DON'T SHY AWAY

The indelible beauty of “Take On Me,” Hollywood’s favorite song of 2018

You again.
You again.
Image: WMG/Rhino Warner/YouTube
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One of the biggest songs of 2018 was a turbocharged synthpop falsetto ballad that came out 34 years ago. It bops to a frantic 168 beats per minute. Its music video—a rotoscoped masterwork that blends pencil sketches with live action—is wholly unlike anything you’d see on YouTube today. In fact, the song doesn’t have much in common with modern pop music at all. But, weirdly, it still resonates, and in its many forms it still pervades pop culture. And it still slaps.

The song, of course, is “Take On Me” by the Norwegian band A-ha. Three decades after the trio of struggling musicians struck gold with the song, “Take On Me” remains a pop culture staple. It was one of Hollywood’s most-used songs of the year, featured prominently in everything from Deadpool 2 to Ready Player One to Riverdale to, most recently, the Transformers spin-off Bumblebee. It was mashed up (surprisingly well) with Kendrick Lamar. Spider-Man danced to it (again, surprisingly well) in a viral video.

“Take On Me” was everywhere in 2018.

The enduring ubiquity of A-ha

It didn’t just come out of nowhere, either. The A-ha hit has enjoyed a resurgence over the last several years, partly because the band—now all in their late 50s—are still out promoting and touring it. Last month, the band released an epic version of the song accompanied by a 50-piece orchestra. They performed a gorgeous, stripped-down version for MTV Unplugged last year that quickly went viral, showing us that the song was more poignant than its lightning fast tempo and singer Morten Harket’s legendary falsetto would leave you to believe. It managed to be earnest and heartfelt without being creepy—quite a feat for the late 2010s, when we’ve been forced to re-examine some of our most beloved ballads.

That same year the song appeared in HBO’s The Leftovers (three different times) and Despicable Me 3. In 2016, it was part of a great scene in La La Land and also found its way into Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and Sing Street. The year before, popular Norwegian DJ Kygo dropped a tropical house remix of the song. And who could forget “Feel This Moment” by Pitbull (featuring Christina Aguilera), a song based on “Take On Me” that became one of the biggest hits of 2013.

Here’s a breakdown of the song’s appearances on scores over the last decade, based on IMDB data. (Note: IMDB’s data are not exhaustive—they’re missing The Leftovers and a few other instances of the song in film and TV, including whenever it was performed by a band other than A-ha, as in La La Land. Still, you can see how much it exploded across pop culture this past year.)

Google search data paint a similar picture:

take on me a-ha google
Image: Google

An unexpected beauty

It’s likely that some of the song’s uses are meant to be ironic—”Take On Me” is so quintessentially an artifact of the 1980s that it feels like it shouldn’t really have a place in modern pop culture. But it’s also true that the song is genuinely great—and oddly moving. There’s no reason an upbeat synthpop earworm can’t be beautiful too.

There’s also a strange allure to its versatility, its adorably imprecise lyrics (it’s pretty clear the songwriters’ first language is not English), and its driving, hypnotic momentum. It’s about love that never dies, love that can cross dimensions, love that makes you want to sing higher than your vocal cords would like you to.

It’s that commitment that makes “Take On Me” still so resonant so long after its initial release. ”You either have wings or you don’t,” Harket told the Guardian in 2015, about the song and his signature falsetto. “The voice is not in the throat, it’s in the blood. It’s what you envisage, what you believe.”

Below, I’ve put together a Spotify playlist of some of the best versions of the song. Below that are some of the song’s best pop culture moments over the last few years. Don’t shy away, because “Take On Me” is coming for your love, okay?