What I’ve Learned About Life From Air Supply

Dear Dwonna:

You’re always telling your students how much you love Air Supply and Barry Manilow and other “old people” music. What lessons about life have you learned from these songs?




*Brenda Ford asked me this question, and she helped me write this answer, too. Brenda and I attended Butterworth Elementary, we played softball together in the summers (I played short stop), and we also went to Moline High School. Thanks, Brenda, for helping me write this!

Dear Brenda:

Yes, it’s true that I love Air Supply, Billy Joel, Lionel Richie, Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, James Taylor, Barbara Streisand, Chicago, Leo Sayer, “The Golden Girls,” “Matlock,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “Diagnosis Murder,” “9 to 5,” and “Snapped.” If it’s something that old white women watch or listen to, I probably like it, too.

The truth is that I’m secretly an old white woman trapped in the body of an angry (but very cute) black woman who also masquerades as a professor of English and African American studies. I’m afraid that the black card will be in jeopardy again by the time I get to the end of this essay. Sigh.

But, I digress. Here are 13 songs from Air Supply, Lionel Richie, and other “old white lady” music that explain what I’ve learned about life. Some of the topics overlap, but love and kindness seem to be persistent themes of this “easy listening” music.

1.     Lionel Richie and Diana Ross, “Endless Love

“And love/Oh, love/I’ll be fool/For you,/I’m sure/You know I don’t mind/Oh, you know I don’t mind”

Listen, we’ve all been a fool for love at least once, and we all thought that we, too, would find endless love. This happens for some, but for many of us, love eludes us, and we sometimes make fools out of ourselves in the process. It’s ok, though. Love with a good person is a wonderful thing to find, and even if the love isn’t endless, always cherish the good times that you had with that person. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden when the flowers are dead.” Heartbreak sucks, but endless love is wonderful and worth the search.

2.     Chicago, “Hard to Say I’m Sorry”

“Hold me now/It’s hard for me to say I’m sorry/I just want you to know/Hold me now/I really want to tell you I’m sorry/I could never let you go”

Yes, sometimes it’s hard to tell someone you’re sorry, and sometimes it’s the most difficult thing for the strongest people to say. However, if you’re wrong and you know you’re wrong, say you’re sorry. I know, from personal experience, that nothing sucks more than realizing that you’re wrong in the middle of an argument. Apologize anyway. It’s the right thing to do, and it doesn’t make you weak—it makes you humble AND vulnerable AND courageous. Saying you’re sorry can repair a relationship, and even though “sorry seems to be the hardest word” (Thanks, Elton John!) it’s oftentimes what needs to be said when there is nothing else left to be said.

3.     Billy Joel, “And So It Goes”

“In every heart there is a room/A sanctuary safe and strong/To heal the wounds from lovers past/Until a new one comes along”

Few of us will escape this life without someone breaking our heart (even I’m still a little bit heartbroken about my first college boyfriend), and it makes sense to protect yourself from getting your heart broken again. Still, be open to finding new love, but be smart. Pick a nice person with little baggage and a kind heart, and treat this person kindly and gently. “The truth is,” Bob Marley once said, “everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.” Don’t close your heart completely, for it might miss the one who may fill it with love and happiness. Cheesy and trite, I know, but it’s true.

4.     James Taylor, “You’ve Got a Friend”

“You just call out my name, and you know wherever I am/I’ll come running to see you again./Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, and I’ll be there, yeah yeah yeah/You’ve got a friend”

I’ve had some really good friends who were there for me even when I wasn’t very pleasant to be around, and I will forever be grateful to these people for helping me through difficult times. (Thanks Blas and Neil and Paul and all the other gays who have one-upped my fabulous stories of debauchery!) Find the people who will be there for you when things get tough, and be that friend for whom others can turn to when things get tough for them. As Dean Koontz writes, “Never leave a friend behind. Friends are all we have to get us through this life—and they are the only things from this world that we could hope to see in the next.”

Finding the right friends can be essential to your health, happiness, and growth. Choose friends who won’t just tell you what you want to hear but who will tell you what you need to hear even when you want to stay in your fantasyland of unwise choices. Finally, always remember Barbara Kingsolver’s words: “The friend who holds your hand and says the wrong thing is made of dearer stuff than the one who stays away.” When you do find that kind of friend, hold on to her for dear life.

5.     Air Supply, “What a Life”

“I don’t care about the money I make/Or what it can do/I’m alive and that’s/What’s important to me”

My students never believe me when I tell them that Air Supply is probably my most favorite group, and I’m a huge fan of—and know all the lyrics to—their more well-known songs: “I’m All Out of Love,” “Here I Am,” “Making Love Out of Nothing At All,” “Even the Nights are Better,” “Young Love,” “Lost in Love,” and “Two Less Lonely People in the World.” But, I like this not-so-commercially popular song, too.

Create a life that is meaningful for you, even if it means you won’t get wealthy. Steve Jobs said, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.” Find a job you love, and don’t settle for a job just because it will make you rich.

Don’t become obsessed with making a lot of money, though do try to make enough money so that you and your family can live comfortably. And, even if you hate your job, find the good in it and be grateful that you have something to do. Find what’s important to you, and spend more time doing that. As Mark Twain once said, “Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

6.     Culture Club, “Karma Chameleon”

“I’m a man without conviction/I’m a man who doesn’t know/How to sell a contradiction/You come and go/You come and go/Karma Karma Karma Karma Karma Chameleon”

I’m not going to lie, but I had absolutely no idea what this song is supposed to mean, so I looked it up on that trusty website called Wikipedia (a site that I forbid my students from using by telling them that I will immediately fail them if I find that they have cited it). Anyway, according to Wikipedia, Boy George—the cross-dressing lead singer of Culture Club—said, “The song is about the terrible fear of alienation that people have, the fear of standing up for one thing. It’s about trying to suck up to everybody. Basically, if you aren’t true, if you don’t act like you feel, then you get Karma-justice, that’s nature’s way of paying you back.”

Who knew that Boy George was such a philosopher? He may not be Aristotle or Socrates or Confucius, but he’s right nonetheless. We all have a responsibility to be true to ourselves, but in doing this, we must always remain gentle and compassionate to the world around us. “If you want others to be happy,” the Dalai Lama tells us, “practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Free yourself from resentful thoughts so that you, too, might find peace. Be kind. As Philo said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” (A Facebook meme I just saw said, “Everyone is fighting their own battles. Try not to be an asshole.”) Your kindness will never be wasted because, as Barbara DeAngelis says, “They bless the one who receives them, and they bless you, the giver.”

I think Wayne Dyer’s quote best sums up my views about karma: “How people treat you is their karma; how you react is yours.” Now go into the world and be kind. And behave yourself.

7.     Michael Bolton, “When I’m Back on My Feet Again”

“Gonna break from these chains around me/Gonna learn to fly again/May be hard, may be hard/But I’ll do it/When I’m back on my feet again/Soon these tears will all be dryin’/Soon these eyes will see the sun/Might take time, might take time/But I’ll see it/When I’m back on my feet again”

This is not my all-time favorite Michael Bolton song—“That’s What Love is All About” and “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You” are my two favorites—but this one is a solid third. Life will knock you down, and sometimes after you get up, it will knock you back down again. Get. Back. Up. Every. Time.

An old Irish proverb says, “There’s nothing so bad that it couldn’t be worse.” Sometimes when you’re in the midst of something awful, you will convince yourself that it can’t get any worse, and most of the time it really can’t—and won’t—get any worse. Go figure out what you need to do differently, and then take the steps to do something different and be different.

“In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure,” America’s black father Bill Cosby once said. You will get back on your feet. Listen to Mr. Cosby.

8.     Bobby Brown, “My Prerogative”

“Everybody’s talkin all this stuff about me/Why don’t they just let me live/I don’t need permission/Make my own decisions/That’s my prerogative”

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, my friend Roger tried to teach me how to dance to this song. His efforts were mostly in vain because I have absolutely no rhythm, thereby stomping on that myth that all black folks can dance. Somewhere in America there is a white woman who can dance her behind off, and apparently she has the “black dance gene” that I was supposed to get. But, I digress again.

Don’t worry about folks who talk about you behind your back. They don’t know your struggle, and sometimes they are just insecure and envious of you. Whatever the reason for it, don’t spend a lot of time fretting about it. I think that Eleanor Roosevelt was right when she said, “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.”

I have learned that when you are a person of good character and you live a life with integrity and morality, you won’t care that much about what other people say. The most important thing is not so much who they think you are but who YOU think you are because, well, it’s your prerogative to be you.

9.     Barry Manilow, “Somewhere Down the Road”

“But somewhere down the road/Our roads are gonna cross again/It doesn’t really matter when/But somewhere down the road/I know the heart of yours/Will come to see/That you belong to me”

Most of us have an unrequited love somewhere (I’ll spare you the details about mine), and while it’s nice to fantasize about it every now and then, don’t let it consume you. “Unrequited love does not die,” Elle Newmark writes in The Book of Unholy Mischief, “it’s only beaten down to a secret place where it hides, curled and wounded. For some unfortunates, it turns bitter and mean, and those who come after pay the price for the hurt done by the one who came before.”

Do not do that. Do not be unkind to a current love because you miss someone from your past. Perhaps “somewhere down the road” you will meet again, but don’t count on it. Live for today. In the words of Mark Twain, “Life is short. Break the Rules. Forgive quickly. Kiss SLOWLY. Love truly. Laugh uncontrollably and never regret ANYTHING that makes you smile.”

10.     Michael Jackson, “Man in the Mirror”

“I’m starting with the man in/The Mirror/I’m asking him to Change/His ways/And no message could have/Been any clearer/If you Wanna Make the world/A better place/Take a look at yourself, and/Then Make a Change”

I remember first hearing this song when I was an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, and I was a mess. I didn’t really like who I was, and I don’t think my friends really liked who I was either. I quickly learned the words to this song and would sing along to it while watching myself cry into the mirror.

But, Michael Jackson was right—if we want to make a change in the world, we must begin with ourselves especially since we really only have control over ourselves. Forgive yourself. Forgive others. As Bill Cosby said, “People can be more forgiving than you can imagine. But you have to forgive yourself. Let go of what’s bitter and move on.”

Let go of your anger, too. Buddha says: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” Or, you can embrace Mark Twain’s suggestion in Pudd’nhead Wilson: “When angry count to four; when very angry, swear.”

11.     Cyndi Lauper, “True Colors”

“But I see your true colors/Shining through/I see your true colors/And that’s why I love you/So don’t be afraid to let them show/Your true colors/True colors are beautiful,/Like a rainbow”

Dr. Seuss says, “Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!” Be yourself, and don’t apologize for that. My grandma used to ask me why I couldn’t be like everyone else, and she said she wondered why I felt this “need” to be so different from the other girls. I told her that if my parents wanted me to be like everyone else, they would have named me Mary or Julie, not Dwonna Naomi Goldstone so that I would have to go through life with people constantly wondering if I’m black or a Jew (or both) before they have ever met me.

I have embraced being different, and I think that most of my students appreciate my unique—and charming and loud and sometimes obnoxious—classroom persona. I also read a lot and have lots of opinions that I am not afraid to share when the moment is appropriate (though I’ve been known to share a thought or two when perhaps I should have remained silent). “The only real failure in life is not to be true to the best one knows,” Buddha says. Embrace being different.

Be your authentic self, be bold, and be courageous. “I’ve learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” –Nelson Mandela.

You are braver than you think you are, and the world will see this when you show your true colors. So go be yourself. Everyone else is taken.

12.     Tone Loc, “Funky Cold Medina”

“Back in the saddle, lookin’ for a little affection/I took a shot as a contestant on ‘The Love Connection’/The audience voted and you know they picked a winner/I took my date to the Hilton for Medina and some dinner/She had a few drinks, I’m thinkin’ soon what I’ll be getting’/Instead she started talkin’ ‘bout some plans for our weddin’/I said, wait, slow down, love, not so fast, says, I’ll be seein’ ya/That’s why I found you don’t play around with the Funky Cold Medina”

Ok, I know that “Funky Cold Medina” probably makes me seem a little less “old white lady” like, but work with a sister (and her sidekick Brenda Ford) here. There are many, many things going on in this song, including “the Funky Cold Medina” sleeping with a woman he just met and finding out that she has an “Oscar Meyer wiener.” “You must be sure that the girl is pure for the Funky Cold Medina,” Tone Loc warns his listeners.

Mr. Loc is right that you must make sure that whomever you decide to get naked with is “pure,” but you really should avoid sleeping with someone you’ve just met. Not only is it unsafe in this day and age of STD’s (or VD, like they said in the 1980s), having sex with someone too soon is a really good way to get your heart broken. If you’re a woman, a man who just meets you and has sex with you usually means nothing more than what it is—he’s just having sex with you.

As Billy Crystal once said, “Women need a reason to have sex; men just need a place.” In other words, some men are really just looking for a warm place “to put it.” Many men will gladly have sex with a woman they have just met, and all they are mostly thinking is, “Wow. If she’ll do this with me, she’ll probably do it with anyone.”

So, back to “Funky Cold Medina.” Here’s Brenda’s succinct summary of this song after listening to it again: “From what I heard, ‘Funky Cold Medina’ is a for sure ‘f**k potion,’ and he failed with it all three times—dog, tranny, and woman who only wanted marriage with kids. So, the moral of the song is that there is no $50,000 ‘f**ck potion’ that is 100% guaranteed. Tone Loc only wanted a ‘little something’ and no relationship, and although casual relationships and the ‘hook-up culture’ are much more acceptable in today’s society, you should try to avoid them.”

Woody Allen once said, “Sex without love is a meaningless experience, but as meaningless experiences go, it’s pretty damn good.” Still, don’t be afraid to invest some time into getting to genuinely know someone before you hop in the sack with that person.

If you do decide to quickly hook up, do not expect—nor be surprised by—a lack of communication thereafter. Don’t believe him when he says that he’ll call (or text) you the next day. He probably won’t. And, if you feel the immediate urge to call or text that person with whom you just got naked, let the words of the Beatles echo in your head: “whisper words of wisdom…let it be.”

13.     Bobby McFerrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”

“In every life we have some trouble/When you worry you make it double/Don’t worry, be happy”

No one escapes this life without some trouble, but Bobby McFerrin is right when he tells us not to worry but to be happy. “If you have fear of some pain or suffering,” the Dalai Lama once said, “you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then there is also no need to worry.” Figure out what you can fix, and that which you cannot fix, let it go. Remember that being happy is a choice and that “worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow; it only saps today of its joy.” Find joy in your day-to-day life, and go be a blessing to someone else when you feel like your life is overwhelming, or just plain crappy.


I could have continued writing about what I’ve learned about life beyond these thirteen songs, as I wanted to include Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know?”; Journey’s “Faithfully”; Leo Sayer’s “When I Need You”; and Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” However, I needed to finish this piece before it got too long. As one of my graduate school professors used to tell me, “Sometimes you just need to call it a night and print off your paper and turn it in. You can’t work on it forever.” So, I’ll just finish this “paper” with my new favorite Maya Angelou quote: “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.” Go forth into the world and kick some ass, but do be nice about it. 🙂

Air Supply

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