The Meaning Behind “Say You, Say Me” by Lionel Richie and How It Came to Be Used in the Film ‘White Nights’

In a 1986 interview with The New York Times, singer/songwriter Lionel Richie said, “The majority of the world my music reaches is in turmoil.” He talked about a world at war and apartheid in South Africa, reflecting the social consciousness of his new album at the time, Dancing on the Ceiling.

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At a time of bleakness, Richie spoke to the turmoil but offered hope—not surprising from the co-writer of “We Are the World.” The song “Say You, Say Me” offers such a light, and in the spirit of the album’s title, the overarching message is togetherness. Dancing can happen alone, but the whole point (unless you’re Billy Idol) is to dance with someone else.

White Nights

Director Taylor Hackford asked Richie to compose the title theme to the 1985 film White Nights, starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines. Richie struggled to write a song using the film’s name. Instead, he delivered a demo of “Say You, Say Me” to Hackford.

James Anthony Carmichael produced the song with Richie in the singer’s living room. “Say You, Say Me” is about the strength of friendship. But there’s a universal message to Richie’s elixir for loneliness.

Say you, say me
Say it for always
That’s the way it should be
Say you, say me
Say it together naturally

The film follows Kolya (Baryshnikov), who has defected from the Soviet Union. A KGB officer discovers him following a plane crash in Siberia. Kolya finds an unlikely friend in Raymond Greenwood (Hines), an American who defected to the Soviet Union. Racial and artistic differences vanish as the two men plan to escape.

I had a dream. I had an awesome dream
People in the park playing games in the dark
And what they played was a masquerade
From behind the walls of doubt
A voice was crying out, yeah

Oh, What a Feeling

A mid-’80s smash hit, the song reached No. 1 on the charts and won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. In an era of Michael Jackson, Prince, and Madonna, the former Commodores singer became one of the decade’s defining artists.

Think of “Say You, Say Me” as the pyramid-suit version of “Hey Jude.” Using smooth-sailing synthesizers, Richie evokes the goodwill of Paul McCartney in a song about comradeship.

Don’t Sleep on that Bridge

Everyone remembers the chorus to “Say You, Say Me.” It even opens the song. But do you remember the epic bridge?

So you think you know the answers, oh no
Well, the whole world has got you dancing
That’s right, I’m telling you
It’s time to start believing, oh yes
Believing in who you are
You are a shining star

You heard the guitar, right? That’s Steve Lukather from Toto. He’s also responsible for the glorious guitar tone on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” Eddie Van Halen rips “Beat It’s” guitar solo, but Lukather’s riff drives the song.

The left-hand turn of the bridge from the rest of the song’s tender balladry is a lesson in Richie’s songwriting mastery. Pop songs in the neon decade didn’t do subtle, and even the mawkish ballads had to make you move. Richie’s hits are like magnets, with enough pull for the most stubborn wallflowers to make their way to the dance floor.  

People didn’t stuff shoulder pads in those jackets for nothing—they were going out!

Originally, Richie planned to call the album Say You, Say Me, but “We Are the World” opened a new sense of purpose for the singer, and he began reworking the album to reflect the state of global affairs. Motown released “Dancing on the Ceiling” next, and it became the title track. Ironically, the upside-down party anthem outweighed the topical songs.  

Shut Up and Dance

In The New York Times piece mentioned above, Richie expressed frustration that it took musicians to prompt governments to help fellow humans in need. The artists involved with Live Aid, Hands Across America, and U.S.A. for Africa begged politicians to help.

So, when critics tell musicians or athletes to “stay in their lane,” or more infamously, “shut up and dribble,” remember it’s not politicians who raise collective consciousness on these issues.

Two of Richie’s biggest hits, “All Night Long” and “Dancing on the Ceiling,” are party songs. And don’t forget the Commodores’ mighty “Brick House.”

But Richie is a supreme balladeer. From the Commodores’ “Easy” to solo hits like “Hello,” the Diana Ross duet “Endless Love,” and the Kenny Rogers classic “Lady,” the compassion driving Richie’s ballads also determines his urgency to heal.

Listening to Lionel Richie, earnestness never felt so good.

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Photo by Derek White/Getty Images for ABA

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