Sunday, April 26, 2009

In Defense of 80s Music

My lovely wife Audrey celebrated her 40th birthday this past week, and we had some friends over for an 80s themed party last night. The party itself merits a later post of its very own once I have collected some more photos, but at a couple of points, some people ventured an opinion that without nostalgia and personal associations, 80s music had pretty much nothing to offer.

While I will be the first to admit that the oversize glasses of the day do cast a definite rose-coloured hue to the proceedings of this maligned decade, (especially when looking back over your shoulder from two decades down the road), I think the 80s music scene had a lot to offer, whether we realized it at the time or not. To be certain, there was a lot to dislike: talentless hacks pushed to stardom by soulless record companies and their profit driven executives (not that this has changed significantly), the birth of celebrity culture, the glamourization of excess, the triumph of style over substance, and some remarkably poor choices in haircuts. That being said though, the music of this decade did have some good things going for it.

1) 80's Music Pre-Dates the Balkanization of Radio - This is just a fancy way of saying that during the 80s, a single popular, rock-centric radio station could play country (Charlie Daniels Band), jazz (Manhattan Transfer, pop music (Michael Jackson), adult contemporary (Harry Chapin)and even a show tune (Murray Head)in addition to the hard rock, heavy metal, and progressive rock that made up the bulk of the playlists. The increase in cultural bandwidth, starting with the increased number of ever-specializing radio stations and going straight on through to the Internet and YouTube, has meant that there is less and less cross-pollination between musical styles, and less chance of being challenged by material outside one's normal listening habits. Thank God Johnny Cash got to record those albums with Rick Rubin which gave a new generation a chance to hear him doing things like Trent Reznor's "Hurt", but that seems more like the exception that proves the rule.

2) Experimentation - In addition to the radio point made above, I maintain that the 80s were a period of bold experimentation and general playfulness not seen since the 1960s. The balancing act between acoustic instruments and synthesizers, the blurring of the line between music that should be danced to and that which should primarily be listened to, the first signs of world music on Top 40 radio (courtesy of musicians like Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon) and a willingness to defy expectations made for a grand smorgasbord of music that, while largely populated with boring starches, also provided access to some tasty dishes we wouldn't normally order off the menu.

3) The Advent of 'Alternative' - A consistent silver-medalist in the "Most Misused Term" competition (following closely on the heels of the now endangered 'multimedia'), 'alternative' in the 80s meant a way to describe popular music that appealed to the same demographic that 'rock and roll' once did, but which had very little in common with the Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley sound that defined that genre. Alternative has mostly been replaced with 'modern rock' now, but incorporates a number of non-rock styles, including hip-hop and electronica. Busting out of the rock-definition ghetto without necessarily getting juvenilized as 'pop' music gave a lot of artists the freedom to experiment, and a lot of music fans a spot in the record shops (jeez, speaking of dated terms...) to find these new sounds. Without the toe-hold that this 'alternative' label provided to a number of acts, our current musical soundscape would have even less variety and progression than it does now.

4) The Golden Age of Music Videos - After an incredibly awkward start-up period featuring poor lip-synching on sterile soundstages with production values several cuts below lacklustre, videos quickly became an art form unto themselves. In addition to being a new and entertaining way to enjoy music we already liked, it also gave us exposure to music we might not have listened to, but were willing to tolerate if it meant getting a decent 3 - 5 minute mini-movie. It also gave budding film directors (David Fincher for one) a new way to express themselves and pay the bills besides making television commercials.

5) We Got the (Up)Beat - Despite living in the shadow of the Cold War, the threat of global nuclear conflict and/or nuclear winter, and a brutal recession for much of the decade, music was, on average, a lot more positive and upbeat than it seems to be now. This is a pretty subjective measure to be sure, but a cheery tempo that was pleasant without being insipid seems like a strange fit for today's radio, especially with the glut of what a former co-worker called 'complaint rock' that dominated the airwaves of the 90s. It's doesn't always have to be like that, and the dark stuff certainly has its place, but hey, balance in all things, right?

At the end of the day, a list like this isn't going to change anyone's mind about 80s music, and I can't picture it making someone like what they disliked before, but if we can appreciate variety and creativity for what they are instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and dismissing all the music from those three thousand six hundred and fifty two days as faddish nostalgia fodder, then maybe we can admit that a hint of respect is warranted as well.

It turns out there is plenty of room on the other side of the "Comments" link below if you want to let me know how far off or on the mark you think I am about this, and I have to admit, I'm awfully curious.


  1. Sorry we couldn't make the party -- all the best to Aud!

    I love the 80s music scene (heck, I still play 80s tunes in a garage band), but there was a ton of crap that you had to wade through to catch a glimpse of brilliance (a hundred Debbie Gibsons for every REM).

    I think that the best of the 80s scene actually died out by around 1986 or so ... when Iron Maiden somehow lost out to the awful LA rock scene of Poison and Motley Crue. When real pop could range from Talking Heads and the Buggles, but then got washed out in the mediocrity of digital synths and overproduced electric drum pads (think Cutting Crew, who, not coincidentally, released "I just died in your arms" in 1986).

    As much as I get nostalgic for my Platinum Blonde tape, and wore right through my original Big Country album (it became the first thing I bought on CD b/c I needed to replace it), the fact is that by the end of the 1980s, the whole music industry was a bloated beast addicted to saccharine digital sampling, bad makeup, and just plain weird (that whitesnake video with the girlfriend on the hood of the car ... what was that all about?).

    Thanks to grey-market satellite and VHS tapes, I got to see a lot of original, real MTV in the early days, and lots more later on (I even had a letter read by Terry David Mulligan on Friday Night Videos!). But there are two seminal moments in my memory of watching music on television. 1) U2 Live at Red Rock, which absolutely slayed me. 2) early-1990s, walking by the television, and seeing a weird video with a janitor and a school gymnasium. Yep - Smells Like Teen Spirit. For some reason I really remember the very first moment I encountered that song, and somehow it felt like a paradigm had shifted (okay, well I hadn't read Thomas Kuhn yet in 1991, but you get the point). The darkness of the 90s (and more importantly, stripping down the songs, the aesthetic of dressing like Neil Young in the woods, etc.) was definitely a more than necessary corrective.

    Now how do I get Brett Michaels off of my late-night television ... please ... I only have rabbit ears ... I'm dyin' here!

    - jim in calgary ... but only for 3 more weeks.

  2. Frankly, I love 80s music without apology. I think it had a lot of verve and energy, plus I love a lot of electronic keyboard in my music! The Police, Kate Bush, Billy Idol, Alphaville, Yes, Stevie Nicks, The Box, A-Ha...lots of groovy, entertaining stuff to be had in that time.

  3. Alright, this 80's love-in is getting a little creepy so it's time to speak. Apart from U2 & REM and a handful of others, there's precious little of merit coming out of the 80's and decidedly more schlock than substance. This is the decade that gave us Milli Vanilli for heaven's sake. Hey, Girl you know it's true and while I'd prefer to Blame it on the rain, given where I live, I would point to a painful fusion of synthesizers, pop pap, and content-starved Top 40 radio stations - may the latter smoke a turd in hell. While I would also hold Peter Gabriel up as someone whose work was exceptional in the period, he had the misfortune of feeding that Top 40 beast. The result was that I got to hear Sledgehammer on the radio and see it on Much about as often as I drew breath - I knew he was Big Time but this was cruel and inhuman. Not his fault? Certainly. Still leave me hating the songs? Absolutely. And let's not forget Wham!, Madonna, Lionel Ritchie, Whitney Houston (don't get me started), the Bronski Beat, Dead or Alive - you spin me right round baby - and all that puffter Platinum Blonde dreck. Regarding Yes, their best days were behind them in the 80's and Owner of a Lonely Heart was the only (barely) useful thing from 90125. Cheers, Mike

  4. No one is questioning the mountain of manure you had to climb in the 80s to find really worthwhile stuff; I guess the proper question is whether or not you would have a sense of smell left by the time you got there.

    And while the ratio of good to bad was terrible and the airwaves probably just as bad as they are now in a qualitative sense, maybe it was worth enduring it to get to Sinead O'Connor's first album, the Repo Man soundtrack, Yello and Concrete Blonde?

  5. Good point hermano - we also got Robert Plant in the Honeydrippers, Suzanne Vega, Mark Knopfler & Dire Straits, Van Halen, and ZZ Top - all of which I am thankful for.

    BUT that was still one Really Big mountain of manure - allow me to elucidate with more examples - Starship building this city, Phil Collins and Sussudio (whatever that is), Cyndi Lauper, Wang Chung, Duran Duran, frackin' Culture Club with Karma Chameleon for pete's sake.
    And so, when you boil it down, celebrating the 80's music scene must be seen, at the very best, as a decidedly glass half-empty experience.
    I think I should comment that crap music did not stop in the 80's of course but the Balkanization of Radio happened (set the pigeons loose & cue the exhalting trumpets)and saved those of us who could not stomach separating soooooo much chaff from our wheat.

  6. Speaking personally, I think a lot of my opposition to Cyndi Lauper while I was in high school was her annoying speaking voice and crazy look. 20 years later, I really appreciate her singing, and wish there were more artists like her on the radio today. 12 Deadly Cyns gets regular play in the car.

    Duran Duran? If there is a good way to do fun, disposable pop, they did it. The teen idol/New Romantic thing is going to turn some people off, some folks dispute whether there is such a thing as good pop, and others just have no use at all for synthesizers in their music. And that's okay too!

    Culture Club? Man, I am so glad that I can see those videos now and say, "Wow, I wasn't homophobic, those guys really are awful!"

    But how did radio stations retreating even further into specific genres and more restrictive playlists have any effect on musical quality? If anything, didn't it just make it easier for even more marginally talented folks to get airplay? I guess it was a relief for people who don't like to experience new things, like folks who only eat at chain restaurants. Me, I'll keep rolling through stations and defaulting to CKUA.

    Half empty or half full relates more to attitude; it might be better to say that in the 80s, the glass was twice as big as it needed to be, for good or ill. In the end though, Rufus does share my assertion that the 80s were not *totally* without merit, and for that, I thank him!

  7. My brother:
    - I know that deep in your soul you appreciate the goodness you can find in many places and you value variety highly - but I ain't hardwired that way - for any non-female over the age of 11 there is no merit in "fun disposable pop". When Duran Duran opened for Bowie, I went for a hot dog.
    - I love CKUA when I can get it. I love Randy Bachman's show on CBC. I love Corb Lund and will be eternally grateful to you for turning me on to him.
    - The main thrust of my rant is directed at the smothering effect pop schmaltz has had since the golden days of radio. "You Will Listen to This" says the program director. I'm a Beatles fan and an older colleague at work once winced when I told her I liked the Beatles. Why? Because she felt it was the only thing on the radio for too long when she was a teen. I think some of my frustration comes from the all too numerous occasions of having to sit through tunes that were, in my opinion, absolute tripe. Do I mind that others listen? Not really...ok...a little :) But I certainly regularly felt that the airwaves were squandered.
    - Satellite radio is brilliant (for radio). You can have mine when you pry it from my cold dead hands. I flip between genres often - and when I decide to do so. Granted, I don't listen to too much outside of my tastes but I'm more interested in discovering subtleties and nuances from tunes that receive rare play anywhere else than in wasting my time on the bubblegum channel or the soft rock channel. I would EASILY rather listen to someone with "marginal" talent on the BB King Bluesville show than 97% of the content on Hip Hop Nation or Area (ecstasy rave tunes).
    - Just a sidenote to that point, this speaks to The Long Tail, a book by Chris Anderson of Wired magazine. Great stuff on the debate between mass-mediocre and specialized depth with an internet/economic perspective. you can get the highlights here:

  8. Just to jump back in ...

    The '"You Will Listen to This" says the program director" mentality (mocked mercilessly long ago on WKRP), is truly the evil blight that has wrecked radio (except that now it's usually computers and corporate suits, not even local program directors, which makes it even worse).

    However, what restored my faith in music in the 21st C -> KEXP radio, available online at ; based in Seattle, college radio of the very best kind.

    Seriously -- listen to "John in the Morning" on a weekday (they archive all their shows). They play more Canadian material in Seattle than I hear on my local "rawk" station.

    It is a gem not too far from the golden days of staying up at night to listen to David Wisdom on CBC FM spin the Rheostatics.

    PS - my mom is begging R. and I to do something about our vintage vinyl piled up on the farm; anyone interested in some great album cover art a la Yes, Klaatu, and other wacky prog rock bands?

  9. Jim - gracias for kexp - tried it today and enjoying it so far. Mike