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Danger Zone: A Musical Appreciation

Cover of the Danger Zone 12" single.

Cover of the Danger Zone 12" single.

Danger Zone is the best ‘80s song of all time. This is the hill I will die on.

I’ve always enjoyed this tune, but I’ve recently suffered a newfound appreciation for the jet fuel-drenched sing along air guitar anthem. I’m covering it on my upcoming EP, which means I’ve spent the last week picking it apart note by note. It’s been stuck in my head for days. I need to write about it.

Where do we start? There’s so much to unpack before delving into the eminently silly music video. Let’s begin as the song does: with that opening bassline. Probably played on the ubiquitous Yamaha DX7 (a favorite of many ‘80s producers including Giorgio Moroder), it’s got that punchy, tight timbre that instantly sends you back in time. It’s obviously not a bass guitar. No, it’s something better—a synthesizer.

Then, the huge drums thunder in with gated reverb. As a drummer, I’m a big fan of percussion sitting prominently in the mix. Drums shouldn’t just keep time. They should be the sonic anchor the entire song is mixed around. Dann Huff’s guitar comes in next. The distortion’s grit jackhammers through your ears. Huff’s guitar tone has so much body and presence you could cut it with a knife.

Danger Zone’s secret weapon is the quiet verse. The bass and guitar fade out, leaving the drums alone to craft a space with the reverb. As a fan of atmospheric music, I appreciate how much "empty" air is in this part. Pop tunes rarely breathe like this. Danger Zone’s loud-quiet-loud structure offers a surprising amount of nuance, especially for a song about fighter jets/and or women/and or transforming fighter jet women.

Speaking of, Loggins’ breathy vocals come in next. You can taste the Miramar sweat dripping off the lyrics. Like the rest of the song, they’re shamelessly cheesy in that earnest, maximally produced ‘80s way:

Revvin' up your engine

Listen to her howlin' roar

Metal under tension

Beggin' you to touch and go

Highway to the danger zone

Ride into the danger zone

What does any of that mean? More importantly, who cares? My other favorite part is during the middle eight:

You'll never say hello to you

Until you get it on the red line overload

You'll never know what you can do

Until you get it up as high as you can go

It’s so literal that it circles back around to confoundingly metaphorical. Unsurprisingly, these lyrics were written by Moroder’s mechanic/assistant Tom Whitlock. Whitlock’s career trajectory is fascinating in its own right; Mental Floss has a great write up.

And then--and then. After you think this song is already a perfect encapsulation of the ‘80s, a goddamn saxophone dive bombs into the final chorus. It’s official. Danger Zone has everything. Everything. Production by Giorgio Moroder. Lyrics by Tom Whitlock. Vocals by Kenny Loggins. Big Drums. Synth bass. Saxophone. A weirdly sexual music video.

Oh boy. Let’s talk about that music video.

The cynic in me calls it a marketing tool, but the unabashed masochist in me calls it pure gold. Tony Scott, the director of Top Gun, shot the music video during what seems like his lunch break. Loggins stars alongside his incomprehensible mullet while he writhes in a bed and goes to town on himself. This is intercut with footage from the movie, so it’s completely reasonable to assume he’s getting hot and heavy while thinking about Maverick and Ice Man’s unspoken homoerotic bond.

Side note: those two men have the best love story in Top Gun. I will never give up hope for a sequel in which Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer’s characters reunite in a tranquil Sierra Nevada cabin and profess their mutual feelings. Give us that. Don’t give us another Transformers flick. Please.

Danger Zone's music video money shot is the close up of Loggins as he turns to the camera and dreamily mouths the lyrics straight into your soul. He has the cool sunglasses. He has what, if feeling generous, can be described as hair. What else can you ask for in an ‘80s sex symbol? I’m just assuming he was a sex symbol. How could he not have been?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Archer’s important role in reviving Danger Zone in pop culture. The song has been a running joke in the series since the first season. Kenny Loggins even played himself (and covered the song) in season five. That one’s a country cover, but the whole Archer crew also partially recreated the actual music video. All the important details are there, including Loggins’ odd shirt choice buttoned all the way up to his neck. Yes, Danger Zone is a punchline in Archer, but you can tell the joke comes from a deep appreciation. That’s the truest form of pop culture valuation--poke fun because you care enough to comment in the first place.

Danger Zone is the exact song I’d kill to make. The production is bombastic and unapologetic. It seems back in the ‘80s nobody was too cool for anything. They made songs with a level of cheese so earnest that you can’t help but buy in. As I like to say, earnestness is important in art. It’s so easy to wink at the audience and fake it. There’s no mugging in Danger Zone—only gosh darn larger-than-life rock and roll.

As always, thanks for reading. If you need me, I'll be washing my F-16 in the driveway.

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