1988 Countdown #50: Sting, “Be Still My Beating Heart”

(New to the countdown? Catch up here.)

Top of the hour, which means it’s time for the station ID. For years, that meant an astronaut jumping around on the moon, but eventually MTV mixed it up (while keeping the same music). On the last day of 1988, they were showing a three-dimensional M spinning inside a gyroscope. The camera zooms in for close-ups on the M: doors and windows open to reveal images such as an animated police car, a child solving a jigsaw puzzle, and an ironing board with a fish on the end of it. Meanwhile, Adam Curry does a voiceover, hyping the videos to come in the next hour. The last door opens to show film of a black dog running towards the camera. The aperture closes, and as we pull back to reveal the MTV logo, an animated dog sticks its head out of the door and barks.

The first video in the second half of the countdown: Sting! Der Stingelhoffer. The Stingster. Stingatollah. Stingalingadingdong. “Be Still My Beating Heart” was the second single off his second solo album (…Nothing Like the Sun): after the obligatory upbeat leadoff single, this was pretty much exactly when his career took a hard turn away from new wave and towards a particularly pretentious version of adult contemporary. (I would argue that his solo debut, Dream of the Blue Turtles, split the difference.) There’s a video to match: heavily processed time-lapse slow-motion black and white. It was directed by the husband/wife team of Candace Reckinger and Michael Patterson (responsible for a-ha’s “Take on Me” and in 1989, Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract”). We follow a winding cliffside road. We zoom in on Sting, lying on the ground, limbs splayed out like a polysyllabic starfish.

A dog runs across the road, and then Sting stands on the edge of the cliff, looking at the water and the rocks below, contemplating his mortality, or maybe how he got Andy Summers to play guitar on this track. We pan by trees, and onto a bridge, where Sting leans, dramatically gazing at… another bridge. He’s wearing a long black coat. His hair is carefully unkempt. He has stubble on loan from George Michael. He turns to the camera dramatically and sings, “Be still, my beating heart.”

That phrase, as it happens, is more commonly used ironically. Since the Gilbert and Sullivan 1878 show HMS Pinafore, it’s served as shorthand for an ingénue comically overcome by love, or as a quick blast of sarcasm from somebody dismissing a suitor. Leave it to Sting to build a song around the phrase’s literal meaning.

Black-clad legs, maybe Sting’s, run through a copse, and then another pair of black-clad legs, maybe a girl’s, by a fence. Sting leans against an old farmhouse, gazing meaningfully at the camera, while the song percolates along in a midtempo fashion. We see hands playing a conga drum. Somebody runs down a train station platform at night. The camera races through a grassy field. “I’ve been to every single book I know,” Sting intones as the camera circles around him.

People listen to songs like this and assume that Sting’s a humorless wanker. In fact, from all available evidence, he’s a genuinely funny guy. I’ve read interviews where’s he’s witty and self-deprecating; I’ve heard him on the radio being genuinely hilarious. But he thoroughly quashes his sense of humor when it’s time to make music, and then people assume he’s serious when he talks about having tantric sex for hours. In a career full of self-inflicted wounds, his insistence on being a serious artist might be the greatest. Oh, okay, the lute.

Waves crash on the beach; Sting stands on a deserted street at night. And then we see the love interest: a beautiful girl with dark hair styled in a short pixie cut. First her forehead and her eyes, then her silhouette. Lots more footage of roads, looking more like animation than photography now. Sting leans on an old stone arch, in a scene that makes me wonder where the video was shot. (Between the architecture and the countryside, I’m going to guess Spain, although he doesn’t seem like a tapas kind of guy.)

Sting lies on the ground again, making dirt angels. The ground spins underneath him. We zoom in on the girl in a bit of stuttery animation. We zoom in on Sting’s eye, and pull out to see him rendered like a black-and-white Leroy Neiman portrait.

More running legs. Sting walks past a cavalcade of stone arches. A closeup on the palm of a hand. The pixie girl spins in a stone tunnel. By the water, Sting closes his eyes. We discover that Sting is on the opposite end of the tunnel from the girl. Water crashes on the rocks. The girl starts lip-synching.

As Sting sings “Sink like a stone that’s been thrown in the ocean / My logic has drowned in a sea of emotion,” we get a superimposed sheet of handwritten lyrics. That’s the directorial equivalent of a nudge in the ribs, saying, “Hey, this guy’s a poet!”

The song reaches its final stretch, having been in an inoffensive midtempo groove for five full minutes. The music is so competent and unmemorable, I find it difficult to focus on it. We get reprises of all the meaning-laden black-and-white imagery: running legs, pixie girl, lyrics sheet. The video ends with Sting, alone on a street at nighttime, swaying and clapping his hands. Since he’s not going anywhere, we can only conclude that he is once again caught between the Scylla and Charybdis.

“Be Still My Beating Heart” hit #15 on the singles charts. You can watch it here.

posted 16 September 2010 in 1988. 8 comments

8 Comments on 1988 Countdown #50: Sting, “Be Still My Beating Heart”

  1. Chris M. Says:

    “Be Still My Beating Heart” was the second single off his second solo album (…Nothing Like the Sun): after the obligatory upbeat leadoff single, this was pretty much exactly when his career took a hard turn away from new wave and towards a particularly pretentious version of adult contemporary.

    This is a point worthy of debate. I find everyone who didn’t already hate Der Stingle from the start has an opinion on when he became insufferable. I suppose for many, it was when he put the Police on hiatus and named an album The Dream of the Blue Turtles.

    I don’t agree — with that statement, or with your assessment either, although you make a better case. But “Be Still My Beating Heart” doesn’t mark a dividing line to me — virtually everything on …Nothing Like the Sun is of a piece with the Blue Turtles stuff, the album that gave us such heady claptrap as “Russians.” (If anything, the funk of Nothing‘s “We’ll Be Together” is a one-single aberration in Sting’s career.)

    To me, Sting proffered two kinds of adult contemporary schlock in his solo career: v1.0, pretentious NPR fare (the first three solo albums, Blue Turtles through Soul Cages); and v2.o, VH1 middle-aged housewife fare, starting with Ten Summoners Tales and its egregiously crap lovey-dovey singles, “If I Ever Lose My Faith” and the wedding staple “Fields of Gold.” To me, there’s a difference between Sting trying to ape Prokofiev and Marsalis and Sting trying to ape Michael Bolton, and — call me an urban, NPR-listening prig — I’ll take the former over the latter any day.

    Bottom line, I didn’t start finding Sting useless until 1993. Through ’91 or so, I found him amusingly pretentious and up his own ass, but I liked the albums, and at least then he was trying. After ’93, the guy’s recording crud like the Three Musketeers song with Bryan Adams and Rod Stewart, and he can go take a flying leap for all I care.

    * Addendum: Since 2000 or so, Sting’s basically been wavering between Sting A/C versions 1.0 and 2.0 — the lute album is more the former, his Mary J. Blige duet and “Stolen Car” are more the latter, and “Desert Rose” splits the difference. But at this point he’s not going to win back effete prigs like me with Songs from the Labyrinth — we’ve been over him for decades now.

  2. Rob Says:

    yeah, but the first single, “We’ll Be Together,” undid YEARS of damage Sting had done to his rep. Not only was it a great song, it was a great funny song. It made it easy to forgive the “Dream of the Blue Turtles” crap.

    Like most people, probably, I first heard it when he debuted it on “Saturday Night Live” that fall. He’d already been incredibly funny in the episode (Gold-Sting, you remember) and “We’ll Be Together” sounded great (Marc Weidenbaum: “Is this Sly and the Family Sting?”) and then he came back and did an unbelievably pompous (though pretty) “Little Wing.” What kind of doof covers “Little Wing” and then leaves the guitar solo to some anonymous hired hand? Anyway, that’s Sting for you. He likes to do Fun Sting and Insufferable Sting at the same time. He also likes the split to be 10/90, when most of us would prefer 90/10.

    I’m intrigued by the “stubble on loan from George Michael” comment, Gavin! Is this, in fact, the first instance of Sting stubble? I think it might be. I cannot recall any earlier instance of Sting stubble. You could do a whole post about the semiotics of stubble circa 1987. That’s when stubble really became a signifier of seriousness.

  3. azul120 Says:

    I guess I must be alone in liking “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You” and “Fields of Gold”. (Really though, Ten Summoners Tales was apparently considered a strong album at the time, and a temporary reprieve from his fall into AC roteness.)

    Surprisingly, this video performed strongly on MTV, going to #2 on the Top 20. (Someone has been posting top 20 charts taken/interpolated from old Rolling Stone issues, along with their own records.) “We’ll Be Together”, which was the stronger track, went to #3 by contrast, but largely because it had some crazy resistance to deal with, namely in the form of “Is This Love?” from Whitesnake and “I Got My Mind Set On You” from George Harrison, the latter of which will be seen much later on this countdown. “We’ll Be Together” was ranked #53 of 1987 on MTV, due perhaps to being a late year entry, but would also make the top 50 of MTV’s decade end countdown a couple years later.

    While I do admire the rotoscoping here, this video is downright uneventful compared to its predecessor. One other thing, Candace Reckinger and Michael Patterson only handled animation on “Take On Me”. Sorry to sound anal. Though I also read that they also directed “Luka” from Suzanne Vega.

  4. Tom Nawrocki Says:

    Wait, “We’ll Be Together” was intentionally funny? Lines like “I see you and me, and all I wanna be/Is dancing here with you in my arms/Forget the weather, we should always be together/Always be a slave to your charms” work a lot better for me if they’re supposed to be idiotic.

  5. Gavin Says:

    The video for “We’ll Be Together” was funny, or at least that Tintin sweater Sting’s wearing was.

  6. Rule Forty Two - » 1988 Countdown: #41-50 Roundup Says:

    […] #50: Sting, “Be Still My Beating Heart” […]

  7. Dan Says:

    “Nothing Like the Sun” is the pinnacle of Sting’s solo career as far as I’m concerned. Jazzy adult contemp poetry is what I like to call it. “Be Still my Beating Heart” is a deliciously poetic and atmospheric pleasure that grasps my being every time I hear it. I mean who hasn’t had their heart broken and remained the slightest hesitant to fall in love again???

    “Sister Moon” is a beautiful piece that is only eclipsed by the soul touching “Fragile”. Wynton Marsalis’s jazzy touch adds a depth to Stings music that the latter failed to match again.

    “Nothing Like The Sun” is IMHO Sting’s most artistic and finest album and it sounds as good today to me as when I first heard it in 1987

  8. Nimi Says:

    I like the part we he sings:

    ‘I’ve been to every single book I know, try to soothe the thoughts that plague me so’. It’s like he’s trying to understand why he’s feeling the way he does. He’s obviously fallen for a girl the lyrics are so profound in describing how guys are when they have feelings for someone. It’s adorable!

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