#372: The Police, "Reggatta de Blanc" (1979)

What I knew of the Police began and ended with their singles, Moulin Rouge’s adaptation of “Roxanne,” and the fact that my mom loved Sting partly because he was a “yoga master,” which is what she told me each time the Police got airplay or came up in conversation: “Oh, I like Sting. He’s a yoga master.” My mother had become, in my adolescence, devoted to yoga, and in the evenings after work, you could hear her practice in the TV room, even with the door closed, her breath whooshing with control and concentration. So much of my mother I know from the sounds of the ways in which she escaped into herself: the whirr of her sewing machine from the basement as she pieced together a quilt, the scratch of a stalk of charcoal as she drew in her sketchbook.

The Police seemed ubiquitous on the radio back then, maybe because my mother was my chauffeur to and from school and skating practice, and we clocked at least ten hours in the car each week listening to MIX 107.3 (tagline: “A mix of the seventies, eighties, nineties, and TODAY”), which kept the Police on heavy rotation, so that now, whenever I hear Sting’s cottony croon, I’m returned to that safe and timeless place of the passenger’s seat before I knew how to drive, the view out the window still limitless, a frame for where I knew someday out there the rest of my life would happen.

It’s telling that, unlike most of the bands I listened to incessantly, the Police are a vehicle for memories that have nothing to do with the Police; they were just always there. They were the background elevator noise, innocuous but faintly tacky, like seashell-patterned wallpaper at a beach house. The music equivalent of a Nilla wafer: perfectly fine, but would you ever champion it as a dessert?

Sting is the same old Sting when I listen to him now on Reggatta de Blanc, but I’m startled by how good he sounds, even though I’ve been hearing him practically my whole life. The Police are still sort of cheesy, but the difference is now I’m starting to actively enjoy them. I’m entering into that dangerous territory, here, of liking what my parents liked. I’m sending out an S.O.S.

The Police’s cheesiness saturates even the smallest details. The title of this particular album, Reggatta de Blanc, is French for “white reggae,” which, aside from being problematic, is also just geeky. Listening to this album, half of me wants to genuinely dance (though it’s impossible not to dance like a dad while listening to the Policego ahead, try, I dare you), but the other half feels like it’s trapped in a slow-motion nineties dance montage, the kind where the camera rapidly zooms in and out on a strobe light (see, especially: “It’s Alright for You”). Also, please view this video and tell me whether it’s cheesy or awesome, I honestly can’t tell.

As far as I can tell, the Police have always been received with some ambivalence—their corniness isn’t necessarily a quality they’ve acquired over time due to seeming outdated. In the original review of Reggatta de Blanc in Rolling Stone, Debra Rae Cohen wrote, “Sting's lilting mock-reggae wails—papier-màché plaintive though they may be—work like the siren of an emergency vehicle, guiding and warning of momentum. It's a perfect example of why I've always found the Police less offensive than arresting.” Offensive, arresting: it’s a tightrope, and Sting wobbles precariously on top.

And then there’s this fun little jewel: Sting’s real name is Gordon. Gordon. According to a legend told to me in confidence by Wikipedia, the nickname originated from his habit of wearing a black-and-yellow-striped sweater when performing with the Phoenix Jazzmen, his band before the Police. His bandmate, also named Gordon because England is a dark, dark place, thought he looked like a bee: hence, Sting was born. And even this is the cheesiest transformation story of all time.

Gordon all-too-willingly shed his birth name in favor of Sting, once telling a journalist who had called him Gordon, “My children call me Sting, my mother calls me Sting—who is this Gordon character?” (Necessary side note: is it not sort of creepy that his children call him “Sting” rather than “Dad”?) When Gordon became Sting, he was in college. When the Police got together and Sting-the-bumblebee-look-alike became Sting-the-rock-star, he was about 26, just a little younger than I am now. I can understand this desire to shed off a part of yourself, to go quick and slithering and new into the tall grass. But what to do when you want to shed the old self, and to avoid the one waiting for you? Why do I, as so many others, cringe at the thought of becoming my parents?

Like my mother before me, I’ve taken up yoga. Its physicality—the movement, the stretching, the alignment of the body with the breath—helps me deal with and temporarily escape from a life that, admittedly, isn’t all that difficult, but one that is difficult simply for being a life. (Sting, it should be known, practices yoga for an hour and a half each day, a routine that probably contributes to the stretchiness of his vocal cords.) Yoga urges you to accept your weaknesses, work with them, whether they’re mental or physical, rather than struggle against them. The woman who teaches my classes purrs, If you can’t do this today, that’s okay. Forgive yourself. Take a break. Love yourself.

I roll my eyes reading back over those words because yoga is cheesy, and writing about yoga, even cheesier. Is it because of the earnestness with which it requires you to confront yourself? Is it because it engenders the desire to function well as a human being? These motives are decidedly unhip because they run contrary to the essence of rock stardom: the ability to not give a fuck.

There’s a cultural cliché that parents are stand-ins for cheesiness, that they just “don’t get it,” that they are irrelevant because they care too much or don’t care about the right (i.e. cool) things—and when they do, it comes off as trying too hard. But as I get older, I find myself growing more and more prickly to this trope whenever I encounter it, which is always, in television and movies and books. It’s so boring in how it reduces what could be a three-dimensional character into someone else’s anxiety.

I think it’s not so much that parents are cheesy but that they are subversively rock 'n’ roll: they are now old enough to not give a fuck. If parents at times seem clueless, it’s because they no longer care about hiding their cluelessness, whereas younger people still make a furious effort to cover up their own moments of ignorance, of discomfort. Parents will dance without abandon at your neighbor’s holiday party. Your mother will openly love Sting (and Enya, but that’s another essay). Your father will wear his huge straw hat with a wide, floppy brim on every outdoor excursion, and he will commute to work on a recumbent bicycle outfitted with a long orange flag that sticks right up from the back. Your mother will accidentally (and forever) call John Mayer “Johnny May-May” in public and laugh when you correct her. They will tell their children that they are proud of them at inopportune moments. These things, in their own way, are super metal. Imagine living an entire life, and instead of coming out the other side cynical and hardened, only growing more and more earnest, more and more cheesy. I think I would like that sort of life; I think I would like to be that sort of person.

If I’m afraid to start liking the same things my parents liked, afraid to catch myself parroting the same phrases, playing with my hair the way my mother does, crumpling my face like my father’s, maybe it’s not so much that I’m afraid of being scoffed at for the cheesiness and irrelevance associated with my age. Maybe it’s more my hesitancy to admit that time is passing, that life could be so complicated that I lapse on whatever separate identity I forged for myself, that who I’m meant to become is inevitable, the hours spent daydreaming in vain out the passenger’s window about what shape my life would take while the Police grooved on in the background, because the future was sitting right next to me, lived in the same house with me, breathing loud and clear.

—Lena Moses-Schmitt