On 5 January 1980, “Half the Way” by Crystal Gayle was at #33, its highest position in the 80s. Its peak position was #15 in 1979.
As I look at the periods of music I most dislike, I find that they all tend to have at least this one thing in common: the songs that dominate them are over-produced, so polished and clean that there’s no hint of spontaneity, no suggestion that there might be a raw emotion hidden away in the depths of the performers’ souls, no threat that there might be an off beat or the wayward scratch of a guitar string to suggest that, maybe, the people involved in the production are human beings and not flawless immortal muses. The music now is like that; the music of the late 80s was like that; a lot of the music in the 1950s — the age of pitch-perfect soulless vocalists — was like that; and the late 70s were definitely like that. Sometimes a polished performer can make an overproduced song still sound like magic (see my post about Anne Murray’s “Broken Hearted Me“); usually they can’t.
Crystal Gayle’s “Half the Way” is a prime example of a song that’s so overproduced as to wring all the potential out of what is actually interesting writing. Look at this first metaphor: “Some of your time is like one glass of water: it just leaves me thirsty for wine.” That’s a good lyric; it takes the familiar trope of a lover’s presence being like an intoxicant, but does something interesting with it, and it introduces the main conceit of the song — half versus whole — simply but interestingly. But is Crystal Gayle really aching, reaching for a sip of that full glass? Not with her perfectly weird elocution. Listen to her lightly pronounce the L in “half”. Listen to her burble “Fill me up to the top” gently instead of achingly. Listen to her “oh no” fail to sound like imploring. And, yes, there’s a key change that fails to raise the urgency of the song.
I wonder what this song would sound like if it were performed by a singer that sounded like she had emotions instead of sounding like an alien pronouncing syllables that resemble English words. I imagine Janis Joplin singing this in a manner similar to “Another Piece of My Heart“, begging that guy to fill her to the top, chastising him for only offering her a glass of water when he should be giving her wine by the gallon. Then I imagine the song done in a cold dismissive tone, like Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It“. And then I wonder why no one of note has covered “Half the Way” to give it some soul. I like to think that Crystal Gayle has the emotion in her to do this song right, and that it’s just that the music industry in the late 70s was deliberately trying to be anodyne. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that that’s the case, and it’s the same evidence that suggested that things simply had to change.