Is it possible to bully a decade? The 80s sure seems to have an eternal “Kick Me” sign on its back. Can someone help an epoch out and pull that thing off, please? For those of you haven’t been paying attention, 80s music is cooler than you think.
There are reasons why the 80s is too often remembered more for its costume-party clichés than as a peak era in music. The stigma kicked in as the decade was still in progress, probably about the time that crestfallen baby boomers realized that even the counterculture icons of the 60s weren’t immune to the bright and cheery tropes of the dawning MTV era, whether it was Grace Slick wearing shoulder pads in the ‘We Built This City’ video, or Bob Dylan using that same horrible gated reverb drum sound everybody else was, on Empire Burlesque, and co-starring in a film with Rupert Everett.
A transitional period
Even among the greats there was some self-abasement going on in an effort to keep up with the Joneses… the Howard Joneses. Not that it was a completely ignoble goal. ‘What Is Love?’, we can now belatedly acknowledge, was a great song. But, let’s grant the obvious: any decade that ever compelled anyone to say “Kajagoogoo” out loud has a lot to answer for.
But here’s a secret – and it’s understandable if you’re too shy to repeat it: 80s music provided a golden era in rock and pop. If only it hadn’t taken a third of anyone’s lifetime to get over our collective panic over parachute pants, perms and topiary-style new-romantic haircuts, and to hear ‘Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This’ or ‘Tainted Love’ play in the supermarket to realize that we were living through glory years that were mistaken for dog days.
In retrospect, this might be the most wonderful thing about the 80s. It was a transitional period full of huge, nationally shared moments but also tiny, secret scenes. The Ed Sullivan Show was long gone, but 80s music still had its equivalent of The Beatles’ US television debut in Michael Jackson moonwalking on the Motown 25 special, or even Peter Gabriel getting an entire cable-connected country talking about music videos with ‘Sledgehammer’. Purple Rain-era Prince was culturally ubiquitous in a way that even the top seller of 2018, Drake, could never hope to achieve in our more splintered landscape.
Sowing the seeds
Yet the seeds of our modern fragmentation were there in the 80s with regional scenes and the rise of DIY fanzines and indie labels – before “indie” was a thing. There were songs, albums, and performances that seemed to instantly impact all of America, with Bruce Springsteen and U2 proving you could go for stadium-act success without sacrificing artistic prowess. At the same time, there came a rich multitude of amazing micro-moments that reflected a not-for-everybody ethos best summed up in Germs’ song title ‘What We Do Is Secret’.
The 80s was a decade that began with X’s debut album, Los Angeles, and ended with Nirvana’s first, Bleach. Kurt Cobain had grown up with a distinct strand of 80s music, absorbing Hüsker Dü, Black Flag, Minutemen, Melvins, and Sonic Youth, becoming part of a nascent Washington grunge scene that would become world famous in the 90s, but which got a firm foothold in the 80s. The Twin Cities gave us twin punk and funk movements. Who wouldn’t want to travel back to a place and time where you could see both The Time and The Replacements? In LA you had the choice between hair metal and heffer bands — ie, the cowpunk of Lone Justice, Rank And File, Blood On The Saddle, and even the merely punk-adjacent Dwight Yoakam.
In New York, the Studio 54 era gave way to headier days that had club-goers vibing to everything from Afrika Bambaataa to Kraftwerk remixes and Grace Jones. Socially conscious hip-hop developed on both coasts, though there was a split between Public Enemy’s high-minded activism back East and NWA’s steely street pragmatism out West… with the phantasmagorical party of Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique representing a different strain altogether.
What is now considered Americana was being shaped by those for whom the Southern states were a holiday destination: Elvis Costello, with King Of America, and from Canada, The Cowboy Junkies, with The Trinity Sessions. With the IRS label suddenly blurring the gap between indie and mainstream, the South was primed to rise again, in the form of an invasion by R.E.M., who jangled their way into America’s heart. An only-happy-when-it-rains strain of UK 80s music began to take shape around The Smiths, The Cure, The Fall, Siouxsie And The Banshees, and Joy Division. My Bloody Valentine, meanwhile, turned “shoegaze” from a pejorative to a term of pride.
Perhaps even more than the 60s or 70s, and even more than any decade since, the 80s was littered with album titles so iconic that the artists connected to them don’t need mentioning: The Joshua Tree , Straight Outta Compton, Born In The USA, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, 1999, Synchronicity, Avalon, Appetite For Destruction, Licensed To Ill, Full Moon Fever, Surfer Rosa, Raising Hell, Rhythm Nation 1814, The Queen Is Dead, Kill ’Em All. If more than four or five of these titles fail to immediately ring a bell, there’s a good chance you grew up on either 98 Degrees or The Four Freshmen.
Bridges were being built, as if pop music was suddenly flush with tax dollars for infrastructure. (Which, in a way it was, with all that CD-format conversion money suddenly flowing in.) It may be difficult to recall now just how radical a path The Go-Go’s walked in becoming America’s sweethearts. Prior to their emergence from LA’s Masque club, rock fans spent the 70s counting female rockers on one hand and getting to the point where they had to ask whether Fanny were still together after ticking off Heart, The Runaways, and Starship (though The Slits provided a welcome extra digit for the intelligentsia).
The Go-Go’s were role models, paving the way quickly taken by The Bangles. For female leadership with men as crewmates, Pretenders represented the not-suffering-fools-gladly wing of women in rock, while ’Til Tuesday’s Aimee Mann sang about the journey from quiet-girlfriend acquiescence to a breaking point in ‘Voices Carry’. Cyndi Lauper’s empowerment of girls having fun was really code for girls taking control, cushioned for the benefit of “daddy dear”.
As much as male androgyny had made its way into the mainstream with Culture Club and Dead Or Alive embracing an aesthetic introduced in a previous decade by Ziggy Stardust, female androgyny still came as an irresistible shocker, whether it arrived in the form of Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox, or was incarnated by the gal who claimed to be the reincarnation of Patsy Cline, kd lang. Who knew that Mann had the enduring lyricism to make her America’s wry poet laureate well into the 2010s, or that Lennox had the soulful chops, as well as the huge, probing eyes, to be a diva for the millennia?
And the story of the racial bridge in American music is woefully incomplete without the watershed moment of MTV giving in on programming Michael Jackson in the early 80s – though whether through outside boycott pressure or internal wisdom will always be up for debate. That white people liked black music had been no secret in the Motown and disco eras, but a cultural sea change had started to occur when MTV shifted from black-tolerant to African-American-dominated – a move that culminated in hip-hop becoming the pop music of today. ‘Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough’, indeed.
In the eternally white world of country music, remarkable changes were also afoot. The smooth countrypolitan flavor was nearing its end, leading to the so-called hard country resurgence that let George Strait, Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam in the door. Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash also appeared on the scene with a new brand of lyrically sensitive country that managed to survive at least into the early 90s before the tide turned irrevocably to boot-scootin’. Reba McEntire, not yet uni-monikered, represented an aw-shucks brand of fresh Nashville feminism – a folksy but fierce bridge between the variety-show era and the sisters-doing-it-for-themselves age. And one of the greatest country songs of all time, the one everything thinks is so venerable it must’ve been from the 50s or 60s? George Jones’ ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ is totally 80s.
Which finally brings us – as all discussions of 80s music must – to synth-pop.
It wasn’t just the boomers who insisted on giving 80s music a bad, or at least campy, name. The kids who grew up with the 80s as their wonder years have been conditioned to think of their entire upbringing as a guilty pleasure at best. This lands us in a present day, where the 80s song on everyone’s lips, even those of schoolchildren, is Toto’s ‘Africa’. Even as Weezer covers the tune (with Toto returning the compliment), no one can agree whether it’s to comic effect, or how many layers of irony must we drill through to get to an unexpectedly earnest core. As they didn’t yet say of relationship statuses in the 80s: it’s complicated.
Did they talk about “baggage” in the 80s? It’s too far gone to remember. But survivors of the post-Me Decade carry a lot of it. Their heroes did regrettable things, like introduce too many synths into the sound and dance with a teenaged Courtney Cox. The Linn drum and the advent of the sampler blinded everyone with science. David Bowie came out of his most elusive artsy period to go for gold with ‘Let’s Dance’ and then followed up that success with his most self-hated album, Never Let Me Down.
Esteemed artists from Paul McCartney to T Bone Burnett have remixed and even substantially re-recorded albums from their 80s catalogues, allowing fans to re-evaluate the material free from the production techniques that define most 80s music. But we should resist the temptation to see synth-pop itself as a mistake. The one-, two- and three-hit wonders that did it as their native artform did it wonderfully. Who wants an 80s denuded and scrubbed of ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby’? That is not just a less Human League 80s but a less human version of the decade. And if Thomas Dolby doesn’t make you ‘Hyperactive’ to this day, you really need to lay off the Adderall.
Don’t stop believin’
Nowadays, you turn on an “oldies” radio station and, if you’re of a certain age, you marvel and fret anew each time the station that once specialized in Bill Haley and The Beatles now thinks that The Thompson Twins are about as old as it gets. But as you drive down the road flagellating yourself for how old the veneration of Berlin makes you feel, or how hokey you think these songs are, a realization kicks in: ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ represented a better time – if you believe in the classic pop virtues of hooks, riffs, melodicism and, dare we say it, real human emotions honestly expressed. It doesn’t matter if Whit Stillman will never make a sequel to The Last Days Of Disco called The Last Days Of New Romanticism. The songs are what matter, one keeper at a time.
Our confusion about how to think about 80s music lies largely in the costume-party aspects. Because, when it comes down to it, there are two sets of 80s. There’s the 80s music that hasn’t dated at all, because X, Hüsker Dü and The Replacements sound as fresh as if they were recorded yesterday. And then there’s the 80s music that is so dated, not only can you pin it down to the year, but to the day and maybe the minute that someone went into the studio and thought that synthetic snare sound would be the state of the art forever.
But only one of these lends itself to homage – or parody, depending on your view. Let’s face it, if you throw an 80s party, no one is going to come dressed as Bob Mould. You’re going to go all-monochrome and come as the lead singer of a-ha lost in the pencil-sketch world… or, if that seems too ambitious, pouf out a wig and go Poison on everyone. It’s more fun.
The thing is, you don’t actually have to pick a lane when you’re re-embracing 80s music. You don’t have to choose between OMD and Melvins. You can even like both Melissa Manchester and Mission Of Burma. (You won’t, but you can.) And, come to think of it, you can dig the Bruce Springsteen who made Nebraska and the other guy who suddenly appeared on MTV. Everyone reacted to the end of the Watergate-riddled 70s and the dawn of a new political and social era in different ways.
The punks of Margaret Thatcher’s England, or the Yanks suspicious of Reagan, found it a time for gleeful rage. Others, such as, say, the poet Howard Jones, asked, “Do you feel scared?” before answering his own question: “I do.” The 80s was a time when pop, rock and R&B stars dared to be different, and Yo! MTV Raps rapped, and we didn’t stop and falter. The future was so bright, we had to wear shades – and if Timbuk3 meant that ironically, not all of us were so sure.
The music world may not have agreed with the president on much, but there was accord on at least one thing: in pop, it felt like morning in America.