to-care navel-gazing that would take us to the century’s end. I didn’t exactly have my finger on the pulse of pop music back then, since I was only barely becoming aware of the world beyond my little protected Christian bubble, but for whatever reason, I tend to remember it as a time when the bubblegum and new wave pop of the 80s was just beginning to collide with the more syncopated, bass-heavy, and vaguely “urban” beats that were the mainstream’s approximation of what was hot in the rap genre at the time. Of course, when “Christian music” made any sort of attempt to be mainstream at the time, it was usually a good three years behind the curve. For better or worse, that was mostly what I was exposed to back then. The first real glimpses of popular culture outside the “bubble” probably came when we got cable. The only premium channel my parents decided would be worth the bother was the Disney Channel, and via my mother’s curiosity about a show she used to like back when she was a kid, I got into The New Mickey Mouse Club, a fact which I’m sort of embarrassed to admit nowadays, but which was a pretty good litmus test for which mainstream pop songs I’d find memorable and which ones I’d consider to be stupid. I learned and came to love nearly half of the songs on Amy Grant‘s Heart in Motion album due to them being performed by the kids on that show, before I even knew that Amy Grant was the original artist.
Wait a second… Amy Grant? I had definitely heard that name before in Christian circles… shoot, we’d even sung “Thy Word” and “El Shaddai” in church a couple times. Mom had a couple of her old tapes lying around. What was she doing all over pop radio and VH1 and so forth all of a sudden? Congratulations, son, you just witnessed one of Christian music’s earliest and most successful attempts at crossover success. It didn’t take long before I became acutely aware of the controversy attached to such success. Remember that this was a subculture where even the superficial appearance of being “like the world” would get stones thrown at you by an audience of previously adoring fans. Amy had already gotten a few slaps on the hand for her earlier attempts at crossing over in the 80s. But when she came out with an album of slick, entirely unorganic, and mostly lighthearted love songs so clearly designed for mainstream chart success, that’s when the claws really came out. Even a few stray references to God and Jesus in isolated songs couldn’t save it in the minds of many listeners. Amy had gone “secular”, and the results were dismissed out of hand by her most conservative set of listeners (including quite a few people who I went to church with). I didn’t really see what all the fuss was about – the songs all seemed innocent enough. Christians fell in love just like anyone else (and I was just getting to the age where I really wanted to know what that was like!), and they dealt with “real world” responsibilities and comforted hurting friends, too, and I didn’t think they always needed to utter God’s name in the middle of those activities for God to be present in them. Why did we have to stop calling it “Christian music” just because a bunch of other people happened to also like it?
It was a few years before I finally got a chance to hear the full album, but when I did, it took hold pretty quickly. Knowing so little of Amy’s history in terms of musical style, I didn’t have the kind of thoughts that I might have today concerning it being a huge sellout on an artistic level. I haven’t gone back in time too much with Amy outside of one or two of those old tapes my mom had, and I rapidly lost interest in going forward after House of Love (the entire album just makes me picture Amy with a big fake smile doing endless promotions for companies like Target). I’m sure that I could probably find a lot to be intrigued by on albums like Lead Me On or Behind the Eyes which tend to get more of the critical acclaim as far as her work goes. But for better or worse, Heart in Motion is the one Amy album that I actually own and know intimately. It’s horribly dated by today’s standards and a lot of folks would probably dismiss it for its big fluffy pop hits (it’s front-loaded with four of ’em!), but further in, there are actually some surprising bits of substance, and in one case even a bit of eerie foreshadowing of the darker days that would follow. Plus, as far as pop albums go, this one had plenty of tunefulness to offset all of the glitzy machinery that was used to create it. The synthesized keyboards and big, bouncy beats might be the first thing to hit your ears, but I’d argue that the really strong melodies are what have kept many of these songs so memorable for over twenty years now. Sure, Amy’s classic hits might be more likely to crop up in your local supermarket than on any music critic’s best-of list nowadays, but for me personally, Heart in Motion remains one of the great pop albums of the 90s, a still-treasured relic (and okay, maybe a bit of a guilty pleasure) from a more innocent age.
1. Good For Me
The first of the four mega-hits that open up the album is a song that I like to think of as Amy’s version of “Opposites Attract”. It’s not like the idea of two people falling in love who have nothing in common was original to Paula Abdul, either, but let’s just say that this was already a well-worn topic in pop music by the time this one rolled around. Its syrupy synth hook and its rubbery, syncopated bass line must have been difficult for fans of Amy’s old stuff to choke down, but let’s be fair – it was hardly Amy’s first cutesy love song. I remember really liking this one back in the day, though revisiting it, it’s not as strong as the other big hits on the album. It still packs a solid hook, but something about it’s just a bit… I don’t know, cartoony. (Again, not to be confused with the Paula Abdul song, which was literally cartoony.) What I’ve realized I like about this one is that it helps to counteract our narcissism, the side of us that just wants to be with someone who likes what we like and thinks the way we think. Though a polar opposite would probably be a terrible match as well, there’s something to be said for the speed demon learning from the relaxed Sunday driver, and vice versa. “When I want to sing the blues, you pull out my dancing shoes”, says the memorable chorus. Who wouldn’t want to be with someone like that? (Well, unless you hate dancing. Which I actually do. But I get what she’s trying to say here.)
2. Baby Baby
Thanks to those squeaky clean kids on the Disney Channel, I can’t hear those two persistent keyboard notes that keep jumping up a note and then back down again, without thinking of bicycles. It’s probably better that I remember some dumb remake of the music video for this one, because the real music video landed Amy in a lot of hot water, for starring in it with a man who was not her husband. (Sorry Gary Chapman, the Powers That Be in pop music just didn’t think you were GQ material, I’m afraid.) I think that was all pretty silly, because music videos are all make-believe anyway, and besides, the whole concept was dumb because the song is literally about a baby. Amy’s daughter Millie, six months old at the time, was the inspiration for the song, and sure, everyone in the world took it as a romantic love song and that’s what made it so darn popular. But when you think about it, the song is much more about protecting and cherishing someone than it is about all the great things that person does for Amy. I mean, what do babies do to make us love them aside from the fact that we have to love them because if we don’t, no one else probably will? Really, they just sit around and look cute. They don’t do squat aside from that. And this song, with all of its incessant, unapologetic girliness (seriously, that hook might as well have come from a My Little Pony commercial), works much better when you think about it in a mother/daughter context than a wife/husband one. I’m not sure what that says about me, since I’m a guy and I still love this song twenty years later. That’s what a solid melody will do for you. Check out those awesome key changes (“Baby, I realize that there’s no getting over yooooOOOOUUUUUU!!!”) and how the whole scale of it shifts for the final vamp. Sheer pop music genius, I tell ya.
3. Every Heartbeat
When in doubt, wallop ’em with a fast, rolling, 6/8 meter. That seems to get me every time. I wasn’t yet familiar with the name Charlie Peacock when I first heard this one, but I soon came to know it as one of the most hard-working singer/songwriter/producers in Christian music at the time. He and Amy’s long-time producer Brown Bannister took charge of writing this one, ensuring that the drums and the juicy little bass licks took no prisoners. This is a song of such complete and utter devotion to a lover that it makes you ever so slightly insane. Every thought is about them, every beat of your heart is another chance to make them yours. OK, that’s a little bit over-the-top. Maybe I can understand a little bit of the complaining here from those who wondered in confusion, “Did she ever sing about being this far over the moon for Jesus?” But then I think the language of silly love songs is prone to exaggeration, versus something of a more religious, devotional nature, where you’d better be sure the audience knows you really mean it. Three things come to mind when I listen to this one nowadays: (1) The goofy parody “Every Teacher” recorded a few years later by Christian comedian Mark Lowry (for an album called Mouth in Motion, naturally), (2) The hilarious space-punk cover version that Eric Champion recorded a few years after that (completely blindsiding his producer, one Mr. Charlie Peacock, in the process), and (3) how uncomfortable the line “Just a love that’s well-designed for passing the test of time” now sounds in the wake of Amy’s divorce at the end of the decade. (Oh, come on. You know I was gonna have to bring it up eventually.)
4. That’s What Love Is For
Alright, time to lay off of the bouncy pop stuff for a few tracks. Here comes the big power ballad! Seriously, if American Idol had existed back in the 90s, this would probably have been the song that an entire flock of hopeful teenage girls would have used to audition. (At least the ones who couldn’t manage to hold it together through an entire Mariah Carey ballad, I guess.) On the surface, it doesn’t seem to have a lot to say – just a vague commercial for love that probably annoyed some folks who wished she would have been clearer about the source of that love. But I think the verses deserve some credit for acknowledging all of the judgment and second-guessing and backbiting that we can too easily fall into as a matter of routine. Certainly Amy had already been the victim of some of that even before the fiasco surrounding this album, and she signs in it in a way that seems to indicate she’s dished out her fair share. Answering all that with just a simple admonishment to remember that’s when we’re supposed to love rather than throw stones might sound like too easy of a conclusion to jump to, and I’ll be honest – if this song had been recorded twenty years later, that’s probably what my cynical adult self would have to say about it. With that being said, the song is once again a triumph in the melody department, designed to build up to all the right high notes (particularly in that last little run at the end of the chorus), but not trying to force Amy to be something she isn’t. Amy’s got a clear but simple voice – it’s friendly, even a tiny bit folksy, but for better or worse, it certainly doesn’t stray into “diva” territory. So writing a song that gives her just the right boost to make her voice go to magnificent but believable places, that took some talent.
5. Ask Me
Most likely, even if you knew all of Amy’s hits back in the 90s, this’ll be one track on the album that you weren’t familiar with and that catches you slightly off guard. The “totally 80s” keyboard and drum programming at the end of it don’t give you much warning that this is gonna be more of a serious song. But as soon as Amy gets into her tale of a little girl hiding from a scary man, the context becomes quite clear: “You see she’s his little rag, nothing more than just a waif/And he’s mopping up his need, she is tired and afraid/Maybe she’ll find a way through these awful years to disappear.” *SCREEEECH!* Holy smokes, is this is a song about child abuse? Yep, and for 90s pop music, it’s surprisingly frank. That this would get addressed at all on a big, glitzy Christian pop record back then is one thing. That she would dive headlong into the question of how God could exist if such suffering is possible is quite another. It’s one of only two songs on the record to directly reference anything spiritual, and I can’t imagine it was one that was easy for Christians to hear at the time. Amy does attempt to offer an answer – “Ask her how she knows there’s a God up in the heaven/She said His mercy is bringing her life again.” How well that sits with you is probably going to depend on the things you’ve seen and believed in your own lifetime. I get what she’s saying – that God was the one to save her from the abuse, not the one to cause it, and that without God, the girl might still be scared and bitter. But I’ve heard enough to know that it isn’t so easily overcome in practice. Still, I’ve gotta give this one points just for being daring enough to engage in an uncomfortable conversation that would have made a lot of religious folks squeamish at the time. And also for giving Amy the chance to really belt it out. I listen to this one and I’m reminded that it probably influenced some of my favorite Margaret Becker songs from back in the day.
Oh, bother. This is the one song that really doesn’t belong on the album. It’s not terrible – incredibly cheesy, perhaps, but then so were all of the big radio hits. It’s just glaringly out of place. Following up a song about child abuse, you want something a little more reassuring, perhaps – a little bit of comfort and compassion to ease you back into the poppier stuff that follows in the back half of the album. That certainly shows up one track later, but first, we get the unwelcome mood whiplash of another cheery love song. It’s like they knew this one was the also-ran in the race to get as many big happy pop singles on the radio as possible, and they crammed it somewhere out of the way by putting it at the end of Side A of the cassette. It’s basically a song about explorers and inventors and their passion for finding something new and how that relates to… wait for it… Amy’s devotion to her lover. D’oh! Any song that starts with “In the year of 1492/When Columbus sailed the ocean blue” certainly can’t end well. And the chorus manages to be not only extra corny, but to also confuse casual listeners over which song is which: “Ask me just how much I love you/You are starlight, I’m Galileo.” Seriously? You took a song with “Ask me” at the beginning of its chorus, and you put it right after “Ask Me”?! You are so fired, A&M record executive from 20 years ago.
7. You’re Not Alone
Side B opens with the song that should have ended Side A – big dramatic strings, feisty electric guitars, and Amy rushing in like a big damn hero to save the day. I can’t really imagine Amy Grant being a suitable choice for an action movie soundtrack, but this is probably the closest she ever came to such a thing. The funny thing is that, despite its inherent edginess, it’s really just about wanting to be someone’s shoulder to cry on. “You need to remember, you’re not alone in this world”, is about the most bone-headedly simple way you can tell someone they’ve got a friend in you, but if you think about it in the context of “Ask Me”, it’s surprisingly effective. I like it just for adding something a little different to Amy’s repertoire. I also think it’s kind of amusing when she whispers “Never alone” again and again during the bridge, almost like a subconscious shout-out to one of her old albums. (Though probably not. For what it’s worth, this is the only song on the album that Amy didn’t co-write.) And the the big screaming guitar solo comes in… and let me tell you, that was a huge surprise to me back then.
The up-tempo fun continues with this peppy, frantic little song about trying to be all things to all people. It’s sort of a wry, humorous look at the pressures of being a mom and a wife and a celebrity and just plain being a woman all at once, and looking back, it strikes me as one of the truest songs to what must have been Amy’s state of mind at the time. A barrage of pretty much everything is constantly jumping out at her – bleating horns, funky guitar licks (hey, that’s Tommy Sims – a guy who produced his fair share of my favorite CCM pop records back in the day), the occasional interjection of sound effects and male background vocals (hey, that’s Chris Eaton – who co-wrote the song with Amy and is perhaps best known for penning her Christmas-themed hit “Breath of Heaven”), and basically a veritable circus all surrounding Amy and making demands on her time. “It don’t stop, no it’s never gonna stop!” she quite nearly shouts. “Why do I have to wear so many things on my head?” I kind of wish this one could have been a single instead of being relegated to forgotten, deep album track status. It was just so much fun, but since it only obliquely referred to romantic love as one of the many things keeping Ms. Grant busy, I guess it didn’t stand a chance of appealing to the lowest common denominator. Pity.
9. I Will Remember You
Speaking of songs that got buried in the back half of the album, this one actually was a single, and as the last of five hits from the album, it’s probably the least remembered of the bunch nowadays. (Interestingly, it’s the one song on this disc that she and her then-husband wrote together.) It’s considerably more melancholy than the album’s more radio-friendly tracks – its rhythm track certainly packs a punch, but its electric guitar riff is more the kind of thing that tugs at heartstrings, and the moody minor key melody certainly shows ua a different side of even the most electronic, programmed part of Amy’s discography. It is essentially what “Friends” was to Michael W. Smith – a dearly cherished friend is packing up and leaving town (or perhaps a lover, if you want to interpret it that way), and Amy decides to bid this person a fond farewell, but she gets all choked up trying to find the words. At times her voice seems to nearly break while holding the notes – “True love is frozen in tiiiiiiiiiiiiime… I’ll be your champion and you will be mine.” Siiiiiiiigh. It sucker punches me every time. This is actually my favorite track on the record. Probably because I really got into it during my senior year of high school, when I knew I was gonna have to say goodbye to a lot of people come June. Score one for shameless sentimentality!
10. How Can We See That Far
This might be the most well-written song on the album. It’s certainly the hardest hitting… and that’s saying something after “Ask Me”. It’s the slowest thing on the album and it’s uncharacteristically somber, with its repeated refrain registering barely higher than a whisper as moody guitars and synth bass set a murky tone that I don’t think a lot of CCM pop albums would have dared venture into in those days. Nowadays, it’s hella awkward to listen to, because it’s all about looking back at promises a couple made when they were young and naive, and admitting that no one can know what the future holds. One might even call it eerily prophetic, given how controversial it was for a celebrity couple in the world of Christian music to divorce when it happened a good seven or eight years after this album came out. Personally, I’d call it one of the first cracks in a facade that Amy probably never wanted to have to maintain in the first place. Marriages – including successful ones – are hard work, and sometimes they go through seasons where everything is just crap and you can’t seem to work it out no matter how hard you try. This song admits vulnerability when exposed to the harsh elements and the ravages of time: “The same sun that melts the wax can harden clay/And the same rain that drowns the rat will grow the hay/And the might wind that knocks us down if we lean to it/Will drive our fears away.” This isn’t how anyone in mainstream pop or in Christian music wanted to view their celebrities. We wanted them to be above the struggle. I sort of see this one as a cry for help. It’s sobering, but it’s also quite poetic.
11. Hope Set High
The album’s final song, though it tries its best to wrap things up with a little bit of hope and a smile, always felt a bit tacked on to my ears. It’s so obviously a concession toward Christian radio with its chorus that states, “When it all comes down, if there’s anything good that happens in life, it’s from Jesus.” I guess there’s an odd, childlike charm to how she signs that, like it’s something she learned in Sunday school. But it still feels like there was some pressure to prove she hadn’t strayed. The 80s programming also isn’t welcome here – the song seems to beg for more of an organic arrangement (which it got when Gary Chapman re-recorded it for the Songs From the Loft project, which was, oddly enough, the first time I heard the song). It just seems like this sort of an album would be better served by dovetailing her faith and her lovelife in a way that made sense with the songs that came before it. Even though this one’s relaxed and warm and not at all trying to slam you with a big hook, it stills feels like a harsh mood shift coming after the heaviness of “How Can We See That Far”. But it was the one song that made Amy’s most conservative fans breathe a temporary sigh of relief, I guess, since some people have to heard the word “Jesus” in a song to know that someone’s still a believer, I guess. It’s also the only song on the album that Amy wrote all by herself, which at least gives me a bit of solace knowing that she felt compelled to do it for personal reasons and not because anyone some other songwriter was hired to patch the album with a happy song at the last minute. We’re hearing a genuine – if somewhat trite – statement of faith the way Amy apparently wanted to say it.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Good For Me $1.25
Baby Baby $1.75
Every Heartbeat $1.75
That’s What Love Is For $1.50
Ask Me $1.25
You’re Not Alone $.75
I Will Remember You $2
How Can We See That Far $1.25
Hope Set High $.25
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.