MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY To DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

MIKE PESCA, host:

And I'm Mike Pesca.

Sometimes, a great thinker can give us the answer to a question we never even thought to ask. Freud did this with the interpretation of dreams. Rachel Carson woke us up to the dangers of a “Silent Spring.” And Bill James' ongoing study of baseball statistics has even changed how the game is played. The sum of human knowledge has once more been increased as we move closer to answering the question:

Mr. ANDREW CORSELLO (Writer, GQ magazine): What is the freaking deal with Lionel Richie?

PESCA: That's the voice of Andrew Corsello, who wrote an article called “Lionel of Arabia” for the December issue of GQ. Thanks for joining me, Andrew.

Mr. CORSELLO: Great to be here.

PESCA: There are many anecdotes about Lionel Richie's power and effect on people. One takes place in Sardinia at a very pricey resort, where a couple of couples came up to Lionel Richie. Tell me about what happened there.

Mr. CORSELLO: Yes, he's having breakfast on a patio overlooking the sea at the spa. And a man approaches with his wife, and they introduce themselves and say, we love you so much. The song “Truly,” my wife came down aisle to it. Soon, another man and his wife approach from the other side of the patio. And there's an odd moment where they look at the first couple and the first couple looks at them. But then they settle in and it's more of the same yes, we love you, Lionel. My wife, she came down the aisle to “Truly.” And soon, they're unfurling their wallets and sharing pictures of their children, and all is lovely.

Breakfast ends, Lionel's walking back to his room and the manager of the spa approaches very urgently and says, do you know what happened back there Mr. Richie? He says, no. You tell me. And the man explains that those two men, their wives and their families have been vacationing here for as long as anyone can remember. They've raised their children here. And they have always sat on opposite sides of that patio for meals and never spoken, because one of them is senior in the Israeli government and the other is senior in the Lebanese government. And Lionel just shrugged at this and said, just another day in the life of Lionel Richie.

(Soundbite of song, “Truly”)

Mr. LIONEL RICHIE (Singer): (Singing) Because I truly, truly in love with you, girl.

PESCA: Then there was the story about him playing Libya on the 20th anniversary, was it, of the U.S. bombing of Libya.

Mr. CORSELLO: That's right. In fact, it wasn't just the 20th anniversary in a vague sense. The concert kicked off at two in the morning, 20 years to the moment that Moammar Ghadafi's adopted infant daughter was killed. They tried to think of what or who would best commemorate the spirit of what they were trying to do 20 years later to the moment. And so, Lionel took the stage at two in the morning and sang.

PESCA: And sang. And there's a scene in your story of him being serenaded by Libyans singing a Lionel Richie to Lionel Richie. And they did it phonetically?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CORSELLO: It's quite something. The day after the concert, he met once again with Mr. Ghadafi and said, my only request is that I be taken to the history. And so, Ghadafi saw to it that Lionel Richie was led on a walking tour of the old city of Tripoli. And children begin to follow them - first a handful, then a dozen, then several dozen, and then there are hundreds. And at that point, Lionel can no longer pretend that they're not there. So he turns around to them and says, well, hello there. And all of them respond, hello. Hello. Is it me you're looking for?

(Soundbite of song, “Hello”)

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) Hello, is it me you're looking for? I can see it in your eyes…

Mr. CORSELLO: He just can't believe this because these are children. And he says, wait a minute. What's going on here? He says, how do you kids know me? And nobody responds. What becomes apparent is they don't know what he's saying. Their knowledge of English is apparently comprised of the phonetic sounds occurring in the lyrics of Lionel Richie songs.

PESCA: How does Lionel Richie explain his appeal?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CORSELLO: Well, his first reaction is to say that he's as mystified about it as anybody, because it is…

PESCA: Okay. That's the humble first response…

Mr. CORSELLO: That's the humble first response.

PESCA: …that is becoming, yes.

Mr. CORSELLO: But then he gets going. And the man, by the way, is a wonderful storyteller, all the more so because he uses the third person prerogative. He talks about Lionel Richie not as I, but as Lionel Richie. When Lionel Richie goes to another country, he says that he is not an American in that country. He's not a man in that - he's not even a black man in that country. He is that country.

He goes on to explain a number of theories. I mean, one simply is that people embrace and adopt him because he is of a certain complexion that could be many races. But the most interesting thing he said about why he appeals is - and this is his theory - it has to do with the way he handles anger…

PESCA: Uh-huh.

Mr. CORSELLO: …in his music. When he began to explain this to me, I said you got to be kidding, right? I mean, you're telling me that Lionel Richie is an angry songwriter. And his response was, hell, yeah.

PESCA: Because when he said the way I deal with anger in my music, you must have thought the same way you deal with nuclear physics in your music. There is no anger in your music.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CORSELLO: Yeah. That's it. He started naming some of his songs, some of, you know, those great, mellifluous songs both from his days as a Commodore and his days as a soloist. And he said, you know, “Sail On” was a massive F-you song. And, like a lot of his songs, that song is autobiographical. You know, he had a strong emotion that he needed to exorcise that came out of a break-up. And he said all over the margins are the most foul-mouthed, lashings out that you can imagine. It's just says F-you (censored), you know, over and over.

And then he says, now look at the lyrics, and that's how I translated that anger for you all. And the lyric, of course, among many - you know, is: I know it's a shame, but I'm giving you back your name.

(Soundbite of song, “Sail On”)

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) I know it's shame, but I'm giving you back your name, yeah, yeah.

Mr. CORSELLO: He thinks that that explains why his songs cross so many borders.

PESCA: Including - we should mention - that in Iraq, Shiite and Sunni agree on little else except for the fact that they both love Lionel Richie.

Mr. CORSELLO: It's amazing. You know, this age-old hatred is finding full expression. And the only thing that they seem to agree on is their love Allah and his prophet, and the music and life of Lionel Richie. The unbelievable fact that when shock and awe began raining its bombs down on Baghdad in March of 2003, Baghdadians spontaneously were turning their stereo speakers into the street and sound-tracking the bombings to “All Night Long,” the calypso number-one hit that Lionel had in 1984.

PESCA: Andrew Corsello is a correspondent for GQ magazine. His article “Lionel of Arabia” appears in the December issue.

Thanks for joining us, Andrew, truly.

Mr. CORSELLO: Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of song, “All Night Long”)

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) Come on and sing my song now, all night long.

CHORUS: (Singing) All night.

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) All night.

CHORUS: (Singing) All night.

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) All night long.

CHORUS: (Singing) All night.

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) All night.

CHORUS: (Singing) All night.

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) All night long.

CHORUS: (Singing) All night.

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) All night.

CHORUS: (Singing) All night.

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) All night long.

CHORUS: (Singing) All night. All night.

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) All night.

CHORUS: (Singing) All night.

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) All night.

CHORUS: (Singing) All night.

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) All night.

CHORUS: (Singing) All night.

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) All night.

CHORUS: (Singing) All night.

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) All night.

CHORUS: (Singing) All night.

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) All night.

CHORUS: (Singing) All night.

Mr. RICHIE: (Singing) All night.

PESCA: Stay with us on DAY To DAY from NPR News.

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