It takes guts to write a song that’s all about self-acceptance. About not getting down on yourself when life gets hard. About believing in yourself despite external and internal opposition. It’s so much easier and more common to write about heartbreak or anger or love or frustration. There are plenty of songs that attempt a form of self-esteem, but really, they are more about defiance, about telling the powers-that-be “fuck you!” They are more anthemic rather than personal and honest.
I suppose if one decade was going to have more self-esteem themed songs than any other it would be the 70s. The decade that brought us EST. Songs like Cat Stevens’ “If You Wanna Sing Out.” And the Free-To-Be-You-And-Me song, “It’s Alright to Cry.”
But these songs, although awesome and timeless (especially Cat Stevens’ song, as used in the film Harold and Maude), are acoustic and folky. You would expect a song about self-esteem and showing (not hiding) your feelings to sound like these songs. What is less likely is for a rock n’ roll band to sing about such affirming subject matter, with no sense of irony or sarcasm attached.
I think, for a generation of awkward, pimply-faced long-haired teenage boys (and some girls too) no song triggered more widespread late 70’s self-acceptance than Styx’ “I’m OK.” Sure, it’s the least “rocking” song on the classic Pieces of Eight album, but it was clearly a rock album, with guitar solos and pounding drums.
The album starts off literally with a fight, crowds cheering as an MC announces two fighters entering the boxing ring and when the bell sounds off, the guitars crank in and James Young screams “Look at me – I’m the great white hope!” It’s all bravado and posturing, and we think we’re in for an album filled with high octane machismo.
But Styx would defy expectations immediately, on the second track, “I’m OK.” There are guitars and drums, but they are subdued, and swirling keyboards dominate. And instead of James Young’s growling baritone, we get Dennis DeYoung’s smoother, higher-pitched vocals. After a group chorus chimes in with a very strange “Hey, hey, hey, hey, eight, skate, seven on the rotate!” (If you know what this means, fill me in on the comments section), Dennis sings out,
If I could stand
Would I see me or maybe someone else
‘Cause it’s hard to please
When your spirit’s got you on the run, on the run
So right away we can put ourselves in the song, cause, I mean, who hasn’t put on a fake persona to fit in to a particular situation. We pretend we are more experienced (at a job, in sports, in bed) because it’s scary to reveal that you’ve still got much to learn. We wear different masks to get us through the day, and this is fine, as long as we take off the mask when we are by ourselves. But getting back to Dennis and Styx….
I finally found the person I’ve been searching for
I’m feeling good about myself and that’s for sure
‘Cause I believed them when they said I must do things their way
Tried to cast me in their mold but I just had to say
That I’m O.K., I’m O.K. this way
Yes, I’m O.K. yes, I’m O.K
Yes, one might consider this song cheesy, especially almost 40 years later (ok, even at the time), but there’s something so unabashedly real about this song, there’s a pride and a genuine optimism that is addictive and makes a listener want to yell out, “Yes, you’re right Mr. DeYoung — I am OK this way!” And if you are in public, you might then turn to the stranger next to you at the bus stop and say, “And you too are OK just the way you are! Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise!” And then you might want to take a quick step back to avoid any punches that might be thrown your way.
Whenever I’m overtaken by a sour mood, a bout of depression or what-have-you, if I hear this song, it somehow makes me feel better. Even if I snidely bark at my stereo,”shut up Dennis DeYoung, you don’t know what you’re talking about!” I know that’s just one of my masks and that deep down it’s a damn good song….
Stay tuned for the next post: Positivity in the 80’s! What are some self-affirming songs that you loved from the 70’s?