Looking back at Kim Carnes’s fluky #1 album, and her brief hit-making career
Kim Carnes has had one of the most fascinating pop careers I’ve ever seen through the prism of the Billboard charts.
The chart week ending May 16, 1981, “Bette Davis Eyes” leapt from 5-1 on the Hot 100 in only its 8th week on the chart. It spent 9 of the next 10 weeks ruling the roost, ceding #1 to the European studio creation Stars on 45 for one week in mid June, but otherwise firmly entrenched on top through the end of July, unquestionably the song of the summer of ‘81. It was the #1 single of 1981, to boot. And, the week of June 27, those “Eyes” hauled their parent album, Mistaken Identity, to #1 as well, where it remained for four weeks. (It finished the year as the #15 album.)
She’d never again have a single make the pop top 10 – or another album make the top 40!
Prior to her banner summer, Carnes had made the pop top 40 precisely three times: duetting with Gene Cotton on ‘78’s “You’re A Part of Me” (#36) and her old New Christy Minstrels bandmate Kenny Rogers on ‘80’s “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer” (#4), as well as covering Smokey Robinson’s “More Love” in 1980 (#10). (A warning before you watch the video for the latter: this pre-MTV clip is horrifying, unless you like slapstick. But her take on the Robinson classic is superb.) “Eyes,” however, momentarily changed everything for Carnes. It’s still, 40 years on, a striking single. When heard in nearly any context, but especially an ‘80s one (such as where I’m most likely to hear it, Sirius XM’s ‘80s on 8), it stands out starkly. Val Garay’s production is the perfect fusion of new wave and early ‘80s AOR – so AOR, in fact, that “Eyes” peaked at #5 on Billboard’s then-nascent Top Tracks rock chart – and doesn’t sound like anything else. The closest comparison I could make, in fact, would be to the Motels’ hits of the next couple of years. And who produced those? Garay.
VIDEO: Kim Carnes “Bette Davis Eyes”
You’d hope, then, that Mistaken Identity would fulfill that promise, but it doesn’t. The new wave/AOR material, such as “Draw of the Cards” (the album’s second single) and “Don’t Call It Love” sounds great, but too much of the record is all over the place. “Hit and Run” leans into her Rod Stewart-isms, mixing a country-rock feel with early ‘80s production that doesn’t quite work, while the album’s Side Two opener, “Break the Rules Tonite,” tries for a bluesy, Jerry Lee Lewis-esque barroom vibe, and fails.
VIDEO: Kim Carnes “Draw of the Card”
What does succeed, however, is Mistaken Identity’s follow-up, 1982’s Voyeur – which flopped badly. One can certainly argue how wise it was to release an album titled Voyeur, and as its first single its title track, in 1982. I mean, some combination of Carnes, her management, and the execs at EMI America Records, thought this was a good idea. In retrospect: c’mon. This was the start of Reagan’s Moral Majority era (albeit pre-PMRC), and no way was this gonna get over. Which is a real shame, because this album is what Mistaken Identity should’ve been, both a bit rockier (starting with said lead single) and more icy-cool synth-driven new wavey.
VIDEO: Kim Carnes “Voyeur”
But this was more than a flop, it was an abysmal commercial failure. The album peaked at #49 and its two charting singles both stalled out below the top 25 (#29 for “Voyeur,” #36 for “Does It Make You Remember,” written like most of her catalog by Carnes with her husband, Dave Ellingson). “Remember” is a particular triumph, built around synths but with a glorious guitar solo at its heart, with Carnes doing some of her best, emotive singing.
VIDEO: “Does It Make You Remember”
Carnes would rebound slightly, in a commercial sense: she made the top 20 of the pop singles chart twice more, with ‘84’s love triangle single “What About Me?” with Rogers (again!) and James Ingram, and bizarrely with ‘85’s “Crazy in the Night (Barking at Airplanes),” a very bad, very mid-’80s single with a Waddy Wachtel guitar solo that feels grafted in from someone else’s record. Both peaked at #15; I can only presume that the latter’s chart peak was thanks to plenty of good old-fashioned payola. And in ‘84 she charted with another collaboration, the #8 AC/#51 pop Barbra Streisand duet “Make No Mistake, He’s Mine,” a record produced with a heavy, florid hand by Carnes and Bill Cuomo. (In 1987, the song, penned by Carnes, got the version it deserved, a gender-flipped take by Rogers and Ronnie Milsap that topped the country chart and won a Grammy.)
I wish Carnes had been better able to capitalize on having a hit so monstrous as “Bette Davis Eyes” – but maybe there’s no way to do so, unless you’re on a different artistic level entirely. And her label clearly supported her follow-up (ill-conceived as it may have been on a purely commercial level), so perhaps nobody’s to blame here.
Mistaken Identity, oddly, isn’t on streaming services, but that’s not so much of a crime; Voyeur is, and I heartily recommend you give it a(n inevitably first) listen, because it’s a true buried gem.
AUDIO: Kim Carnes Mistaken Identity (full album)
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