I find it tragic that one of the most soulful singers of my lifetime, Rick Astley, has largely been relegated either to the subject of the tired running joke of rick rolling online conversations or being the subject of false rumors of his premature demise. I happen to admit that I am a fan of his music, both of his initial period of success and his attempts later on to distance himself from producers that he felt were overly controlling. As I listened to a lot of adult contemporary music during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s as a child and preteen, I became familiar with the music of Rick Astley from a very young age, and the song of his I most enjoyed was his soulful ballad “Cry For Help.” Between the years of my youth and young adulthood, many years passed without hearing this song on the radio, but experiences in my life over the past few months led me to look up the song again and listen to it and reflect on its meaning and importance. The popularity of this song, and the way it remains moving and evocative even more than twenty years after its release, indicates that there is something of lasting worth in this song, and something worth reflecting on to see how this song and its message apply to our own lives and situation.
As is commonly done, Rick Astley begins his cry for help by looking at a dysfunctional relationship with a young lady who pretends to be competent and have her life under control when she clearly needs some help. He sees through her act and her games, but she still plays them and tries to make him feel guilty: “She’s taken my time, /Convinced me she’s fine, / But when she leaves I’m not so sure. / It’s always the same; / She’s playing her game, / And when she goes I feel to blame. / Why won’t she say she needs me? / I know she’s not as strong as she seems. / Why don’t I see her cry for help? / Why don’t I feel her cry for help? / Why don’t I hear her cry for help? ” There are a lot of reasons why people, even those who clearly need help, do not ask for it. People are proud, afraid of showing themselves vulnerable and opening themselves up to hurt, and they often do not trust those around them to respond thoughtfully and appropriately, full of fears that are confirmed (in their own minds at least) by the consistent behavior of others. This world is full of broken and damaged people who seriously need help, and who have a hard time finding trustworthy people to unburden themselves with. It is hard not to notice this in the course of one’s regular lives, when one reflects on the misery we put ourselves and others through.
Rather than simply complain about a woman, Rick Astley (who co-wrote this song) turns the spotlight next on himself, examining his own difficulties in being genuine about his own emotional state: “I wandered around / The streets of this town / Trying to find sense of it all. / The rain on my face, / It covers the trace / Of all the tears I’d had to waste. / Why must we hide emotions? / Why must we never break down and cry? / All that I need is to cry for help. / Somebody please hear me cry for help. / All I can do is cry for help.” Rick Astley strikes the listener as a reasonably sensitive and thoughtful person striving to make sense of a broken world and his own brokenness. Without appearing weak, he examines the distance between honesty and authenticity and the brave front he (and all of us) put before the world. He courageously struggles and wrestles with his world and admits his own incapacity at making the world right on his own.
It is at this point that the song makes deeply spiritual implications as a gospel choir backs up Rick Astley commits to honesty and integrity and makes what amounts to a prayer to God for help, though His name is never referred to directly (similar, for example to the book of Esther): “No need to feel ashamed. Release the pain. Cry for help. / Cry for help is all I need. / All I need is a cry for help. / Cry for help is all I need. / All I need is a cry for help. / Why must we hide emotions? / Why can’t we ever break down and cry? / All that I need is to cry for help. / I will be there when you cry for help. / Why don’t I hear her cry for help? / All that I need is to cry for help. / Somebody please hear me cry for help. / All I can do is cry for help. / All that I need is to cry for help. / I will be there when you cry for help. / Is it so hard to cry for help? / (Cry for help is all I need.) No need to feel ashamed. / (All I need is a cry for help.) Come on and release the pain. / (Cry for help is all I need.) Put your trust in me. / (All I need is a cry for help.) My love is gonna set you free. / Woooooooooooooo.” There is no denying the sincerity of Rick Astley in seeking help both for himself and for his love interest. There is, however, a rather glaring weakness in this particular presentation, in that the cry for help is not all one needs, but rather merely the first step. Understanding and admitting the honest state of affairs does not solve the problems one faces, but rather it provides the necessary reality that must be dealt with. This song is therefore not the end, but merely the beginning.
This is important to recognize. After all, the girl that Rick Astley loves has some major issues–she does not trust or communicate well, and he himself struggles to communicate as well (as do all of us at times). Without honest and open communication, a lasting and successful relationship is very unlikely. Honesty itself is only a precondition to success, as it must be combined with effectively conveyed concern for others, as well as the courage and strength to do what is necessary to overcome one’s difficulties with all the resources and help that one can muster. We must therefore praise Rick Astley for his commitment to honesty and genuineness in expressing what he feels to the woman he lives, as this is often a difficult and nervous matter, fraught with difficulties and complications. However, his assumption that this honest cry for help is all that is necessary is sadly not the case, and in fact a long and difficult road lies for those who pursue commitment. Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile road, for all genuine success is built on the foundations of sincerity and truth, and the main reason why this song has endured when so many of its peers have succumbed to novelty status is because it is a sincere and genuine song, expressing the singer/songwriter’s heartfelt passion very well. He deserves to be remembered for his soulful sincerity and not merely as the punch line to a joke.