Certain Songs #837: Kim Carnes – “Bette Davis Eyes”

Album: Mistaken Identity
Year: 1981

With its mysterioso synth washes, fake handclaps and drum-machine beat, “Bette Davis Eyes” wasn’t exactly the type of music that I was into in 1981 (or ever, really), but that didn’t even matter, because I really loved both the melody and the way Kim Carnes sang it with a knowing rasp.

So at first, it was an annoyance, and then became a guilty pleasure until the point where I decided that I wasn’t going to feel guilty about pleasures anymore, and nowadays — 35 plus years after it utterly dominated the U.S. charts — I just think of it as one of the best pop songs of early 1980s, if not of all time.

After all, that chorus was pure gold:

And she’ll tease you
She’ll unease you
All the better just to please you
She’s precocious
And she knows just
What it takes to make a pro blush
She got Greta Garbo’s standoff sighs
She’s got Bette Davis eyes

Check out not just those weird internal rhymes — “precocious,” “knows just,” “takes to make,” “pro blush” — but the the thing that really grabbed me: Carnes singing “unease” as “unhease.”

For months, years, decades, I wondered what it meant to be “unheased.” Was is some kind of weird sexual thing? I mean, after all, it was just to please you, but at the same time, it added a sense of dread to the whole song. Did I even want to be unheased? Would I ever recover from my unheasing?

Was unheasing something that only the woman that Carnes was singing about could even do? Was it something she did with her eyes? Maybe that’s why the song became such a huge hit: if you listened to it enough, you’d finally understand what it was like to become unheased.

And in a weird way, that was true: my relationship to “Bette Davis Eyes” — suddenly semi-relevant again at least while Feud is airing — has always been a bit unheasy.

“Bette Davis Eyes”

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