First Hit #1: December 29, 1983
I’ve said before that I believe Dolly Parton is a very intelligent woman, because of the way she has shaped her career and the way she knows her audience. Kenny Rogers is a smart man, and he knows his audience just as well. The Bee Gees are a smart trio of men, also pop shape-shifters, and a group who owned the late ’70s.
By their powers combined, we have Islands in the Stream, which doesn’t sound like any of them. Rogers is more prone to fading into a song than Parton, who has built a career on being big and brassy and tends to dominate a conversation, but here both of them kind of blend together. While the song did become a big hit, you could easily sub out either artist without having a big shift in the way the song sounds. For the two vocalists, it sounds a bit closer to a paycheck than a committed performance.
The songwriters, a certain trio of Gibbs, also don’t put much of a stamp on it. Yeah, disco is dead and they’re writing for country stars, but for a group that normally has a clear stamp on their work, it’s strange to hear a song that doesn’t really sound like anything at all. They hit the country cliches, put together a song that offends nobody, but forgot to actually make it their own. That stands for everyone. I had no idea that the Gibbs were involved until I looked it up, and I still have no idea where their own stamp is on the song.
It is smart, in a way, because it knows that there’s plenty of overlap between Rogers and Parton fans and that’s going to move units. Since it’s also a song that doesn’t really have much of a distinct flavor of its own, it’s not going to offend the fans of either artists. If I owned the label that was printing the single, I’d be thrilled, because it’s a guaranteed hit – which it was. I don’t own a label, however, so I find that all of the cooks in the kitchen have made something quite bland.
In Islands in the Stream we’ve got a song by several pop institutions. Together, they made a song that represents the best of their business acumen, but the worst of their actual songwriting.