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.