Wilson Phillips: How the 90s Introduced Me to the 80s

Hannah Donahue

Ah, the 1980s…the decade where vivid neon and perky pastels unrooted equable and banal Earth tones; where large, cumbersome vinyl records crackled with envy at the growing portability of compact cassettes and discs; where the chaotic chronicles of Nixon, Ford and Carter gave way to a 10-plus year streak of Republican-led permanence starring a former Hollywood actor and governor; and where Jon Bon Jovi promised that we were “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “halfway there.” 

“Halfway there” to who, what, where and how? It honestly didn’t matter, so long as the journey was accompanied by soaring vocals, sky-high guitar solos, a copious diet of synth and drums so forceful and full it gave listeners the feeling they were hearing their commercially-viable sermons live. Minus the hearing-loss and unruly masses of drunk, high and/or horny concertgoers, of course. 

These are just a minute collection of reasons why I adore the 1980s unlike any decade before or after it: It was an era of clarity, optimism and victory after decades of doubt, imminent danger and internal disloyalty, where everything from the shock of Watergate to the looming clouds of nuclear annihilation threatened to shred a fragile nation – and the ideal of Western democracy itself – into slivers of despair and desperation. As the 1980s progressed, those fears fortunately fell flat thanks to accomplishments in foreign policy led by Reagan that slowly democratized the Soviet Union and stripped it of its Stalinist identity and rotting Leninist roots. In response to the collapse of mainstream communism, Western music was anything but afraid to show off its pride and progress in big ways, ranging from the aforementioned “full” sound and the introduction of digital recording, to lyricists letting go of all social inhibitions and allowing Phil Collins to feel it “In The Air Tonight” or Aerosmith to promote the joys of “Love In An Elevator” or “Livin’ On the Edge.” 

Having grown up in a mild-rock household featuring the likes of Seals and Crofts, The Doobie Brothers, The Eagles, and Genesis, to have artists like Def Leppard, Cutting Crew, Peter Cetera, John Waite, Night Ranger, The Outfield and others flowing through my earbuds granted me a larger-than-life musical experience, one that immersed me into their experimental power-pop soundscapes and declarations of liberty, self-reliance (save for the presence of their lovers) and self-defense against a system that had, for decades, played it safe and soft. From this vintage playlist emerged a new appreciation for richly layered sound design and multi-dimensional harmonies, a harsh contrast to the simple, flat and ascetic audio mixes of yester-decades. 

Thus, you might logically inquire how an album from the 1990s’ reincarnation of The Beach Boys fits in with any of this. Well, had it not been for Wilson Phillips and their 1990 eponymously-titled debut album, I would have never discovered my love for “Your Love.” 

“Wilson Phillips,” despite its release in early 1990, was recorded in the dying light of 1989 and thus carries all the hallmarks and highlights of a great 80s AOR experience: a foundation of multi-leveled vocal harmonies (Carnie Wilson, Wendy Wilson and Chynna Phillips) buttressed by bright and honied keyboards and synths, hair-infused guitars, viscous and booming drums courtesy of legendary drummer John Robinson and a 10-piece libretti whose sole existence stems from its ability to sooth the nerves, ease the pain and keep the wheels turning no matter what. Three-hundred and sixty-five days before the grunge of Nirvana and Pearl Jam would muddy the waters, producer Glenn Ballard delivered a confectionary ray of sunshine that topped the charts and gave the 80s’ legacy one last breath of fresh air before it eventually choked on the rougher acoustics of Soundgarden and Metallica and faded into the top annals of pop history. 

And it’s a really a shame that it and the trio that headed it faded as fast as they did: Following their smashing entrance, Wilson Phillips released “Shadows and Light,” which starred most of the same team but failed to output another hit equivalent to “Hold On” or “Release Me,” making their own song “The Dream Is Still Alive” slightly ironic. Following this lukewarm outcome, the band hibernated until 2004 when they released “California,” a collection of covers guest-starring selections from The Beach Boys, one of their predecessors and home of Brian Wilson, the father of Carnie and Wendy. A Christmas album, along with a reunion with producer Glenn Ballard, followed six years later, itself followed by their final album to date, “Dedicated,” in 2012. 

Had it lacked the immersive production and inspirationally catchy lyrics, “Wilson Phillips” would not have acquired the number two spot on the Billboard 200 through the sale of over five million copies, nor would have its first single, “Hold On,” won the Billboard Music Award for Hot 100 Single of the Year for 1990 and nominated for a “Song of the Year” Grammy the following year. Speaking of which, it comes time to analyze the album’s top tracks and see how well the trio “Hold[s] On” to its victorious façade: 

“Hold On”: This song was the sole reason I chose to write this review; even after exactly 30 years and an unfathomable series of current events, Feb. 27, 2020, confirms just how well this song and its anthemic message withstands the test of time. Ballard, Phillips and Carnie Wilson use this chart-topping cut to place a motherly hand on the shoulders of the dispirited and elucidate how “No one can change your life except for you / Don’t ever let anyone step all over you / Just open your heart and your mind.” At the same time, that same parental tone acknowledges the significance of personal responsibility, and how “You could sustain / Or are you comfortable with the pain?/ You’ve got no one to blame for your unhappiness / You got yourself into your own mess.” Its naïve simplicity aside, the song’s calls for the downed to “break free from the chains” rewards those who do with a uplifting promise that “Things’ll go your way / If you hold on for one more day,” an ideal pop hymn that never fails to cleanse my inner health of the day’s doubt and stress, knowing that it can only get better tomorrow. Amid a cooling Cold War and imminent prosperity, its success could not have been better timed. 

“Release Me”: Although slightly less cheerful than “Hold On,” the band’s penchant for optimism perseveres even when dealing with a failing relationship. The song takes an occasional Canadian turn when it politely asks “Can you release me,” but other times puts it foot down and commands their former lover to “Come on Darlin’, hear me Darlin’ / ‘Cause you’re a waste of time for me / I’m trying to make you see / That baby you’ve just got to release me.” Cinematically-conducted orchestral horns and strings help the band’s “weakened heart” heal over the course of the track, attempt to uncover what “power you’ve got on me,” and warn the former lover to “stop coming around my door / ‘Cause you’re not gonna find / What you’re looking for.” 

“Impulsive”: A respectable cut concerning the “secret of love,” “acting on the moment” and wanting to “lose myself in your kiss” – in other words, a confession of a typical hormone-driven teenage love affair – that benefits from the star power of Eagles player Joe Walsh, who contributes a slide-guitar solo that gives the song an appropriate rock edge. Depending on where you buy the album, though, you may be treated to an album mix that slightly hides the guitars in a full-bodied mix emphasized by synths and additional drums or an “AOR” mix that minimizes the synths in favor of more Walsh and resembles a track from Toshiki Kadomatsu’s 1987 instrumental masterpiece “Sea Is A Lady.” Either one, however, fits the bill. 

“Over and Over”: The album’s darkest moment, “Over and Over” is basically the dying relationship of “Release Me” if we witnessed the aftermath of the breakup, and how the band is practically stranded as a result. “Hey, we’re moving like the sea (can you take me) / Where I want to be (where I want to be) / It’s clearer than water / My love can’t be stronger / And no one’s better for me!” But here there are in the middle of the icy cold ocean, hit by waves of dejection and realizations that “in the real world / You make it so hard,” so much so that “I’ve lost my faith in the stars / ‘Cause my heart keeps on breaking” for a long time to come. Despite its somber tone, it maintains its poppy, immersive warmth and eager harmonies, even if “The fire keeps on dying in the end.” 

“The Dream Is Still Alive”: If “Wilson Phillips” ever played out like a motion picture, this track and its unremitting idealism would serve as its happy ending and credit roll… not that that’s a bad thing, though. The song starts out acting as a knot to tie up any loose ends the album may have had, reprising how “Not so long ago we were so in phase / You and I could never forget the days / But then the fire seemed to flicker / Cold wind came and it carried us away / But we’ll get back someday, baby.” Following the first chorus, though, it quickly spins itself as a Phil Collins “…But Seriously” tribute as it notes times when “People dreamed out loud they were not afraid / They stopped the war but not the dying / Some got a little bit lost along the way”; although it does not reference or bring to mind any specific conflict, it mentions a “purple haze” – a term synonymous with either psychedelic or nostalgic romance – so a possible Romeo and Juliet connection would not be too far off. Speaking of Phil Collins, this track pulls a “Tarzan“ on us and provides a Spanish version sung by Wilson Phillips themselves for those determined to find it. Like “Tarzan,“ the Spanish cover may not have been all that necessary, but it goes to prove just how talented they could be, how they honored the finale of the power-pop era and how we undeservingly forgot to keep their dream alive for one more album.