The perfect pop song that finds special resonance in ‘I, Tonya’

Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” highlights an imperfect movie.

Criminal idiots: They’re just like us. So I thought when watching I, Tonya, the new Tonya Harding biopic with a few indelible moments, but none more relatable than the moment we meet Shane Stant, the dingus who will bash in Nancy Kerrigan’s knee with a retractable baton at an ice rink, and Derrick Smith, the dingus driving him. They sit in some beat-up sedan, both of them wearing mustaches and haircuts at least five years out of date, tapping the wheel and bopping about to Laura Branigan’s “Gloria,” which went to No. 2 on the Billboard charts back in 1982 but is heard at the beginning of 1994, when they attacked Kerrigan ahead of the United States Figure Skating Championships. For 15 seconds, they rile themselves up to commit a felony by blasting this perfect pop song about a woman on the run for unclear reasons, possibly — as these soon-to-be criminals might imagine — because she’s a criminal, but probably not.

We don’t exactly know they’re dinguses — that realization comes a few minutes later, when they fuck up the Kerrigan attack because they don’t know how doors work. Nonetheless: In this short moment with “Gloria” blasting, they appear confident and collected, the black ops professionals they’re supposed to be. Perhaps even cool. They seem like anyone else who’s gotten pumped up to perform some task by playing their favorite song, imagining they will be imbued with the sonic qualities given enough plays and become harder, faster, stronger, better. The majesty of their incompetence has not yet dawned; we’re able to witness their most ideal selves, as they zoom down the road to their certain downfall.

There is something instructive about this selection, as it relates to their eventual failure. I, Tonya’s cultural cues place it in strange territory: It’s a movie about very recent history — the booming ‘90s, which were close enough to be the plank of a 2016 presidential campaign — but the unfortunate haircuts and shiny outfits locate it closer to the dated ‘80s, which are mostly portrayed as an era of tastelessness and cocaine. That the characters have not caught up to the times is appropriate. One of the movie’s recurring motifs involves Harding’s attempts to fit in: She’s a proud redneck, even though the skating honchos don’t want her to be, and struggles to match the expectations that will allow her to be successful. This huffy individualism extends to her Oregonian social circle — her mother, husband, and idiot bodyguard also can’t adjust to what’s expected of them, and continually fail throughout the movie. They are stuck in their own version of themselves — which for these goons means enjoying “Gloria” more than a decade after its release, instead of something more contemporary. (The No. 1 song the week of the Kerrigan’s attack was Mariah Carey’s “Hero.”)

Admittedly, the song is awesome. I’d somehow never heard “Gloria” before I, Tonya, but I spent the last few days playing it on loop and devouring performance clips. Here is the gloriously soft focus music video, which is staged as though Branigan is singing karaoke under several disco balls; here is an exuberant live performance where her backing band has more members than the Polyphonic Spree; here, inexplicably, is her doing the song on CHiPs, as part of a fake band called the Cadillac Foxes as Erik Estrada smiles on; here she is getting interviewed by RuPaul. The music is so referential of the early ‘80s — those stabbing synths could score any Miami Vice chase scene — but the vocal, which finds an attention-grabbing peak or melody in nearly every verse, is powerful enough to exist in any era, which made “Gloria” Branigan’s signature hit, until her untimely death in 2004.

“Gloria” has popped up in plenty of movies, television shows, and even video games, amongst them FlashdanceFamily GuyWill & GraceGleeThe Last Man on EarthGrand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories, and Metal Gear Solid V. Amusingly, I, Tonya is the second Margot Robbie vehicle to feature it: In The Wolf of Wall Street, Umberto Tozzi’s original version blasts as she dances withthe sailors who have rescued her and her husband from a sinking yacht. The music is upbeat enough to match any number of situations, but here it has a special power: The lyrics might describe someone like Harding herself, whose life is about to be upended by the actions of these two idiots. “I think you’ve got to slow down before you start to blow it,” Branigan sings. “I think you’re headed for a breakdown, so be careful not to show it.”

And when it does all go wrong, “Gloria” is one of the first things we hear: Stant listens to it right before he’s arrested, again suggesting this is a song he’s particularly hung up on, instead of something he just hears often on a slightly out-of-date radio station. For the song, it’s a beautiful arc from the soundtrack of what should be triumph, to the soundtrack of a dismal fall. More than thematically appropriate, it just sounds really good in both of these situations — which in the end is the only thing that matters about any perfect pop song.



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