Beyond Guilty Pleasure: In Defense of ’80s music

BY JEFF LEVEN

Amongst music snobs (takes one to know one), a lot of 80s music gets a very bad rap. Oh, sure, there is a long and carefully-trimmed canon of 80s artists who we’re supposed to revere (Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, Husker Du, Run DMC, Public Enemy, Elvis Costello, the Smiths, half of the rest of the stuff I listen to), but a lot of the mainstream stuff, the stuff that you could actually hear on the radio back then (and frankly, more so now) – everything ranging from Dexy and the Midnight Runners’ “Come On Eileen” and Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance” to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” – well, that stuff is all supposedly just synthesized dreck that we’d be better off without. While that is certainly as true of some 80s pop (as it is with the pop of any other era), I for one am willing to go out on a limb and be that rare critic who happily defends the 80s mainstream for something other that kitsch value.

First charge to be disposed of: a common critical canard regarding the music of the 80s is that it was alienation incarnate and embraced radical escapism as a way of shrinking from an increasingly vapid commercialized cultural climate. Okay, so while it is true that the movement towards synthesizers, stark, repetitive beats and detached commodity-fascinated lyrics (Gary Numan’s “Cars” is the classic example) may have evidenced a form of alienation, if anything this mode of dealing with it was deeply confrontational. Indeed, groups like Devo made a career out of mocking the assembly line approach to culture, and there is also a significant canon of pure protest songs (many of them concerned with nuclear proliferation or the security risks of the Cold War – witness “99 Red Balloons,” Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” Men At Work’s “It’s A Mistake,” Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark’s “Enola Gay,” and Mike and the Mechanics’ “Silent Running”). Indeed, what might have made the political gestures of mainstream 80s music less visible than those of, say, 60s music is that they were wiser and a bit more nuanced in their treatment of the very notion of politics – witness Tears for Fears’ classic “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” with its world-weary truisms about power or the subtle document of the conflict between the personal and the outside world in Crowded House’s sublime “Don’t Dream It’s Over.” If anything, the 80s was at times conscious of its own political burnout as even folks like Billy Joel recorded stuff like the exasperated “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and the soft-pop mafia of the reformulated Genesis wrote “Land of Confusion.” Indeed, the 80s pop hits weren’t generally apolitical and apathetic – much to the contrary.

And then, of course, there is Live Aid and “We Are the World.” Listening to the collected voices of rock stalwarts like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, alongside now-kitschy 80s flashbacks like Huey Lewis and Cyndi Lauper, my mind is called back to what I at least remember as a rare point of sheer earnestness and optimism in American culture. 1985 and 1986, of course, were the years of crippling famine in Ethiopia, and I remember images of waifish children strewn across the magazines, NGO commercials showing mere walking skeletons in Red Cross blankets standing outside dispensaries, and helicopters by the hundreds brimming with burlap bags of grain. And I also remember the response of artists, in particular, from around the world. On the heels of England’s all-star “Feed the World” benefit song, USA for Africa recorded “We Are the World,” and then together many of the collected stars from the two recordings performed in Live Aid, perhaps one of the most dazzling musical events ever in terms of sheer star-power and scope. More than almost anything else from youth, I remember watching that telecast and being amazed at the size and breadth of the world community, and moved, albeit in my own childish way, by the sight of what seemed to be an entire world coming together. Even today I rewatch the tape and as I watch Nik Kershaw scratch out the first chords to “Wouldn’t It Be Good” beneath an unusually hot Wembley sun, I can’t help but feel a little cold chill. And perhaps I’m prone to injecting a 9 year old’s sense of wonder and purity in the whole thing, but that moment to me seemed always to be a crystallization of the potential latent within the world community for occasional moments of care. The pessimist in me feels like in subsequent years we sadly moved on from that moment. It wasn’t long before Faith No More recorded “We Care A Lot,” a track that cynically questioned the earnesty of the superstar benefit. Then the Challenger exploded and perhaps took with it a dose of optimism that had peaked in the years before. Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof’s wife eventually ended up with the late Michael Hutchence of INXS and, like him, died a murky drug-related death. And perhaps, more strikingly, when crisis once again hit East Africa a decade later, when ethnic Tutsis were slaughtered by the millions in Rwanda, the papers were nearly silent, the commercials never aired, and the world went about business as usual. And the rock n’roll world sat on its hands, too, by and large. The truth is that 80s music and 80s musical culture had a dose of social and political optimism or at least empathy that is all too often overlooked.

Indeed, even the raw escapism that existed in 80s music was often of a deeply uncynical, heartily romantic variety. Songs like the Pyschedelic Furs’ “Heaven” or Big Country’s signature song “In A Big Country” or perhaps more familiar classics like the Cars’ “You Might Think” or even “Thriller” for that matter all featured a certain buoyant faith in the simple joys of love. Even songs about subtle betrayal or aching hearts had a lush and resilient energy to them – songs like the Outfield’s glorious “Your Love” or ‘Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry,” the Human League’s “Human,” or the Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now.” Like so many miniature John Hughes movies, 80s songs often had a cinematic teenage thrill to them – the rapturous high of love and hope mixed into a gleeful mélange of simple cheeriness. Is Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” a testament to a silly era or just a happy one? While the fashion statements of those days look a little tragic on further review, I suspect that on some level a lot of those who would dispense with 80s music do so because it is a mediocre enabler for their desires to frown starkly and gaze all the more intently at their navels.

After all, plenty of pockets of autumnal music thrived in the 80s (many of the “approved” 80s critical favorites are elegant cases in point) and while there was an “80s sound” there was also a staggering amount of variety on the mainstream airwaves which, perhaps with a push from MTV, were as likely to feature rockers like Dire Straits or ZZ Top as they were latter day new-wavers like the Police or Joe Jackson or 50s revivalists like the Stray Cats or hip hoppers like LL Cool J or the Beastie Boys or pop princesses like Madonna or Cyndi Lauper, or the occasional gender benders like Dead or Alive or the Culture Club. Indeed, in its prime, 80s music was an incredibly open playing field, and one that was particularly open to acts from other nations – witness international success stories like A-ha (Norway), Roxette (Sweden), Men At Work (Australia), Taco (Indonesia), Simple Minds (Scotland), U2 (Ireland), Split Enz (New Zealand), and a particular host of English groups ranging from Duran Duran to the late Robert Palmer. While many of these groups were “one-hit wonders,” the turnover in the charts could well be seen as a sign of musical vitality – while there were undoubtedly titans (Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince) there were also a thrall of other groups that were able to get into the mix and get at least a few songs into the ears of the public.

And so the simple truth is that 80s music simply doesn’t suck as much as haughtier critics would like to say it does, and might even in its better moments have represented a musical era to aspire to. And while this doesn’t mean that I’m terribly eager to hear Rick Springfie
ld every single time I turn on the TV or the radio, it does mean that there might be some reason other than fickle nostalgia to embrace the musical culture of our youth and cherish it in its own right.

Comments