Thursday, January 12, 2017

It Came From the '90s: The Shock and Awe of Divinyls

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Peeling out of the church parking lot after Sunday night religious ed class, Divinyls' "I Touch Myself" blasting from the car stereo. This makes the passengers giggle like the immature dorks we are, while the friend behind the wheel is grinning out the window at the religious education teachers. The rest of us, shy and non-confrontational, smile sheepishly from the backseat.

The teachers look extremely displeased. I think one shakes her head in disgust. Each generation looks at their successors this way at one point or another, it's unavoidable. The old timers, shocked and appalled, plus a little envious, when confronted with the temerity of youth.

While I'm just an accomplice in the car—I didn't know the driver was going to do that when he turned the ignition key and the song started playing on the radio—each of us has at least a little fun instigating the older teachers and nuns here. God, they must a hundred years old, right? So old. We're young. We're the youth of today, tomorrow, the future. We will have jet packs, we have been promised jet packs! In the meantime we listen to songs like this because their social inappropriateness makes us laugh, but also because they make our teachers and parents uncomfortable. We don't have much power yet, so this is all we've got, really, these pathetic little displays of youthful resistance. Let us have it, will ya? Just shake your head and move on, already.

It's a fantastic song, let's not forget, both because of the lyrical content and despite it. Chrissy Amphlett's husky, sultry voice is so ridiculously seductive that we all fall in love with her the minute we first hear the song. Then we see the video. She's got a sexy Chrissie Hynde thing going on (what is it with that name?). Hook, line, and sinker, son.

In the grand tradition of adolescent boys everywhere, we imagine she's singing directly to each one of us. "I love myself, I want you to love me." Consider it done. "When I feel down, I want you above me." Sweet Jesus, forget religion class, lyrics like that are religious experience enough for fifteen year old kids. So in the car that night, we're just a bunch of hormonal kids who can't get dates yet, and instead become enchanted by a woman like Amphlett that we'll never actually meet. This is a pattern with us; see also: Christina Applegate, Bridget Fonda, Janet Jackson. We're just doing what our forefathers did before us. Every generation of kids goes through this. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Don't the geezers know this? Well, I suppose we can forgive the nuns for not knowing. I mean, I would imaging lusting after a pop star is frowned upon in the Catholic church. It has to be, right? Still, why don't they get it? Will we get it when we're their age? Will we snicker along in recognition—"eh, just kids being kids"—or will we frown and send the miscreants to their rooms?

Certainly, blasting "I Touch Myself" outside religious ed is a brazen act. I'm amazed the kid driving has the guts to do it. I like to think I'll laugh if my kids do something similar, but will I? I can imagine telling them that it's inappropriate to crank a song about masturbation in a Catholic church parking lot. Hopefully though, I'll recognize that occasional inappropriateness doesn't have to signal a slippery slope into a life of debauchery.

We really don't like the nun who teaches our class. We feel like she's cruel and unusual in her disregard for our opinions. She seems to dislikes us, all of us, everyone. This is our "F-you," moment, clearly. A sad little effort at pushing back, safely from a distance and inside of a car, while the alluring woman singing reminds us that she likes us, yeah, she likes us just fine.


Chrissy Amphlett died in 2013 from breast cancer. She was only 53. Fuck.

While I hadn't thought of her in a while, the news still stung. Another childhood legend, gone too soon. Her performance of "I Touch Myself" has made me swoon, smile, and even laugh out loud for more than two decades. It's gloriously silly! It's a magnificently subversive pop cultural artifact. It's as boldly explicit as another surprise hit, Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side." Songs like these aren't supposed to be mainstream chart toppers. But like Reed before them, Divinyls stormed the castle of good taste, knocked down the walls of decency, and made themselves at home.

It's worth noting that Amphlett and Divinyls had a deep and rich song catalog beyond their big 1991 hit. Their songs haven't lost any of their immediacy or impact over the years. Tracks like "Boys in Town," "Elsie," "Temperamental," and "Only You" remain powerful, no matter the era in which you hear them. They were a band full of energy, much of which came from the electrifying Amphlett. Just watch her here, early in her career, performing the incendiary "Siren (Never Let You Go)." She's a live wire. The buildup to her taking the mic is pure rock showmanship. Mesmerizing. She was born to perform.

Still, "I Touch Myself" will always be the song most people remember when they think of Amphlett. For years, it empowered women to own their bodies in ways that often made people uncomfortable. Since Amphlett passed away, the song has taken on new meaning for scores of listeners. It's now used to promote early cancer detection. It's legacy lives on in new ways. That's pretty special, and much of the credit should go to Amphlett. She owned that song. Watch her playfully teasing the people in the front row here, back in '91. Around the 2:30 mark, note how lovingly the audience responds when given the chance to touch Amphlett.

It's sad to know that she's not still out there, singing the song that makes both kids and adults blush.

You were good, Chrissy. Thank you.


  1. I loved this group & that song. The raw sexuality was like a chemical fire. You were aces with me, Michael for cranking that jam in the parking lot with the nuns. As a formal Catholic school girl, I applaud you! Thanks for the blast from the past!

    1. I remember that moment in the parking lot nearly every time I hear that song. It was such a '90s moment, such a high school moment. It's almost cliche!

  2. I couldn't believe it when I heard she'd died of breast cancer. Great post Michael. This really took be back.

    1. Thanks, SB. I was pretty devastated when I heard she'd died, too. As a cancer survivor myself it really hit home. I think it strengthened my interest in her music and made me seek out even more of it than I'd known previously. She was pretty amazing, and absolutely underrated.

  3. I love this song, I still get goosebumps when I hear it on the radio. For me it will always bring back memories of Meg Ryan's freaky dancing in Prelude to a Kiss!

    1. You might like my other Divinyls posts, just click their name in the tags for more. Chrissy Amphlett is easily one of my all time favorite rock singers. And I love Meg in that film!