Saturday, October 09, 2010

Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth, Part 4

It's been interesting, over the course of the last 20 years, to see how the perception of the music of the 80's has changed. Not so much among my peers--everyone gets nostalgic about the music of their adolescence, so it doesn't surprise me to see people I went to high school with post stuff on Facebook like "The 80's was the best decade of music ever! Why is there no good music now?" What surprises me more is stuff like my niece's best friend, born sometime at the end of the 80's, telling me her favorite band is Soft Cell. Which probably puzzles me the same way that it used to puzzle baby boomers in the 80's when they found out there were people of my generation who were obsessed with the Standells or the Count Five.

When I was in high school, everyone seemed to agree that we were living through a dark age of culture, and especially of music. I know that's not entirely true--obviously, most of the people I went to high school with were pretty much happy with the songs that were hits, or they wouldn't have been hits. But in my social circle, there was a persitent frustration with what made it on the radio and MTV. And to be clear, when I talk about 80's music for the rest of this piece, understand that I'm talking about what you could hear on the radio or see on MTV. Punk was completely underground music in the 80's, hip hop was like an iceberg with only a few peaks jutting into the mainstream, and even metal bands like Iron Maiden and Metallica were kind of marignalized. So as far as the mainstream went, it seemed like a vast wasteland. I was living in suburban Florida, with minimalls and tract houses as far as the eye could see, and the consistent blandness of the suburbs and the cultural boredom of the 80's seemed to mesh into one seemless fabric of boring blanditude.

So when 80's nostalgia started up, which seemed to happen as soon as (and maybe even before) the decade ended, I couldn't really figure it out. 70's nostalgia I could feel a little, because I was a kid in the 70's, so when someone broke out some song that I hadn't heard since I was a kid, it was like I could remember it from a past life. The 70's were a cloudy, ancient past that I could see through a mist, but 80's music was just shitty music from a few years ago.

Now, I look back at the early 80's as a sort of golden age of quirky, personality-driven pop songs. That "early" qualifier is important. The stuff from 1980-84 feels very different from the stuff from 1985-89. Looking back, you can almost see a visible line dividing New Year's Eve 1984 from New Years Day 1985, like a fall from innocence. At the start of the decade, the music we refered to as "new wave" was pretty amazing. Bands like Devo, The B-52's, Talking Heads and Oingo Boingo were way too weird to be as popular as they were and too much fun not to be. By the time MTV arrived in our sleepy burgh (about fall of '82, I think), the bands were a little less far out, but still a lot of fun: Billy Idol, The Stray Cats, Culture Club, Dexy's Midnight Runners, Big Country, Musical Youth, The Thompson could almost list them forever! And there were a few bona fide genii buried in there: Bow Wow Wow, Thomas Dolby, Madness, Adam Ant. By 1985 (following the peak of the MTV era in 83-84--Rio, Thriller, Purple Rain, Like a Virgin, Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual, Van Halen's 1984, BROOOOOSE's Born in the USA, etc.), it was all boring shit like Tears for Fears and Simple Minds, too lightweight to be taken seriously but too fucking morose to be any fun. You can see the same progression in rock: the decade started with Van Halen, AC/DC and Ozzy Osbourne (with Randy Fuckin' Rhoads!) as the rock gods. By 1982-83, it was hair bands like Motley Crue, Twisted Sister and Quiet Riot, doing pale imitations of those earlier bands, but they did still have good, aggressive guitar sounds and weren't afraid to rock out a little. From 1985 on, it was mostly stuff like Bon Jovi, Winger and Nightranger: slick production, smooth keyboards, sweet vocal harmonies, and a power ballad for the lead single of every album. (Punk, and probably even hip hop, had similar changes at precisely the same time, but those are topics for another post.)

So while I've reevaluated the early 80's, I still think the late 80's were about as awful as music ever got. Part of it was the production. There are a lot of albums that I genuinely like from that period (REM's Green, The Replacements' Pleased to Meet Me and Fishbone's Truth and Soul, just off the top of my head--I think all three are the respective band's best collection of songs, but none are my favorite albums by those bands) that are marred by some really awful sonic choices. I'm not sure I can even pinpoint what it is about those recordings that bother me (what do you call that weird, reverb-y drum sound?), but they just sound "artificial."

I guess you could say that this is all very subjective. There's no reason that those 80's production values should offend me, it's just my personal taste. Fair enough, but my ears still react to it. But then, when you add that sterile production to the awful music being made at that time, it starts making me nauseous. Besides the boring post-new wave pop and the watered down hair metal, you also had that syrupy r&b like Luther Vandross. I know some people like Janet Jackson, but...well, more power to ya. But the worst stuff of all was what I call "nothing rock." Or "blah rock." This's not even that I don't like it, there's just nothing to like. It's just...nothing! Nothing appealing at all. Listen to this and tell me I'm wrong:

This last one, the Richard Marx song, is the worst, because it's not that bad. It's a catchy song. I mean, around this time, when some idiotic song by Millie Vanillie or Vanilla Ice or White Lion would come on, it would get my blood boiling because it was so bad! This...I just have no reaction to this at all. Which is the worst possible way to fail as a musician.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been doing a lot of reading about early 1980s punk/HC and I keep running across a term (used back then)that I didn't take notice of back then. The term is "the new music" which seemed to encompass everything from the Police to Devo to Black Flag to Steel Pulse.

If you should pick up the excellent Touch & Go anthology book, you will see the likes of Adam Ant reviewed right next to Discharge. Odd but true.

An interesting term: "the new music." At the time it did feel like music was headed toward something radically different than the 1970s stadium rock. And at one time, it seemed that the Cars and Dead Kennedys were a part of the same thing.

Well, some of these bands toiled forever underground and some inexplicably became huge pop stars. Odd twists of fate. Sort of like how in the late 1990s/early 2000s a few bands like Green Day, Rancid, Offspring and later Anti-Flag and Against Me! somehow made the jump from playing dives, squats and record stores to playing genuine arenas.

I agree that 1984/85 was sort of the dividing line between "weird underground" and "weird cleans up its act a little and becomes normal." It was also when a lot of the best punk/HC bands either broke up or went metal or U2-esque.

10/11/2010 4:05 PM  

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