“If You Leave” by OMD, and how a song stays with you

St. Alban's Cathedral churchyard at sunset, November 2011

From the minor synthesizer chords to the spare, languid notes floating on the top, there is a haunting feel I get in my bones when I listen to the Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) song “Walking on Air.” It turns out that what I feel is at least partly intentional. The song’s “initial inspiration [came] from the house that Andy [McCluskey, OMD singer/songwriter] was living in at the time[,] which was over 500 years old.” For me, the lyrics paint an indelible, shadowy memory, a longing for a time that has passed, and for someone who was once beloved but is no longer there:

No footsteps on the stair tonight
No cigarettes for me to light
No heavy scented clothes
To fall to the floor
But I’ll hear you calling when you’re not there
You’re walking on air

We all have songs like this in our memories, the ones that stick around somewhere in our head. We may not be conscious of these memories on a daily basis, as they can be buried in the deep recesses of our minds. However, an event or other memory can cause the right dominoes to fall, bringing the song forward and out of the dark. Where old things we have simply forgotten through the passage of time, or those we preferred to forget, these memories suddenly get a spotlight.
I was in college in the late 1990s. Like most kids then, I was enjoying this brand-new thing called email. I was used to modem speed, so high-speed internet in my dorm room and the library seemed like sorcery at first. Besides all of that, when everyone else was up late at night having a normal college social life, I was asleep.
My nonexistent social life was a consequence of chronic illness and fatigue. My waking hours were occupied by classes, my part-time job that turned almost full-time and that I could never see was consuming too much of my life, or late night studying alone. I think I really thought then that by the way I was living, I could outwit the illness that had affected every part of my life since I was 12. I presumed that there must be a light at the end of the tunnel, that one day all this hard work would lead to a happy life and some rest. There was never a kind hand on my shoulder, anyone that suggested that maybe I shouldn’t be pushing myself that hard.
I was in graduate school at the start of the 2000s, rooming with a high school friend who was the musical director of an a capella group. One night, he was listening to “If You Leave.” I recognized the melody because it was one of those songs that came on the radio every so often. I had no clue who performed it, though. I guessed that it was probably from ‘80s New Wave and it was by a British band. We probably got into an argument over which band it was. My roommate kept insisting it was by Orchestral Manuevers [sic] in the Dark, as the artist was marked on the mp3 he had downloaded. This was the age of Napster, remember. I got a copy off him, and away I went.

The lyrics, the chord progressions, the saxophone solo: all of it made for a lasting emotional impression. It’s a really sad song, bolstered by soaring vocals, and set to seemingly buoyantly happy music, keys to a template the band often uses to great effect. (See the video for “Don’t Go,” and bring tissues.) The lyrics of “If You Leave” conjure up a heart-wrenching high school scene in my head. I must have played that one song hundreds, probably thousands of times on repeat that first year. It’s a wonder that my roommate didn’t complain or bang on the wall separating our bedrooms to tell me to knock it off already.

Why did this particular song resonate with me at that time of my life? It didn’t have anything to do with a romantic breakup, as I hadn’t had a serious boyfriend yet. On a superficial level, I can see now that it reflected my feelings of being so socially disconnected from what that period of life looked like for everyone else. The majority of my friends were off to postgraduate school in the big city, distant both physically and emotionally. They were well on their way, headed for the seemingly guaranteed, financially stable professional lives our penny-pinching immigrant parents wanted for us. Pretty soon, most of them were getting married and having kids. All the while, how I could perceive myself as anything but standing still?
Even though I had dreamt to do so, I didn’t go away for graduate school. Chronic illness makes you feel unsafe, scared, and unsure of whether you’ll be able to get out of bed the next morning. I thought I figured out a way to exert some kind of control: I had sketched out what I thought was what I wanted to do with my life and how I would get there. My anticipated Ph.D. was the linchpin of my future plans: I was going to run my own lab and be a biology professor. I wanted to teach and inspire the students coming up, as I had been inspired by my own teachers.
On a balmy June night in Tokyo in 2001, I met Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran after a show at the famed Shibuya-AX. Any anxiety that I might have had walking up to him melted away and disappeared as he spoke to me so kindly. It felt like magic. I wish I had known then that something significant had just happened. Something that would foreshadow what was to come for me.
When I returned home, I continued to struggle through my physical and mental exhaustion. I tried to maintain positivity about my plan. I had a signed, framed photo of John Taylor on my nightstand. The more that I looked at his face, I could not escape the small but niggling feeling that something wasn’t quite right. But I didn’t know what it was.

A decade later, I was a music blogger for four different music outlets, and my words were being read around the world. I was offered a press pass to see OMD. The original lineup had reunited, and they were on their first US tour in over 15 years. At the time, I knew exactly one OMD song, and I was curious about their live performance. I wasn’t disappointed. At the worst points of my life, I have struggled with things most people take for granted like walking, so I was blown away by Andy McCluskey’s athleticism and endurance. Below is a video of “If You Leave” being performed at Terminal 5 in New York City on the same tour.

Pretty in Pink is one of my favorite movies, and I see it for much more than its teenage fluff most critics have faulted it for. Its message, about taking a risk out of your station in life, dropping pride and ego for something far greater than the conventional boxes that society puts us in, feels like a recurrent theme for my life. I’m a woman who isn’t quite Chinese and doesn’t and will never “look” 100% American, and I’m painfully aware of this. My mother hated that I wrote about music and stayed out to see late night shows, and that I traveled alone. Every step that I’ve taken after leaving the academic life has been subject to judgment and criticism from family and friends.
“If You Leave” was not the song originally intended for the end of the movie. Due to early test audiences unhappy with the original ending, it was reshot as the ending we all know and love. Andie follows Blane into a darkened parking lot. Clinch. Purse drop. Swoon. OMD’s song “Goddess of Love” no longer fit.
This left leaving McCluskey and Humphreys scrambling to write – and write quickly, I wish to add – another song suitable to Hughes and that would fit the new ending. They had just arrived in California, presumably intending to ease themselves into the time difference and before they started a North American tour with the Thompson Twins. Bashing out ideas for a new song on a piano wasn’t how the two would normally write but they were faced with no other choice. Within less than 2 days, one of the most iconic film songs of the 1980s was written and approved by Hughes. There’s more here about the song and its accidental success in this 2016 Entertainment Weekly article if you’re interested.
It has been many years since I first connected to “If You Leave.” I was then a 20-something still trying to find my adult footing. But I have finally cracked the code as to why it so deeply resonated with me. It all makes sense now. Any normality of my high school and college years were stolen by illness. For me, the time came and went as a blur, a series of unremarkable months and years punctuated by good grades and a multitude of honors and awards but not much else of note, except perhaps my unacknowledged unhappiness that I hid all too well.
I did not like the look of my future, the one that I had mapped out to ensure my conservative parents were happy with my life choices. Even now, I can still feel the presence of an existential dread that hung over me as a child, the all-too-real prospect of disappointing my deeply respected, world-renowed NASA physicist father. He had finally come around, accepting begrudgingly that I was studying something worthwhile that lived outside the physical sciences. Both my parents had careers in science, so I knew that there would have been a huge amount of disgust and shame leveled my way if I backed out. “Failure is not an option” is an unspoken Chinese mantra.
By the time I’d reached graduate school and found myself exhausted, I had arrived to that space that McCluskey called an “intense emotional impact” that I should have had years earlier. I was feeling the kind of angst at the end of high school that he said he intended to empathize with in the lyrics of “If You Leave.”
On lonely nights when I couldn’t explain or didn’t understand why I didn’t feel right, I welcomed “If You Leave” through an open door of my heart. I would cry ugly, blinding tears when I listened to it. On some subconscious level, I must have understood that it was expressing the kind of anguish inside me that I didn’t think I could articulate safely to anyone, even my friends.
I now have very different, much more positive associations with “If You Leave.” It is the reliable, comfortable sweater that always feels good on, the same metaphorical sweater I draped myself with when I was 21, when I felt incredibly alone and with no one around to soothe me. There is still a lingering sadness, but I understand where it’s coming from, so I can work with the sadness without it destroying me. I’ve seen the song performed live in different cities and four different countries now, and it always leads to rapturous audience reactions. The last time I saw OMD live, I was with a group of Swedish music industry types, loud and raucous men who I imagined were as excited that night about the band’s music as they had been years ago, holding the original vinyl and cassettes. There is no doubt that the legacy of “If You Leave,” as well as OMD’s catalogue, will burn bright for years to come.
The younger me would be mystified that Andy McCluskey is now a friend. He took a chance on my proposal that led to a series of compelling interview features. I’m proud that I was a part of that. When I interviewed Andy, he got to look back at 40 years of hard work and history that positively and emotionally affected so many people.
On the surface, the features looked like a natural progression from the music writing that I had done before, except that it wasn’t. I didn’t know straight away, but it was the start of a whole new life, where my happiness would become more important than anything else.

Photo at top was taken by me on the grounds of St. Alban’s Cathedral, England, days before my birthday in November 2011.

Seduction and perfume, and is that expensive fragrance worth its price? (mini-podcast episode #3)

I hope you’re all doing well and had a nice Thanksgiving if you celebrate. My birthday is always around or on Thanksgiving Day. Normally, I would be out of town celebrating it but thanks to the pandemic, I didn’t go anywhere. Instead, I took some time off and indulged in some in-person fragrance testing and shopping!

Like episode 2 of the Empowering Perfumes series, this episode will have two topics. I’m starting with the association of women’s perfume with seduction. Later, I’ll answer a question often asked by newcomers to higher-end fragrance. But for now, let’s start with the seduction.

Indulge me and close your eyes. Shake out the stress of the day from your shoulders. Take a few deep, relaxing breaths. Inhale slowly for 5 counts, then exhale slowly for another 5 counts. Inhale…then exhale. This will help clear your mind. I’m now going to paint a picture for you so you can imagine yourself being somewhere else.
By the sea lies a quaint, windswept cottage, far, far away from everything. It is nighttime, and the stars are out. The cottage is old and made of a creamy, alabaster wood that creaks and sighs as you step gingerly onto the floorboards. You open the door to the bedroom, which is sparsely furnished. Flickering candles give the room a soft glow, like you’re in another world. The candles give off a comforting but oh so gentle aroma of vanilla, like freshly baked cookies. You can hear the soothing sound of the sea outside. Here, in this moment, you feel at ease. You don’t have to pretend to be anyone or anything else but yourself here. You can just be.
As you step into the space barefoot, you notice the centerpiece of the room, a four-poster bed with plumped up pillows, its frame draped in a soft, gauzy, ivory fabric. You remember why you are here. You left behind your responsibilities for the weekend and run away from it all to be with the person you love. Without the constant background hum of stress, work, and anything else that distracts you from who you really are, it’s an opportunity to relax. Now is the time when you can reconnect with your partner. To rediscover the parts of you that have been hidden from view, to expose and love any vulnerabilities, to reach new heights in your intimacy with one another.
In addition to slipping into something comfortable, you’ve chosen a very special perfume for this night. It’s a scent that is equal parts sensual, romantic, tender, and daring. When you spritz it on and sniff your wrists, you feel amazing. Strong. Confident. We all know what happens next because you feel safe and loved here. You can let go.
I hate to bring you back to reality, but I do have a point to make here. What I just described to you includes two fragrance cues. I don’t know how many property realtors still do it, but when I was growing up, realtors had a well-known trick of baking cookies before an open house began. The smell of baking was so ingrained in people’s minds as a positive, reassuring scent, probably bringing up fond memories of Grandma and the holidays.
The other cue here is, of course, the wearing of perfume for the purpose of seduction. Regardless of whether you are a woman, a man, or anything in between, it’s common knowledge that fragrance can be an aphrodisiac, and wearing a particular scent for a partner in itself is sexy. Choosing a scent that is recognizably you, pleasant and indeed, irresistible to the person you’re trying to tempt is practically guaranteed to boost your confidence.
For many women, sexual confidence doesn’t come about naturally. For one thing, a woman’s worst-case scenario of getting pregnant as a consequence of the quest for sexual pleasure is a huge buzzkill. I know I’ve worried about it. You only need to look in the not too distant past, specifically the 1960s and the sexual revolution, to understand how revolutionary the introduction of the pill was for women.
Still, there’s plenty of room for growth that I believe women deserve when it comes to intimacy. Last month, I attended a class about the negative, toxic beliefs women hold around sex. These beliefs have led women to feel shame about wanting sex or to develop self-worth issues around sex. And these beliefs are not new. They have been swimming around in the Divine Feminine collective because they are generational and have been passed down to us women from the pain of our mothers, our mother’s mothers, and so on.
The beliefs come from thousands of years of women living in a patriarchal society where we’ve had to live second-class lives and have not had the same freedoms as men. I’ve been thinking more about what I learned in the class as Roe vs. Wade has come under threat in America, as it’s all related. At the heart of Roe vs. Wade is a woman’s right to choose when it comes to an important decision regarding her health and her body. But the decision is also connected to things far beyond her physical body, into her emotions, how she has viewed herself, and how she will view herself in the future.
I had not realized until I talked to several girlfriends and the women in this class that I was not alone in having been brought up with two admittedly antiquated ideas, that sex was for married couples, and it was largely for the husband’s pleasure. The wife’s desires weren’t even part of the conversation. From a young age, we were told that women who liked having sex for pleasure were sluts, while we looked on as our male peers with the same behavior did not get the same derogatory labeling. We’ve all seen it personally or on tv or in the movies: the guy who sleeps around is congratulated for all his conquests, not shamed for it. Though attitudes around sex have certainly relaxed and become more open-minded since the 1960s, there are still numerous issues for women. Too many of us have shame around wanting sex, enjoying it for the pleasurable act it is, and initiating intimacy with our partners.
One of my damaging personal beliefs around sex was that the woman was responsible to be seductive and alluring if she wanted sex. When I use the words seductive and alluring, I mean in terms of how a woman might act and dress for a man. Back then, I included perfume as part of the dressing up part. I can see no how this belief was coming from the fashion magazines I’d see in the grocery store or bookstore that I would never pick up, let alone read. The sexy, heavily made-up, scantily clad women on the covers didn’t look like me. They had a confident, come hither stare that made me feel sure that they could stroll into bars, command the attention of the entire room, and the men would be falling over themselves to be with them.
I convinced myself a little too well that I could never look or be like any of those women. I’ve had such a hard time with my self-confidence and feeling attractive that the idea of being seductive was so out of my comfort zone, it might as well have been in another galaxy. Feeling discouraged and less than looking at these images of perfection caused me to feel that I never would measure up properly as a woman and that I would never be in a relationship. Worse, I thought that I couldn’t be fixed. It wasn’t until I was well along in years of therapy that I realized that I was beautiful as I was and there was nothing about my looks that needed fixing at all.
When I first started getting comfortable buying lingerie, my thinking became so laser focused to how to make myself look skinny in the right places and curvy in others while wearing it, with the expressed purpose to attract a man. It wasn’t until a friend stopped me in my tracks and reminded me that lingerie is for the woman wearing it. She said that lingerie is supposed to be a woman’s little secret to wear under your regular clothes, to make you feel more feminine, and to and give you self-confidence, man or no man. I never forgot that.
I now connect seduction and perfume in a different, healthier way. I view perfume like an invisible kind of lingerie. It’s that special something that creates an olfactory memory instead of a visual one. The best part is you get to choose what to wear, so you can make it something you love. If it gets you in the mood and it makes you feel sexy, whether you have a partner or not, then why not buy it and wear it proudly? It’s your right as a woman to feel good about yourself, just like it’s your right to seek out the pleasure you can have through sex. Even if all that the perfume does is give you that extra spring in your step when you’re walking out of the door that morning, that is personal joy, and it’s totally worth it.
Since last spring, I’ve been doing a lot of Googling while researching different perfumes, what they contain, and what they smell like. A common refrain among newcomers to fragrance has to do with cold hard cash: Is that expensive fragrance really worth what it says on its price tag?
When I think about higher-end fragrance, I’m talking about the houses that charge over $150 US dollars for a 100-milliliter bottle. American fashion designer Tom Ford, for example, has a fragrance line with 50-milliliter bottles starting at about $370 US dollars. There is some discount if you purchase a larger size but for the average consumer, it probably doesn’t help that much. (I also have a beef with the Tom Ford brand, specifically over them offering smaller sizes for some but not all of their offerings. But I’ll have to discuss that another time.) The legendary Chanel No. 5 comes in at around $140 US dollars per 100 milliliters. You’re comparing apples and oranges. Or Rolexes with Swatches.
If you’re a keen shopper of designer clothes and accessories, you already know that a pair of Christian Louboutins or a Louis Vuitton handbag are going to cost you significantly more than a lesser-known brand at a department store. However, while the physical quality and materials used in a pair of high heels or a handbag are tangible, a fragrance is much less so. I mean, yes, a higher-end fragrance will likely come wrapped in a fancier box and ribbon and in a luxe bottle, but I would rather focus on the liquid inside the bottle. So what exactly are you paying for when you buy a perfume?
In episode 2, I talked briefly about the top, middle, and base notes of a quality perfume. A perfumer is a specialist and an artist. They source special scented ingredients and put them together just so to create a quality product that can evolves beyond what you get at first sniff. Beyond the opening top notes, a quality perfume is complex and makes a lasting impression on anyone who comes across it. A master perfumer’s creation cannot be matched with most one-note, linear scents. Like any good art that comes to fruition, good things take good materials plus the time, research, talent, and skill.
If you find a scent you love that cannot compare to anything else you’ve tried, I believe that you should spend the money for it. There’s a reason why Picassos are very expensive. They are rare and special, and not everyone has one. However, not everyone needs a Picasso. Your local Italian restaurant will get by just fine with a much less expensive print of the Tuscan countryside for general ambience, and their customers would be none the wiser.
Going back to the original question, is that expensive fragrance really worth what it says on its price tag, the short answer is that only you can decide that for yourself.  There are some people that say that when you pay top dollar for a perfume, you’re paying more for the brand and less on the actual quality of the product, therefore it’s not good value.  This is true to some extent in all cases but at the same time, I think it’s important to consider that luxury and better-known brands can afford better, more experienced perfumers, too.
I’ve sampled close to 100 perfumes and colognes over the last 5 weeks. While I agree that you can’t escape the branding and promotion of the more famous names in fragrance, your preferences in how pleasant a fragrance is to you should eclipse concerns in names and price. What you choose should come down to what you like. Not what you think you like, how the bottle looks, or what lifestyle you think the fragrance or brand projects, but what feels right to you.
Men and women all over the internet are eager to find a scent that attracts the opposite sex, me included. But remember, you’re the one who’s going to be wearing the fragrance and living with it. Taking price out of the equation for a minute, your fragrance should represent who you are. You should feel comfortable wearing it, just as I mentioned earlier about wearing fragrance that boosts your self-confidence when it comes to being sensual.
But let’s return to the issue of price for a moment. Collecting fragrances is an expensive hobby. For many of us, when confronted by the high price for what looks like a bottle of colored liquid, can be an eye-watering experience and can make us uncomfortable. This is especially true if we haven’t had the opportunity to thoroughly sample the fragrance first, when we have no idea if it suits us or has the staying power that we want it to.
Myself, I get a feeling of paralysis when first looking at a price. It took me some time to figure out where this was coming from. I grew up middle class. My parents weren’t into luxury items. I attribute that to their frugal, hardscrabble years after they arrived in this country, never wasting any of their resources. They held on to the same behaviors even after they’d made it. I didn’t get an allowance, so I rarely went out and bought something simply because I wanted it or liked it. Even as I got older and had a well-paying job, spending on myself was often difficult unless I felt there was a substantial benefit to me if I bought something. It was rarely about doing something nice for myself. I was always trying to make the right choices to make my life “better” without really understanding what a better life for me might look like.
Because frugality bordering on painful was modeled to me as a child, I still look for the best value and the lowest costs. I still clip those paper coupons before going to the grocery store! I’m aware that this kind of mindset isn’t helpful when you’re considering an expensive perfume. Some deep digging into my childhood uncovered major self-worth issues related to money. The truth was, I didn’t think I was worthy of nice things. And if you don’t think you’re worthy of nice things, then you won’t understand and can’t be receptive when those nice things come into your life. I’m still working through these issues of worthiness.
I’m not trying to convince you to pull the trigger and buy an expensive bottle of fragrance or not today. That’s a personal decision. What I am hoping you gained from me sharing my own personal experience is that we all carry beliefs around what things are worth the money and what brings us happiness. Sometimes in life, those two things can feel mutually exclusive. I don’t want anyone coming away from this post thinking that they can’t afford quality fragrances. There are ways around expensive price tags, whether that is through samples, smaller-sized bottles, discounts, or competing fragrances inspired by the more expensive originals.
Whatever you choose, at whatever price point, I hope you feel confident in your choice of fragrance, and that it brings you a smile to your face every time you wear it.

Photos at top and within the article are from pixabay.

The classical piano clips used in the intro and outro of the above audio file are from taken from Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat major, Opus 9, Number 2, perfurmed by Aya Higuchi. The piano clip used in the interlude is taken from Chopin’s Waltz in A Minor, B. 150, also performed by Aya Higuchi. Both pieces are public domain and are from 501(c)(3) nonprofit Musopen. The sound of ocean waves hitting a beach is from a recording by Joseph Sardin and is also public domain.