It’s time to make some pronouncements. I have no authority, and I hate it when people who have no authority make pronouncements, but because I am a musician and can kind of claim to know something about music, and because I lived through, was actually a teenager and a young adult in this particular era, I will make some pronouncements anyway, even though none of this makes me an authority.
Many things about music in the 80’s sucked. Hair bands, for the most part, sucked. Mainstream pop, almost entirely, sucked. The more popular of the one-hit wonder new wave bands, for all intents and purposes, sucked. Overproduced drums and vocals, the snare drum that sounded like a nuclear explosion and the vocal track drowning in reverb, these things sucked. Most of the videos on MTV, as exciting as they were for awhile, sucked, especially the videos which showcased some of these musicians in their full dumb-assed glory, for example, playing a single note with an index finger on a synthesizer while boogying with themselves, or posing ridiculously with guitars jutting out from between their legs like gigantic phalluses, or this, what my band Here Comes Everybody was guilty of in the 80’s: way over-the-top lip synced performances, complete with real instruments plugged into nothing in a bare studio against a blank backdrop. Yes, even I, to a certain degree, sucked in the 80’s . Even if the music I made didn’t suck (and it didn’t, by the way, in my humble opinion), my notions of what was hip, cool, or engaging in the visual department certainly did. I’ll direct your attention to Exhibit A:
This video sucks in so many awful ways. It appears that the singer in the band, c’est moi, is on speed. He wasn’t, by the way. But he was all hot and sweaty because he had done perhaps ten takes before the stupid videographers got their stupid video shit together enough for a complete performance. His mascara is running. Musicians in the 80’s wore mascara. That kind of sucked. But what especially sucks in this video is the battle the singer in the band, c’est moi, has with a digital blackout bar, the kind usually used to black out eyes or naughty bits. That was just a dumb idea, but it was, at the time, the fanciest special effect we had at our disposal. Also a dumb idea is this notion that the musicians pretending to play their instruments should be huddled in a little line behind the spastic lead singer. Okay, enough about me. And I really wanted, initially, to write about things that DIDN’T suck about music in the 80’s, but I just couldn’t seem to run out of the things that did. Let me try to get through the rest quickly.
Bands and artists that were great in the 70’s, particularly Cheap Trick, Elton John, Kiss, Rush, and Journey, sucked in the 80’s, despite a number of mega-hits from many of them. The word “sucked,” which I’m certain had an earlier origin, was particularly overused in the 80’s, and that has nothing to do with music, but it, nevertheless, sucked. However, there’s a very sharp little defense of the word “sucks” by Seth Stevenson on Slate, and it makes me feel not nearly so guilty for overusing the word in this little blog post.
What didn’t suck about 80’s music? Not surprisingly, the things that didn’t suck about 80’s music are the same things that don’t suck about some of today’s music. Bands contain real musicians who can really play. Or, bands contain mediocre musicians whose spirited and unique performances totally make up for the fact that they’re not very good. Arrangements are unpredictable. Lyrics contain actual ideas. Some envelopes are pushed. This is my list of the 80’s greatest pop bands or artists: XTC, The Boomtown Rats, The Talking Heads, Japan, The Fixx, Tears for Fears, Elvis Costello, Laurie Anderson, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and several others I’ve temporarily forgotten because I’m getting old. Some people will say that Bowie sucked in the 80’s, but they’d be wrong about that. And my test to determine whether or not I was deluded as a young man by bad music I believed was good is this: the music of these artists has real staying power for me. I can listen to any of those records and appreciate their craft beyond and outside the pure nostalgia I might feel for the good ol’ days of my youth. And finally, there were things we thought sucked about 80’s music that, in hindsight, or hind-hearing, don’t turn out after all to suck: Michael Jackson decidedly did not suck in the 80’s, even though I believed he did. And because I have been recently involved (as Uncle Wes) in the musical Footloose, I have developed some appreciation for the tunes from this show for which I was absolutely dismissive as a young punk. Let’s hear it for the boys, indeed. Flashdance, however, will have to go into the suck bin until I get a part in that musical.