Nothing sums up 2018 like the actual fact that Toto’s “Africa” is now our unofficial anthem. It is a song that’s ridiculous by definition — an Eighties ode to Africa by a bunch of L.A. rock dudes who’d never set foot in the place. But something about this song speaks to the moment. Oahu is the new “Don’t Stop Believin’” — a mega-cheese classic of Eighties sentiment that’s gotten bizarrely popular in recent years, beloved by hipsters and moms and tone-deaf karaoke singers screaming “I bless the rains down in Africa!” Like it or hate it, you’ve probably heard it today. You’ll hear it tomorrow. This damn song follows you everywhere, like the sound of wild dogs crying out in the night.
Toto’s Africa is a place that doesn’t exist and never did — this song has nothing regarding the continent, until you count that groovy synth-kalimba solo. But the song turns out to be always a map of today’s America, which is why it’s much bigger now than it had been in the Eighties. As Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro summed it down, “A bright boy is trying to publish a tune on Africa, but because he’s never been there, they can only tell what he’s seen on TV or remembers in the past.” The singer is really deep in his feelings, he barely notices where he is—hence the hilarious “whoa dude, there exists a mountain” moment when “Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.” Needless to freaking say, you can’t see Kilimanjaro from the Serengeti, which is really a couple hundred miles away. Does it matter? The complete point of “Africa” is that you’re nowhere at all.
Weezer just scored their first Hot 100 hit in years with their surprise cover of “Africa,” responding to a widespread online fan petition. Toto returned the favor last month by playing Weezer’s “Hash Pipe” live. “We figured since we were smoking hash since before they certainly were born, this is the one we should do,” guitarist Steve Lukather said onstage. “This really is our tribute to Weezer, God bless ‘em.” For decades Lukather has played in Ringo Starr’s All-Star Band, which means that every gig, Ringo is up there drumming to “Africa.” Did any Beatles fan predict the next where Ringo would spend the 21st Century playing “Africa” each night although not “Octopus’s Garden”? Yet that’s what we’ve come to. As a great man once sang, it don’t come easy.
The complete weird history of American culture is in this song somewhere. The studio pros in Toto played on Thriller, and undoubtedly rock classics from Boz Scaggs to Steely Dan, which means all that grooveology is lurking deep in “Africa.” Thomas Pynchon put the song in his latest novel Bleeding Edge, in which a crew of start-up dot-commers belt it in a NYC karaoke bar on the eve of 9/11, except they believe it goes, “I left my brains down in Africa.” It shows up on TV from Stranger Things to South Park.Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon sang it at Camp Winnipesaukee. CBS thought we would play it in their coverage of Nelson Mandela’s funeral, which even the Toto guys thought was somewhat insane. (Singer and co-writer David Paich released a record saying CBS should used actual South African music instead, adding “We honor Nelson Mandela.”) Going to this song for authentic African flava is much like obtaining a French lesson from Paris Hilton.
“Africa” hit Number One in February 1983 — it replaced Men at Work’s ode to Australia, “Down Under,” the sole time in pop history two continents slugged it out for Number One. (Right following the band Asia had the best-selling album of 1982.) But “Down Under” is a real song about a genuine place — Aussie bros kicking local slang to shout out Vegemite sandwiches. “Africa” is many different — a tune about feeling homesick for nowhere. The singer is lost in time and place, yearning for a romance that never happened in a homeland he’s never seen. He doesn’t know anything about Africa, except it must be better compared to nightmare where he’s trapped right now. (You could even say he’s…frightened of this thing that he’s 사설토토!) These days, most of us know how that feels. Would you require an improved summary of modern alienation than the usual yacht-rock song about the desert?