The Meaning Behind “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League, the Song that Ushered in an Entire Musical Movement

“Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League is one of those turning-point songs in music history, as its success helped to usher in many other songs of its kind as a new musical movement began. Not bad for a track that its co-writer and lead singer didn’t seem to love all that much.

Videos by American Songwriter

What is “Don’t You Want Me” about? How did it come to life? And how did it overcome the doubts of its main creator about its worth? Let’s go back to the beginning of this wild tale, which begins with a band barely holding it together.

A Growing League

Two albums into their career, The Human League was barely clinging to existence at the beginning of the ’80s. Two members departed prior to the making of their third album, leaving only singer Phil Oakey and Adrian Wright, who was responsible for the group’s visuals and didn’t play any instrument. Not exactly a promising outlook for a group that hadn’t exactly been tearing up the charts in their native Great Britain and were completely unknown in America.

Oakey proved resilient, however. Wanting both high voices to contrast his robotic baritone and dancers to add to the live show, he picked Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley out of a crowded nightclub. Even though they weren’t trained dancers or singers (they were still in high school at the time), he asked them to join Human League.

Dare, the band’s first album with these new members, also benefited from the production style of Martin Rushent, who lightened the mood a bit with his embellishments to the synth-heavy sound. But Rushent’s touch on one song made Oakey furious. In fact, he was so angry he insisted that the song be stuck at the end of Side Two of the album so as not to interrupt the proceedings. That song was “Don’t You Want Me.”

A He Said/She Said Thing

Oakey collaborated with Wright and Jo Callis, another new member of The Human League, on the music for “Don’t You Want Me.” The lyrics were inspired by a photo story Oakey had read. To turn it into a kind of dialogue, Oaken employed Sulley to duet with him. When the band first put the music together for the song, it had a foreboding feel to it. Rushent changed it in the mixing process to make it a bit more palatable to wider audiences.

That didn’t please Oakey, who wasn’t all that crazy about that song in any incarnation. Dare immediately changed the band’s fortunes in the UK when released in 1981, as three singles came spewing forth that were all big hits. The record company wanted one more single to be released, and thought “Don’t You Want Me” was the ideal candidate. Again, Oakey balked, feeling a fourth single would risk overexposure, especially with a song he considered inferior.

He was overruled, and the rest is music history. Not only did the song become the band’s first No. 1 in the UK, but it introduced the band in America, where it also hit the top of the charts. “Don’t You Want Me” was one of the opening salvos in the so-called “Second British Invasion,” as synth-heavy, visually striking bands started invading U.S. shores in droves.

What is the Meaning of “Don’t You Want Me?”

In addition to the bold music, what might have struck a chord with audiences is the way Oakey structured the duet. Most duets with a man and woman feature the pair basically on the same page. Either they’re spewing words of love to each other or commiserating in their heartbreak.

But “Don’t You Want Me” presents a dialogue that feels honest in how it gets downright ugly sometimes. But don’t forget it’s me who put you where you are now, Oakey sings to the girl that he claims to have discovered but who now wants to leave him for greener pastures. And I can put you back down too. When she gets the chance, she rebuts that assessment: But even then I knew I’d find a much better place / Either with or without you.

About the only thing upon which they agree is that she was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar. By having Sulley on board, Oakey ensured “Don’t You Want Me” wouldn’t be a one-sided diatribe, but instead a two-sided, warts-and-all conversation, one set to an irresistible Linn Drum-aided rhythm. It’s as iconic as it gets when it comes to ’80s music, which is why we can be glad the objections of its chief creator kept getting overruled all the way down the line.

When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Photo by Tabatha Fireman/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

Michael Anthony Recalls Van Halen’s 2007 Rock Hall Induction: “It Was Pretty Sad”

The Van Halen Ceremony That Never Truly Was: Michael Anthony Recalls Band’s “Pretty Sad” Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction