1988 Countdown #41: Belinda Carlisle, “Heaven Is a Place on Earth”

(New to the countdown? Catch up here.)

The best commentary on “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” remains Niki Harris and Donna De Lory, backup singers for Madonna, captured in Truth or Dare doing vocal warm-ups by belting the song out while beating on their own chests to produce a warbly Minnie Mouse effect. (“Those girls annoy me,” Madonna responds.)

In the opening chorus of “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” we hear the vapid title sentiment expressed three times, along with the companion sentiment “They say in heaven love comes first” (who says this? Yahweh’s marketing team? The Teletubbies?) and the unconnected thought “Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?”–a lyric that seems to be included only because of the songwriters’ difficulty in finding words that rhyme with “earth.”

Director Diane Keaton matches the awkwardness of songwriters Rick Nowels and Ellen Shipley. (Keaton also directed Carlisle’s “I Get Weak” clip, which has issues, but is not as much of a mess as this one.) Keaton’s introductory images are all of girls in gray smocks, white socks, and black domino masks, holding translucent Earth globes lit from within. It’s comically bad, like a parody of low-budget MTV surrealism. Splash! One of the globes falls in the water. In slow-motion, perhaps? But of course.

The Globe Squad, a phalanx of nine, thrust their globes up in the air. As the opening concludes and the guitars kick in, we cut between the camera zooming towards twenty-one globes arranged in a triangle, and Belinda Carlisle dancing. Well, really, Belinda Carlisle making dance-like movements while leaning against a wall, but she looks adorable (black bustier, purple shirt, good haircut) and seems enthusiastic, which counts for a lot.

As Carlisle starts to sing, we get a glimpse of her slow-dancing with some guy next to a reflective pool. Keaton turns off most of the lights, leaving just a diagonal stripe of light across Carlisle’s face. Carlisle responds by repeatedly singing to the wall and leaning her head to one side or the other, suffering from floppy head syndrome. We cut back to Carlisle singing “you lift me up in a wave of love”; she raises her arms, as if she were a flight attendant helpfully demonstrating how in the event of an emergency, you could lift up your fellow passengers in a wave of love.

Back to the Globe Squad, who are spinning around–and in a different shot, lying down, doing globe calisthenics. Cut to Carlisle, now obscured by a mesh screen. Keaton is clearly trying to make Carlisle into a figure of mystery, but it’s hard to turn a former cheerleader into Garbo.

The Globe Squad spins faster. We see that they’re inside a cylinder, pinned to the wall by centrifugal force (unless it’s centripetal force–I can never keep that straight), like they’re on a ride at Six Flags. Since they’re all dressed identically, they should really be acting out a kinescope animation. We also see some members of the Globe Squad watching the spinners through high glass windows. Maybe those are the ones in heaven?

More quick cuts between the Squad and Carlisle, ending with the illuminated globes spinning into blurry streaks of light. We dissolve to another spinning image: a grid of light and shadow that Carlisle whirls into. (New outfit: shoulderless black dress, with a purple fabric flower over her heart.) Carlisle keeps turning around and singing over her shoulders: somebody wants to make sure that her back gets equal time in this video.

Abrupt cut to an overhead shot: Carlisle is wedged into a thirty-degree corner. Since Keaton is basically shooting down Carlisle’s dress here, I guess she’s abandoned the whole Garbo approach. The globe splashes into the water again; the Globe Squad starts jogging in place, as if that will get them to the end of this video faster.

Carlisle keeps spinning and quasi-dancing. I find myself thinking of this video (and song) as something that was inflicted upon Carlisle, rather than something she was responsible for–which is both fannish and patronizing. We reach the bridge, during which Carlisle leans back blissfully on a bed while a guy kisses her neck and a black scrim obscures our vision.

What “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” has going for it: a catchy melody and (mostly enjoyable) bombastic pop production. What’s particularly annoying about it: the backing vocalists and the lyrics. I know it’s just trying to express the sentiment “let’s all be real happy,” but I can’t help but think that heaven on earth would transform this world into an unchanging theocracy. As it happens, Diane Keaton directed a lavish documentary in 1987 called Heaven, interviewing people on what they thought about the afterlife–presumably, that’s how she got this job, although you’d think after making a whole movie on the topic, she’d have a more interesting visual conception of heaven than “lots of glowing beach balls.”

A synthesized drum break, accompanied by the silhouette of a kiss (Carlisle and her handsome love interest). As we head to the fade-out, there’s lots of kissing, which is a boon–the whole video has felt impoverished, both in terms of budget and ideas, but the kiss looks like a genuine human connection.

“Heaven Is a Place on Earth” topped the singles charts (it’s Carlisle’s only #1 hit). You can watch it here.

posted 10 January 2012 in 1988 and tagged , . 12 comments

12 Comments on 1988 Countdown #41: Belinda Carlisle, “Heaven Is a Place on Earth”

  1. Matt Morgan Says:

    Centrifugal = imaginary apparent force throwing you outward
    Centripetal = actual force pushing you toward the center of your orbit.

    So in this case I would argue either is correct. It feels like they are being flung outward so “centrifugal” is OK. But actually the only force acting upon them is the wall pushing them in toward the middle.

    Basically I guess that “centripetal” would always be OK, since it is actually there, and “centrifugal” is OK here because it’s how they feel.

  2. Chris M. Says:

    1. This video really is awful. Even my 16-year-old self knew it. Thank god Keaton largely abandoned directing soon after (except for an awful 2000 Lisa Kudrow movie).

    2. Odd that this is on the ’88 countdown, since it was an ’87 single that peaked atop the Hot 100 in early December of that year. Billboard commonly winds up with previous-December singles on its year-end charts, but MTV didn’t have to.

    3. My biggest beef with “HIaPoE” as a song is that its chorus is basically an interpolated, hook-for-hook ripoff of Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name.” Go on, try it: “Shot through the heart! And you’re to blame/Ooh, heaven is a place! on! Earth!/They say in heaven, love comes first!/Darlin’, you give love—a bad name.”

  3. Rob Says:

    This is some of the just-plain-shoddiest songwriting to hit Number One of the pre-“Firework” era.

    as you point out, nobody says the “they say” non-proverb. This is one of my all-time least favorite “They say” + non-proverb constructions. (Along with the Killers’ “They say the devil’s water ain’t so sweet” and Journey’s “They say the road ain’t no place to start a family” and the Spin Doctors’ “They say murder ain’t the fault of the weapon.”)

    “You Give Love a Bad Name” is just the beginning–it’s also a ripoff of “Livin on a Prayer” along with “Without Love,” from Side 2 of Slippery When Wet. (“I was afraid/I won’t be afraid no more!”) in fact, they’re basically trying to cram all of Slippery When Wet into one song, except they’re too lazy to turn it into a real song.

  4. Chris M. Says:

    Speaking of both 1988 and “Firework,” Rob (I take it you are not a fan of the latter), we all might find this piece by veteran chart guru Paul Grein interesting. He attempts to compare, single by single, the five No. 1 hits from Michael Jackson’s Bad with the corresponding five from Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream, to refute the notion that Perry doesn’t deserve to tie Jacko’s most-No. 1s-from-one-album record. It’s a provocative and, I guess, worthy premise, but he’s way, way too nice to “Firework” and grossly underrates Michael’s near-perfect “The Way You Make Me Feel.”

  5. Gavin Says:

    They say Diane Keaton has no business directing!

    My favorite line from the acidic NY Times review of her documentary Heaven: “One’s torn between wanting to kick the film and wanting to protect it from wasting all this money.”

  6. azul120 Says:

    And I thought I was the only one who spotted the melodic similarities to “Livin’ On A Prayer”!

    It really is odd how this is on the countdown, let alone this high. The video already peaked at the top in late November/early December ’87, and fell off the top 20 countdown at the beginning of the year. It already made a solid #25 showing on the 1987 year end countdown to boot.

    If they wanted another ’87 holdover, it would have made much more sense to put “Is This Love?” by Whitesnake, the video that knocked “Heaven…” from the top slot on the countdown, and amazingly toughed out the entire month of January as an also-ran.

    Not to mention that “Wait” by White Lion was a big hit, peaking at #4 in the spring, yet is missing from the year-end list entirely. (Then again, “When the Children Cry” would more than make up for its absence the following year.)

    Great to see you covering the countdown again.

  7. Gavin Says:

    Coincidentally, I just heard this song on the radio–something I hadn’t noticed while watching the video is that Carlisle sounds like she’s standing very far away from the microphone. It’s evocative of both David Bowie (in “Heroes”) and Baby Jessica (in “I’m Trapped in This Well”).

  8. David Says:

    The reviewer is knowledgeable about music, but knows little about what constitutes art. I always thought Diane Keaton was a terrible, if not horrendous actress, and still do, but now have respect for her as a director. The video is wonderfully surreal and original. All due to the charming inventiveness of the “Globe Squad”

  9. Alfred Says:

    I’ve a lot of space for Belinda Carlisle, and while “Heaven…” ain’t as sparkly-haunting as “Circle in the Sand” or as tight as “Mad About You,” it’s at least a 6. Never have her vocal limitations been so appropriate — note her growl on the line “I’m NOT afraid ANYMO-WHOA-AH.”

  10. Chris Molanphy Says:

    Coming back to this post much later to share this interview with a cowriter of “HIaPoE,” Rick Nowels. Blows my mind that the song started as a Prince homage, as all I can hear is Bon Jovi, but YMMV:


  11. B. Linda Says:

    Carlisle was pregnant when they filmed this video and they filmed this video from all the odd angles to hide it. I think I learned that on an episode of Pop-Up Video?

  12. Travis Stair Says:

    Loved this article. Gavin, you are simply hilarious in your take by take moment by moment account of one of my favorite songs ever. Enjoyed every word. P.S. to the comment gallery — always wondered if anyone else out there would know what HIAPOE means, as I would write it often on a music countdown I kept, back in the day.

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