Friday, 29 August 2014

50 songs to take to my grave 13: Kids In America

Right, no nonsense here, and not a shade of irony either. Kids In America is one of the greatest pop songs of all time. I will not accept any argument to the contrary.

The town I grew up in has an annual festival known as Torrington Mayfair. It takes place over three days beginning on the first Thursday of May and comprises numerous events including the May Queen procession, a carnival and all-day pub opening. The latter of these was a real exception back when I was a kid as UK licensing laws required pubs to open only between 11am and 3pm, and 7pm to 11pm. Outside of these times would require a special licence, which was always given to all pubs in the town on Mayfair Day.

While the Primary School kids took part in most of the events and therefore got the Thursday off school, the secondary school kids often bunked off. Our parents would spend the day in town watching the events then drinking excessively, while us kids would merrily trot off to the funfair in the car park at the top of the town.

Kids In America is a song I most associate with Torrington Mayfair. For a few years, year after year, it would play on practically every fairground ride – dodgems, jungle, waltzers. As you went round and round and round, the sound of Kim Wilde’s finest moment would be blaring at you from the speakers, with flashes of extra volume as you passed by on each circuit. “Everybody live for the music-go-round.

The song was written for Kim by her dad and brother and describes the paradox of being young and confused at a time when the youth felt they had few prospects of emerging from the seemingly eternal urban decay that surrounded them, while at the same time spearheading a new cultural movement such as punk or the burgeoning new wave scene.

Like a lot of electro-pop that came out at that time, Kids In America was free of the slick refinements that made much of the music that followed over the next few years so excruciating. The opening lines hint at the less-than-cheerful situation the protagonist finds herself in:

 “Looking out a dirty old window
 I can see the cars in the city go rushing by
 I sit here alone and I wonder why.”

The ominous, pulsating drone of the synth gives way to a harsh electronic snare sound, lifting the mood somewhat as we head into town where the action is. The singalong chorus symbolises a triumph, an escape, if only briefly. Perhaps one of the strangest things about it is how Kim Wilde disappears mid-song. The final minute or so consists of layers of synths and her male backing singers chanting “We’re the kids… we’re the kids… we’re the kids in America…” Where’d she go? Has she really escaped? Is she free at last?

Kids In America balanced the despair and desolation of the times – which were exacerbated by the Thatcher/Reagan administrations and the threat placed upon us of impending nuclear doom – with the hope of a new dawn, something for the younger generation to cling onto while the oldies carry on with the daily grind and fuck everything up in the process. It is, by this token at least, the very essence of rock & roll.

Perhaps oddly though, for a song that sounds so very much of its time (1981), I reckon it still sounds awesome today. When seemingly endless posh kids with silly haircuts and fake glasses are trying to sound like the Human League, the 33-year-old Kids In America comes across as rather fresh and exciting by comparison. The hipsters may think they’re so clever that they can play instruments that sound like computers, but at least Kim Wilde had a decent song to go with it. Today’s young whippersnappers have such a lot to learn. Tunes being one of them…

The list of those who have covered Kids In America is seemingly endless (from One Direction to Bloodhound Gang via Nirvana), but few come close to the original. In fact, I would bet most of them are abysmal, which is a shame as this song deserves a far better legacy than that. 


  1. 'Kids in America' is alive and well over here in the colonies. It's a staple of 80's music and gets its fair share of airplay on stations dedicated to that genre. I loved it when I was in high school and my high school kids love it now. It's a sing along favorite -- especially the line about 'New York to East California'. That's the equivalent of "Norwich to East Cornwall".

  2. I diasgree about the cover versions being abysmal: I mean, of course I don't know all of them (and, so I suppose, you don't either), but the ones that I know I like very much. The Toy Dolls did a good job on the tune and so did Lawnmower Death, for example. Then again you can't go wrong with this track, it really was fantastic. Still is, in fact!

  3. Ah, and I would very much like to hear the Nirvana - version: any chance of posting it, Robster?

    1. Not sure they actually released one Dirk, I just know of it. Probably exists on some bootleg somewhere. If I come across it I'll let you know. Some of the covers I've heard are OK - The Young Knives did a decent job for instance - but some are appalling.

  4. Replies
    1. Lies! I was only 10 in 1981. I wasn't exactly a precocious child when it came to the fairer sex. Now, if I was the age I am now in 1981 you might have a case.....

    2. I was 8 and I could see the actraction!

  5. A song I find myself singing out loud on occasions

  6. A song I never find myself singing out loud. I have the follow up single, though.

  7. Nice to read the pros and cons. After all it's a wonderful song I hum sometimes after listening to it again.