Daniele Cassandro / November 6, 2019
For any Italian, the Summer of 1982 means one thing: the country’s victory at that year’s FIFA World Cup final. The faded images of the nation’s president, 86-year-old Sandro Pertini—a socialist partisan who had fought against Nazi-Fascism during World War II—practically beside himself with joy when Alessandro Altobelli scored the third goal against Germany are the defining symbol of an optimistic early ‘80s Italy that was eager to leave the “Years of Lead” behind and start anew. That year, many Italian families decided to invest in color televisions to watch the World Cup, and bright colors exploded into the dowdy, old-fashioned living rooms of the Italian middle classes. Pop music and TV commercials became increasingly daring and colorful as they attempted to convey the dream of a carefree new era. Pop culture in Italy was obsessed with the America of the ‘50s and ‘60s, but rather than being a revival, it was more like some kind of hyperactive reboot of the aesthetic of Happy Days, with fashion labels like Fiorucci and Baci da Roma taking the early rock’n’roll and rockabilly styles and overstuffing them with fluorescent colors, extra zippers, and plastic and rubber accessories. John Travolta and Olivia Newton John in 1978’s Grease continued to be style models for the Italian teenager, but now they were suddenly seen through the Day-Glo lens of postmodernist pop.
No wonder, then, that the biggest hit of that summer was a ‘60s-esque bubblegum smash called “Un’estate al mare” sung by a mysterious Sicilian siren called Giuni Russo. “Un’estate al mare”—a summer at the beach—sounds like the perfect jukebox earworm, a fizzy, early rock’n’roll girl band anthem that, like all really good summer hits, gradually reveals its true intentions, as well as some unexpectedly sharp teeth.
The idea of the vacanza d’agosto (summer holiday) is a profoundly powerful symbol of the Italian euphoria of the ‘50s and ‘60s and an intensely unique feature of the Italian national psyche. Before the war, there was no vacanza for the working classes, only the villeggiature of the rich: long stretches of the summer spent in family villas or lavish hotels that became homes away from home. The idea of a vacanza was a dream made flesh for the working and middle classes who, after years of post-war scarcity, finally found themselves able to afford a few days under a beach umbrella. By the early 1980s, though, the summer beach holiday had metastasized into something else again: a Ballardian un-space where a country dazed by the material prosperity of the previous decades played out its eerie ’60s idyll in a world divorced from time, affecting an innocence light years away from the political stresses and violence that were actually then afflicting the country. The typical Italian beach holiday was a bubble of carefreeness: a time to show off the best, most evenly-tanned version of yourself and to parade your status, a time when the whole country stopped for a month or so and Italians spent their time and money just looking beautiful and consuming commodities. It’s no surprise, of course, that right-wing politicians like Silvio Berlusconi and more recently Matteo Salvini have turned their summer holidays into psy-op propaganda weapons: their vacationing personas speak the language of the electorate’s desires, delivering populist messages straight to the people’s guts. And that’s why the metaphors of “Un’estate al mare” work so well; they titillate the very g-spot of the Italian subconscious.
The song was written by Sicilian musician and new wave maestro Franco Battiato. Already in his fourth or fifth iteration, with a past that included protest songs and visionary prog, Battiato was now cross-breeding the radio friendly pop song with more experimental and exotic types of music on albums like L’era del cinghiale bianco (1979) and La voce del padrone (1981), his unique blend of postmodernist deconstruction, Orientalism, and Italian melody enjoying chart success and scoring him frequent TV appearances. Giuni Russo was a perfect match for Battiato’s oblique take on pop. Russo (born Giuseppa Romeo in Palermo in 1951, she unfortunately passed away all too soon in 2004) was no debutante in 1982, but she was no household name either: her versatile and profoundly distinctive and personal voice, which was able to shift from folk song and operetta to Diamanda Galàs-like experimentation without missing a beat, was certainly not the first that would come to mind when thinking of trying to construct a cheerful summer hit. But “Un’estate al mare” was not your average summer smash, and it needed a powerful, commanding vocal personality to render its potential.
The very first line hints that the main character of the song is a prostitute. “In the mercenary streets of sex, offering their fantastic illusions, feel how velvety my skin is,” croons Russo to some unspecified person who might be a lover or a client. For a gift (a regalo, which in Italian is also slang for the money paid to sex workers for their services), Russo says she would like a harmonizer “with that trick that doubles your voice” (how early ‘80s of her), but mostly, she says, she just wants to be taken to the seaside: she wants a normal—perhaps even dull—family holiday at the beach. When the chorus explodes, the mood changes from darkly erotic to a kitschy postcard-like rendering of a perceived Italian summer. She feels the need to row a boat, to swim away from the strand and look back the beach umbrellas—“Gli ombrelloni-oni-oni” belts Russo, 30 years before Rihanna’s “Umbrella-ella-ella.” The image of this strong, attractive, tanned woman in a swimsuit rowing herself far from the shore together with her young lover recalls the eerie, sun-drenched eroticism of a similar scene in Alberto Moravia’s 1943 novel Agostino, a story of innocence lost at the seaside during a typical Italian summer holiday.
“Un’estate al mare” reveals its dual nature in the second verse: we see a faceless stranger waving at us from a bridge over the motorway (a vaguely Lynch-esque apparition) and we are taken back to wintertime, “when we used to burn tires to keep us warm.” This urban bonfire scene has something of a post-apocalyptic Mad Max flavor about it: perhaps the singer is not recalling winters past but is actually hinting at some post-atomic future that awaits us. But then the chorus sucks us back again to the technicolor beach, and to the main character’s almost hysterical desire for a “seaside-style summer.” The expression stile balneare is hard to translate into English, but it is the key to cracking the song open and revealing its profoundly campy nature. In the exhausted Italy of the early ‘80s, those optimistic Italian summers of the ‘60s—with their journeys along the newly-built motorways, stop-offs at futuristic autogrills for a panino and a Coca-Cola, and summer flings under colorful beach umbrellas—are no longer anything but a bunch of faded photographs.
The make-believe, artificial quality of the scenario conjured up by the song is emphasized by the seagull noises that close it out. What we’re hearing is not actually a seagull at all—it’s Giuni Russo’s almost five octave voice that, with supreme sophistication and irony, is playing a sonic trick on the listener. And when the song is over, we discover that this idea of the perfect Italian summer is nothing but an oversaturated post card or some kitsch plastic souvenir that changes color with the weather. Like all the best summer songs, “Un’estate al mare” contains all the sadness of the end of the sunny season, the end of youth—and probably the end of an era.
Daniele Cassandro was born in Rome in 1970. After living for about a year in Austin (before Austin was cool), graduating in art history, and working in a record store, he became a journalist, starting out on the official weekly magazine of the Italian version of reality show Big Brother before moving on to more serious business as staff writer at teen pop magazine Kiss Me! In 2007, he moved from Rome to Milan to work at GQ and launch the Italian edition of Wired magazine, where he curated the Play section for five years. He’s now in charge of the special issues of Italian current affairs magazine Internazionale, and writes about music, art, and theater.