A sad, sweet, almost philosophical portrayal of heartache, with a poignant question at its centre: what do you do when the thing that makes her most alluring is the thing that makes her impossible to please? He’s crazy for this mercurial girl, and he can’t do a thing to make her happy.
The first thing anybody noticed about the Bangles, when they rose to prominence and started getting heavy rotation on MTV, was that they were all pretty, but their lead singer was beyond good-looking. She was gorgeous. That, and the general consensus that the group was just a riff on the formula perfected by the Go-Gos, tended to obscure that the Bangles were the real deal. The beautiful singer could really sing, in a clear, supple, unwavering voice utterly free of vibrato, while the band was tight, and much more than just a backup group for the main attraction – and they could sing too. Moreover they had a fine ear for material. Whether it was the silly but insanely catchy Walk Like an Egyptian (Billboard’s number one song of 1987), or the much more substantial pop masterpiece Manic Monday, penned for them by Prince, their music was always full of lilting melody and hardly ever less than eminently listenable. They covered the tuneful yet rocking Goin’ Down to Liverpool, a superb bit of Brit-pop originally performed by Katrina and the Waves, Paul Simon’s Hazy Shade of Winter, and this, If She Knew What She Wants, maybe the best of them all.
Written by Jules Shears in 1985, it might seem an odd choice, being essentially a pained complaint about a woman voiced from a man’s perspective, except it’s such a humane and loving complaint, neither angry nor dismissive. The girl is complicated, that’s all, she’s difficult, but for all of that fascinating too, though maybe a little bit self-absorbed – the narrator explains that she has so many thoughts rolling around in her head that she sure doesn’t need any from him – and oh, how he’d love to give her what she needs, if only she had any idea what that was. The call and response makes clear his dilemma:
But she wants everything
(He can pretend to give her everything)
Or there’s nothing she wants
(She don’t want to sort it out)
He’s crazy for this girl
(But she don’t know what she’s looking for)
If she knew what she wants
He’d be giving it to her
Giving it to her
It’s a beautiful bit of pop tune-smithing, and by making it their own, the Bangles create such an atmosphere of sympathetic female energy that one can imagine the singer wishes the guy would just give up, and give her a look instead. Look at this good guy having a hard time; there’s real warmth to it.
The Bangles broke up when they were at peak popularity, but reformed in the late 1990s. They still play together, showing off the musical chops that once propelled them to the top – see the second clip above – and a fella can’t help but note that Susanna Hoffs remains almost supernaturally beautiful, having somehow managed to become even more attractive with age (and that ain’t fair). Now 60, she can still sing like nobody’s business.