“Every 20 or so years I look for a ‘pattern interrupt,’ something that’s incredibly uncomfortable for me to face. In doing so in the past, it’s always taught me life lessons,” says the photographer Lynn Goldsmith, 75, about her move to Nashville five years ago. “You have to put yourself in that position, as opposed to living a life that’s just completely enjoyable.”
Forty years ago, Goldsmith undertook a similarly disorientating “pattern interrupt,” by almost bankrupting herself in the creation of an idiosyncratic novelty record entitled Dancing for Mental Health, which featured some of the biggest names of the era.
In the early 1980s, Goldsmith was perhaps the most in-demand photographer and tour chronicler for the biggest musicians of the era—Michael Jackson, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Prince. It was 1982, when Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, booked her on an assignment in Nassau in the Bahamas to shoot Joe Cocker, Marianne Faithfull, and Robert Palmer. Palmer lived across the street from the Island studio, and wasn’t particularly fond of leaving his house, so Goldsmith brought Cocker and Faithfull over to get a group shot.
Everybody was drinking and vibing. Palmer had a James Brown riff playing on loop in the background that he was mining for melodic inspiration. Cocker and Faithfull tried singing along to it but nothing stuck. When they eventually left, Goldsmith put down her camera and asked Palmer if she could take a stab at the riff.
For some time, Goldsmith had been thinking of a persona that could fuse together two disparate phenomena of the era: rap music was taking hold of the culture, and Goldsmith had been wondering what a white rapper might sound like who wasn’t attempting to mimic Black artists. At the same time, the proto-wellness market was also exploding. “There were various self-help gurus that I always thought were just salesmen,” says Goldsmith, before admitting, “I started reading their books and there were basic truths—clichés are truths.”
Combining these two influences in front of Palmer, Goldsmith began intoning a satirical self-help white rap. It was the birth of her musical alter ego, Will Powers.
Palmer flipped for it, and the two began playing around with the sound. “We stayed up the rest of the night,” says Goldsmith. Palmer was so excited he rang Blackwell at six A.M. to come over and give the rudimentary collaboration a listen. “Robert … had a different relationship with Chris than I did,” says Goldsmith. “I would’ve said, ‘Maybe we should wait till nine A.M.?’”
Blackwell loved what he heard and wanted to put the record out immediately. But Goldsmith asserted that she didn’t want her idea to be a one-off, or relegated to a feature on a Robert Palmer album. She wanted a full-length LP spearheaded by her. Blackwell agreed. “[Chris Blackwell] was a real gambler, and he gambled on me,” she says.
Goldsmith exhausted her Rolodex in the collaborative recording process, tapping friends like Carly Simon, Nile Rodgers, Steve Winwood, Sting, and Todd Rundgren, to work on the album. Even the album’s backing vocals were star-studded. “I had a recording session in New York and I invited everyone I knew,” says Goldsmith of the chorus she assembled, which included Glenn Close, Griffin Dunne, and Warren Beatty.
“Chris Blackwell was a real gambler, and he gambled on me.”
Using a pitched-down vocoder to give her vocals a genderless sound, Goldsmith rapped a semi-ironic empowerment word salad to un-ironically good dance music. The opening verse of the infectiously groovy lead single, “Adventures in Success,” has Goldsmith robotically addressing the listener:
“You are an important person. A rare individual. A unique creature.… In some ways, you’re superior to any other living person.”
Goldsmith is a visually minded artist first and foremost, and it was the Will Powers music videos that displayed a particularly satirical aesthetic, pre-empting the self-conscious meta-humor of comedians such as Tim and Eric by more than 20 years. They feel like the product of late-night channel-surfing, where you’re not sure if what you’re watching is serious or not.
For the “Adventures in Success” video, Meat Loaf stars as a hapless couch potato held captive by a Will Powers infomercial. Goldsmith wanted to use a 3D-mapped rendering of her own face to visualize Powers’s face. This then groundbreaking, now primitive effect came at such an exorbitant price tag that Goldsmith had to mortgage her New York City loft to pay for it.
“Will Powers was always part of who I am,” explains Goldsmith. “There were people who really wanted me to answer the question if Will Powers was serious or not. And that’s not a question for me to answer—that’s a question for you to answer.”
Blackwell’s gamble paid off, and the tongue-in-cheek oddity was a genuine hit, with the U.K.-charting single “Kissing with Confidence” being included in the first-ever NOW! That’s What I Call Music! compilation in 1983. Blackwell tried to convince Goldsmith to give up photography in favor of going all-in on Will Powers, but she was too trepidatious about the touring lifestyle from her experience documenting it.
“I saw how people lived, even when they were big like Talking Heads, who everyone thought were so successful. I mean, the backstage rooms at CBGBs and stuff … it really smelled—it was disgusting,” says Goldsmith. “I just thought, Is this what I want my life to be?”
In the decades since, Goldsmith has maintained a successful career in photography, recently hitting headlines again when, this past spring, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in her favor against the Andy Warhol Foundation. They adjudged that the foundation had infringed on her copyright when a silk-screen image that Warhol had made, based on one of Goldsmith’s photographs of Prince, was licensed commercially without consent or compensation.
Meanwhile, the cult status of Will Powers has been cemented, with “Adventures in Success” in particular becoming a perennial left-field disco favorite. Some of London’s most respected D.J.’s frequently weave it into their sets, and Chanel licensed it for their Fall-Winter 2021/22 Ready-to-Wear Show in a video featuring the actress Margaret Qualley dancing to the tune.
“I got a painting from someone who said that they had been a dog sitter, but wanted to be a painter, and that they listened to the [Will Powers] record over and over and over while they painted—and now they’re a painter,” says Goldsmith of the album’s long life. “Even though Will was not the focus of most of my professional journey, to me that’s a legacy. If you can in some way help another person to reach for their potential? Pat on my back.”
Spike Carter is a writer and filmmaker. His next project is a documentary about Eric Roberts