Lionel Ritchie looms on the giant video screen, stalking a blind woman who, yes appears to be making a very basic clay sculpture of the former Commodore vocalists’ head as a sign that it’s OK for him to go ahead and kiss her…
As I sit in a coffee shop cum Karaoke bar in Ho Chi Minh City, the teenagers tell me their favorites are Whitney Houston, early George Michael and incidentally Englebert Humperdink.
I am hurt, since I always try to defend the musical legacy of the maligned decade between Ayatollah Khomeini and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Making the case in defense of the 80’s as a landmark era in musical history is about as abstract as making the case for Bill Clinton accomplishments.
These well-intentioned young crooners aren’t helping me out any, and I wonder when the power ballad part of the revival will be the rage. Nonetheless, plough backward we must, Back to the Future and without the funds to hire a Johnny Cochran.
First a little historical background. Rock and roll was invented in the middle of a rather benign Eisenhower administration, the birth of the modern form. After a rather melodic Kingston Trio Kennedy / Johnson era, things started to get out of hand again upon Nixon’s seemingly inevitable ascension to the Oval office. Great luck for music fans at the time. The Summer of Love, until the emergence of disco were bookends for another hot era of innovation.
We all know how soft the Bubba years were. Between smug Gangsta posing, the emergence of the horrible manufactured teeny pop, and nutrasweet house filler, what actually was more impressive than Marilyn Manson? As we emerge from the musical wilderness once again, the Republican’s are predictably running the show again. The evidence would suggest that the Reagan and Bush the First periods would in fact be as fertile a ground for greatness as the hyperbole the era inspired.
From Kraftwerk’s Computer World, to Nirvana’s Nevermind (In Utero was a post mortem) the blueprints of the 90’s were written in like a bad sequel. The living corpse of thrift store fashion was picked as Punks and New Romantics fed until all that was left were plaid flannels shirts and bandannas. The living art of video was stripped of its spectacle and story telling to a reductive image of prancing dancers in Vegas costume disengaging the listeners from the music itself, and punishing us with heavy rotation.
Whether you were a Cure fan or stuck on NWA, the intimate understanding of impermanence and a decadent appreciation of the sensuality and power of sound, the need to feel something came first. Whether it was the blatant hypocrisy of Reagan or smug nihilism of Bush, the greed for its own sake, or the hatred of the former, music in the 80’s reflected all of these messy emotions right back at us.
The last gasp of modern art had played itself out in pop music of the decade you love to hate. Cobain’s suicide underlined the victory, of ‘been there done that’ postmodernism, if only until Al Gore invented the internet. Through the Kaleidoscope of time anything before the hip irony thing can understandably seem a bit quaint on the surface.
It’s not the Democrats fault that the Lil’ Bow Wow, Brittany, N’Sync, Puff Daddy, Christina, Limp Bizkit, Destiny’s Child thing happened on their watch, or that the buried treasures were so buried that the introverted Radiohead became the most radical band on earth. Yet there’s something about the relative tranquility of Jackass years’ that spells crap music. It should be part of the Republican platform.
Vote for us and you’ll be broke, but there’s more White Stripes, Fischerspooner, Miss Kitten, Neptunes, Eminem, Peaches, and Rapture coming your way kids! If Bush senior told us we’d get Public Enemy, NWA, Big Black and Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation out of the deal, I might have asked myself what it was exactly that Dukakis stood for.
The underlying 80’s feeling that is the hype behind the new dress up and DIY fashions is a political reaction to distortion of right wing government, who whether they know what they’re doing or not, feel that the public can’t cope with the truth.
This cognitive dissonance has the effect of making truth radical, and expression for its own sake become an impulse and infectious. The sublimated id comes screaming down the corridor with a bloody plastique dagger, box of chocolates and a pair of handcuffs.
Not that anyone would cop to an interest in current events anyway, what about the music itself? Are the 80’s the standard for which the new sound should be measured? Is there another useful yardstick for the experimental?
How is it we are bestowing such vitality to a time most of have been trying to forget for the last decade and a half? The simple answer, and it’s not smug to say since no one talks about it very much, is like every other cultural upheaval, you had to be there. Just like the mid-60’s in San Francisco or late-70’s New York, anyone who wasn’t in one of those few thousand dingy clubs, or futzing around the low end of the radio dial week in and week out, were suffering a lot of Def Leppard and Phil Collins.
In the 60’s, if you missed the Velvet Underground or the 13th Floor Elevators, you got a lot of white blues and old Elvis, and those who slept on Bootsy Collins and Can got the Captain and Tenille, if you were fortunate. It may be an elegy for the drama of Marc Almond, and a return to a dirtier sound palate with no pretensions about not even learning an instrument, but that was a small part of the Brat pack decade. The dedication of labels, producers, clubs and radio to the music itself without fantasies of stardom was the real underground of the 80’s. Bands in buses!
The major labels that are signing the Peaches’ and Fischerspooners’ are being played the fool again like they did in the early 80’s. Artists don’t expect a knock on the door, but after they stop laughing, won’t have any problems playing along.
The great Johnny Rotten quote about Virgin records, who he’d like to thank, since without them “This would have all been unnecessary.” With over extended budgets on stale stars and no clue about what comes next, the 2 or 3 major labels left are stuck in a bind with insolent unpredictable interesting musicians, of which the reaction, like it was in the 80’s.
To hard sell the junk food even harder, and become ever more dependent on a few pre-Madonna’s and flood every shopping mall and clear channel with them. A Huey Lewis or two later it sure looks like a bad decade had occurred, but they’re still trying to write off those losses with K-tel best of the 80’s of which I have yet to find one adequate installment.
Unlike the endless hype about how great the 60’s were, kids from the 80’s didn’t feel the need to talk about the good old days. After all who’d listen anyway? We watched Hard core become Skate punk, and the Death rockers become Internet gothic geeks, and we watched Fight the Power become Hammer time under the media spotlights.
Yet it was the personal experiences that were important and not the fashions, so when it all got too much, we Chuck Taylor-ed it all in for the no-look Grunge-look, and moved on. No more playing with signifiers at all. Just minor ironic humor born of the absurd MTV veneration of Punk in the form of Kurt Cobain, and later Green Day.
It wasn’t bitterness; there was some relative civility and reality in Clintonius’ reign to offset the loss of culture. But thanks to Kenneth Starr, and James Baker, we’ve got it all back on track. Like the broadcast of the made for TV cold war drama, The Day After, the coverage of the Iraqi sham by Fox News has released even new legions of ordinarily docile folk into open sonic revolt.
God bless the freedom of the press. Now do we vote for our wallets or vote for our headphones next year? Do we vote for quality art where we live and sacrifice the world audience to Kenny G, Shania Twain and yes, Englebert? Screw ’em I say, another Renaissance may be in the cards now that we’re suffering under four more years of Dubya.