Living in America

Living in America – Music In The 1980s

(Goldmine Magazine)

The 1980s were a topsy-turvy decade when down was sideways and nothing was quite what it seemed to be.  Like some modern-day Alice through her Looking Glass, this was the decade that welcomed actor Ronald Reagan as president, then hoped we wouldn’t end up being at the center of what all the signs portended as the next, and biggest, nuclear flashpoint ever.  Computers entered into everyday consciousness as Commodore, Texas Instruments and, finally, Apple brought arcades into homes, business into pleasure and left Big Brother lurking uncomfortably outside the door.  The 1980s brought to birth a new kind of newspaper – USA Today – downloaded regionally via satellite with content and style modeled after the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it wiles of television programming.

And then there was MTV.

As disco died and punk rockers grew up, and the me-decade miasmic singers realized that, just perhaps, the world didn’t actually revolve around them, a new way of musical practice was slowly worming its way in through the television sector.   Of course shows had been providing music clips for years in Britain; while, in the States, very few markets were without some kind of Friday Night Videos or Midnight Special programming.  But an entire network that demanded music profit by style; that insisted image sublimate sound?  Now, there was something that would reflect the boomer generation’s vacuous acceptance of excess and progress.

Excess, progress, substance and style, a decade where too much was never enough primed the music industry to follow suit.  There were still strong regional scenes propping up the bloaters that passed for hit makers during much of the decade – small post-punk pockets flourished in the college underground.  Where else would bands like REM, U2, the Smiths, Talking Heads and Sonic Youth keep their heads down and ply their trade in preparation for the big-time?  And, of course, you had your Rolling Stones’, and David Bowies, Tom Pettys, and Bob Dylans – those those mass market behemoths would never disappear, although even they, too, would ultimately fall prey to the decade’s mores.

But, where it really mattered, in the charts, hearts and record racks of mainstream America, there was something else systematically slapping back the hands of any real upstarts.  Pop music was in free-fall for much of the 1980s – it’s telling that the longest running #1 single of the entire decade was Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical,” which spent ten solid weeks at the peak in 1981.   Kim Carnes, Michael Jackson, the J. Geils Band, Hall & Oates, Bonnie Tyler, Survivor and Irene Cara – all those names joined John in the #1’s club.

It was the decade of “Billie Jean” and “Bette Davis Eyes,” of “Down Under” and “Ebony And Ivory.”  Songs that touched a chord, yes, but in a manner that was somehow as artificial as the 1980s themselves were becoming.  Light content snapped the public’s attention from the socio-political mess that the country was falling into, while songs like Phil Collins’ monstrous “In the Air Tonight” or The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” quickened heartbeats without requiring any real emotional investment at all.  And that, as it turned out, was just fine with nearly everyone.   This was easy music, but not easy listening – all those earnest songs from a million different genres, sprung out of a real desire to seal the utterly abysmal pit that the singer/songwriters of the 1970s had fallen into by decade’s end.  Over time, however, these new tastemakers became as cloying as those they were trying to suppress to begin with.

Slipstreamed alongside that, was the other half of the glass.  The glorious free-for-all of bands like Van Halen, Twisted Sister, Ratt and Def Leppard were little more than spandex clad doppelgangers reacting to the softer side of rock, preaching the same message in a blaze of hot riffs, tongue-in-cheek humor and decidedly un-haute couture.  And it was all available in 3 minute clips on television.  Hurrah!

While MTV may have ramped up the beginning of the 1980s in its declaration of new wave rebellion, mainstream cool and visual appetizers for anyone in between, come the middle of the decade, there would be one singular event that transcended everything that had gone before, and ultimately corroded the very foundation upon which the decade’s music had risen.  And that, of course, was 1985’s Live Aid.

While the United States had its own handful of irritants to contend with – Russia, Cuba, China – things were far more grim half a world away in Ethiopia.  People were dying; an entire African nation was starving.  Enter the Boomtown Rats’ Bob Geldof who schemed the dream of a massive bi-continental concert that would raise awareness (and money) for Africa.  Geldof’s Band-Aid “Do They Know It’s Christmas” stopgap had already paved the way back in 1983, of course, but this new venture was to become even more gargantuan.

Although it was the hip-hotties of the day, Adam Ant, Simple Minds, Spandau Ballet and INXS, that titillated the kids during their Live Aid sets, it was really the likes of U2, Phil Collins and Dire Straits (a contingent that the Red Hot Chili Peppers swiftly dubbed “Millionaires Against Hunger”) that came away with a bigger slice of the pie, shifting their hits with puppy-dog politics and an empathy for the plight of millions.  Was Live Aid a success?  Yes it was.  Was it the happening of the 1980s?  Yes it was.  And did it shove a bloated reality far enough down throats to help effect a massive shift in musical taste?  Ultimately, yes it did.  Superstar backs were still being slapped when record buyers finally rose up to announce they were sick of selfishness masquerading as sympathetic do-gooding.

The eastern seaboard was dotted with pockets of resistance as bands like Dinosaur Jr, and the Pixies grumbled up and down the coast.  The Midwest spawned myriad no-wave nihilism of Big Black and Hüsker Dü, while nesting the new industrial scene; and the West Coast spent the decade California style with punk renegades Bad Religion, and nu-rock prophets the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane’s Addiction. A little closer to Canada, the Pacific Northwest dashed flannel-clad kids on that coast’s rocky shores until they were old enough and grunge-y enough to make a difference – coming into their own as Mother Love Bone, Soundgarden and Nirvana.  All had (or were about to) release albums to critical, if not necessarily commercial success; but they hadn’t merely come of age – they’d become angry as well; and, by the end of the decade, they had something to say about it.

The music of the 1980s typified a truly dichotomous and often incongruous mix of sound and intent.  There was a little something for everyone – a schizophrenic grab bag.  New wave to no-wave, easy listening to power balladeering, metal edged scything to good old rock ‘n’ roll.  It was all there.  On radio and in stadiums, in print and, most importantly, on television; 24 hours a day, music was available and instant, demanding to be heard and seen.

By the end of the decade, however, all those things – good, bad and otherwise – were mired in a colossal rut.  Nothing seemed to be moving forward.  Adults who’d dug good old rock and roll were growing out of that mindset, and those who gelled their hair to outdo any plastic waver on MTV had moved on, too.   America had become a country of true excess – need and want had become “have” and “have some more,” just because you could.  Musically, things were no different. There was so much out there, so much on offer –an endless rehash of what had come the week, the month, the year before – that collapse was inevitable.

And, there were whispered mumblings, too, from those now completely disenfranchised with music, with gluttony, with greed.  These were voices begging to be heard.  And, as the 1990s dawned with no real indication that anything was going to change (for better or otherwise), a new breed struggled at the gates, a rough and tumble battering ram that used guitars and feedback, the sonic screams of anti-corporate rants to crush the ramparts.  A new cash cow rose up to destroy the slickness that epitomized the 1980s, which had now yawned well into 1991.  There, they looked into the steely and untrusting eyes of a generation that smelled like teen spirit, that shook their fists in the air with a battle-cry of “here we are now, entertain us.”   And the music found that it could not, and broke away, brittle and empty as the decade it had come to represent. (AH)

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