In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Songs that feature twisted takes on the family unit for Unconventional Families Week.
I’ve proclaimed my love for the story song in this space many a time, but in the narrower category of story song/one-hit wonder/teenage death, there is a clear winner. “Run Joey Run” can only be called a saga, as its short but sweet three minutes depict a complete and crazed narrative, about how our fleet-footed hero loses his girlfriend in one night. It was a U.S. Top 40 hit that peaked at No. 4 in 1975.
The song subtly kicks off with an angels’ chorus and the unlovely vocals of Joe’s girlfriend, singing the same lines she’ll tout a few times before we’re through here: “Daddy, please don’t / It wasn’t his fault / He means so much to me / Daddy, please don’t / We’re gonna get married / Just you wait and see.” Reading between these lines, it appears that Joe has gotten Julie pregnant, and instead of handling this situation rationally, her insane father beats her up and goes after Joe with a gun. (The lack of Julie’s mother anywhere in the story makes this behavior even more disturbing.) Even though Julie expressly tells him, “Joe, don’t come over,” he nonetheless runs straight to her house. And even though she warns him (“Watch out!”), Julie still must throw herself in front of her father’s bullet to save her dimwit boyfriend’s life. Her lines trail off, disturbingly singsong as she dies, and the tambourine/trumpet-based chorus of “Run, Joey, run, Joey, run” leads us off into the distance, implying that Joe is still out there, running, not only from Julie’s dad, but from his own past. A more perfect, heavy-handed teenage-pregnancy cautionary tale just doesn’t exist, in the ’70s or anywhere else.
“Run Joey Run” resurfaced decades later for an odd pop-culture hiccup: In Glee’s first season, Rachel used it for a song-video project, and then cast Puck, Jesse, and Finn in the part of Joe. Rachel’s video offers the over-the-top schmaltz the song deserves, with the advantage of Lea Michele’s vocals, which are far superior to the original, and she brings her typical melodramatic acting skills to sell Julie’s death scene. All three guys believed that they were the only one filmed for the video, and are outraged when they realize that Rachel has used them all. Moral: Joe’s just not that bright, in any version of the song.