1988 Countdown #90: Natalie Cole, “Pink Cadillac”

Top of the hour: MTV does a 30-second station ID. The network had retired the classic astronaut footage by 1988, but kept the theme song. This spot is a nifty piece of animation featuring the MTV logo in a gyroscope, with close-ups on doors and windows opening up all over the logo, revealing naked bicycle riders and barking dogs and such.

On to our second hour of videos, starting with Natalie Cole’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac.” A few words in praise of cover versions: they’re one of the few aspects of our current copyright system that just plain works. For decades now, if you want to cover somebody else’s song, for reasons inspired or banal, you can just do it. The songwriter gets a reasonable royalty, and you get to show your stuff.

“Pink Cadillac” was a funny rockabilly song, the B-side to “Dancing in the Dark.” On New York City radio, at least, it got heavy airplay in the summer of 1984. Natalie Cole, who’s always been a generic R&B singer, gives the song a generic pop-house feel; the track is a lightweight cousin to Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love.” In the narrow category of “female R&B singers doing Bruce Springsteen compositions,” this single ranks behind the Pointer Sisters’ “Fire” and Donna Summer’s “Protection.”

The video starts off in black and white, with some key items colorized, a high-tech effect in 1988 also employed in Hershey’s commercials and Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” video (which I’m sure we’ll see later in this countdown.) The most famous example of the technique is probably from five years later: the little girl in the red dress in Schindler’s List. (For me, at least, the use of colorization in videos like this blunted some of the horror in Spielberg’s film.)

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We’re in an old-fashioned gas station, with a couple of guys leaning over the hood, trying to get a car started. One of them has a bright blue bandanna hanging out of his left pocket. According to the hanky code of the 1970s, this means he’s a gay man looking to engage in 69. His desires will not be fulfilled in this video, I’m afraid.

A white guy cruises up the pumps in a Cadillac convertible, a car that is apparently so astonishing that the black mechanics just point and stare. Its owner is a greaser type in a leather jacket; he starts talking to another white guy with a similar look. The car catches the eye of Natalie Cole, who is in the gas station for reasons unknown, wearing a leather jacket and hoop earrings. The mechanics get extremely excited and start dancing, shimmying from side to side. Cole strides towards the car, pushing away Greaser #2 en route.

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Cole touches the Cadillac and, mirable dictu, it turns pink. (It appears to be a particularly sickly coral shade, but I’m going to chalk that up to the ravages of two decades on my videotape.) Meanwhile, Greaser #2 collects the three auto mechanics, and they all return to the Cadillac so that they can boogie around it and rub their thighs against it.

Four girls in a jeep roll into the gas station, and the video shifts to full color, the better to show them off. The girls look like they came straight from Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield” video, seeking political asylum as refugees from a hairspray-intensive war zone. The auto mechanics are eye-poppingly excited to have girls to dance with. One passenger in the jeep, a white girl in denim, is also overstimulated: she writhes on the hood of the jeep, in a mini-tribute to Tawny Kitaen’s star turn the previous year in Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” video.

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Inevitably, the four girls and four guys do a dance routine together, partnering up based on ethnicity. Cole joins the dance, and then struts over to the Cadillac. (The video briefly flickers back to black and white, to remind us of the good times we all had ninety seconds ago.) Cole sits on the Cadillac’s hood while the girls push it backwards, into the part of the garage labeled “LUBRICATION.” The gas station also has an early-’80s Coca-Cola billboard, with a pile of tires put in front of it to obscure the “Coke is it!” slogan.

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Greaser #1 (the Cadillac’s owner) watches the dancers from the sidelines, fondling a bottle of soda in an unsubtle fashion, gazing longingly, twisting his hands back and forth. The girls start lip-synching the backup vocals for Cole, using the nozzles of the gas pumps as simulated microphones. They’re rendered in black and white, except for their lipstick. More dancing, getting ever sassier. Cole wanders through the scene like ZZ Top in their videos, the facilitator of automobile-related sexual hijinks. The Cadillac’s owner keeps fondling that soda, getting more excited, noticing only at the last moment that Cole is driving off in his car.

“Pink Cadillac” hit #5, one of only two singles by Cole to get that high on the pop charts (the other being 1977’s “I’ve Got Love on My Mind”). The video isn’t on YouTube, although there is this clip of Cole performing the song on an awards show. Interestingly, somebody at YouTube has put up audio of the original Springsteen demo (from the Nebraska sessions).

posted 8 July 2008 in 1988 and tagged , , , , . 3 comments

3 Comments on 1988 Countdown #90: Natalie Cole, “Pink Cadillac”

  1. Chris M. Says:

    “Pink Cadillac” was a funny rockabilly song, the B-side to “Dancing in the Dark.” On New York City radio, at least, it got heavy airplay in the summer of 1984.

    Word. It was great faux-rockabilly–it’s been on my driving mix for over a decade, first on tape, then CD, now iPod–and all that airplay on Z100/WPLJ in the summer of ’84 has made me a lifelong fan of the song. (Sigh…summer of ’84: not just a great time for pop music in general, but a great time for B-sides that got A-side-level airplay in New York: this and Prince’s “Erotic City.”)

    In the narrow category of “female R&B singers doing Bruce Springsteen compositions,” this single ranks behind the Pointer Sisters’ “Fire” and Donna Summer’s “Protection.”

    And in the larger category of hit covers of Springsteen material in general, it’s near the bottom. I mean, I’m no rockist Springsteen snob, and I don’t find the Cole cover hateful or objectionable or anything; but it’s badly dated, and it sucked a lot of the tremolo’d fun out of the original.

  2. gavin Says:

    Springsteen and Prince both had great runs of B-sides in the ’80s: my favorites were “Shut Out the Light” and “Shockadelica,” respectively. It’s a shame neither of them ever put out a proper B-sides collection (although they did ultimately make them available in multi-disc packages).

    Incidentally, I did a little more poking around and found the “Pink Cadillac” video on another website, in case anybody’s curious. (Scroll down to see it.)

  3. Deborah Says:

    I would love to know who the driver of that Pink Cadillac is. Anybody know who he is and what he does now?

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