Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Little Earl Loves The Music Of The '80s: Introduction - The Divided Decade

I know what you're asking yourself. "Why, Little Earl? Why?"

And why now? Why here?

So what happened? Let me tell you what happened.

I ran out of '60s and '70s music is one thing that happened. I tried everything. I tried Country. I tried Rap. I even tried Jazz. I started getting desperate. I downloaded some French pop. Then some Italian pop. That was when I knew I had pretty much hit bottom, the Italian pop.

So downloading is what happened. And YouTube. So much of the appeal of '80s pop music is tied to music video. I didn't have access to these videos before. I have access to them now. But maybe something else, something even more mysterious, has happened.

I was born in 1980. I could not be more of a child of the '80s if I tried. The music I heard in the '80s was the music my parents were listening to on the radio. My parents, unlike many Baby Boomers, did not listen to the music of the '60s. I grew up in a world in which The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Motown, Elvis, "Oldies," "Classic Rock," and so on, did not exist. Why exactly I grew up in this world is hard to say; you'd have to ask my parents. Nonetheless, '80s Top 40 radio was the music of my childhood. To hear the hits of the '80s is to be whisked immediately back into my origins.

I didn't always feel so hot about my childhood. But maybe I am feeling better about it now. Cynic that I am, part of me didn't think that I would actually live this long, or that the United States of America would still be a functioning nation, or that we wouldn't have all been wiped out by some sort of nuclear radioactive biological supervirus. So when I hear Kool & The Gang's "Cherish" in 2011, I am genuinely appreciating the fact that after all these years I am still alive and still able to appreciate such a terrific, if extremely cheesy, song. You might say that I cherish it.

But the '80s of my childhood, as I've gradually learned, is only half the story. Stephen Thomas Erlewine may have hit the nail on the head in his review of Rhino's Like, Omigod! The '80s Pop Culture Box (Totally):
Rock criticism has two schools of thought regarding the '80s. One complains that it was all crass, commercial crap, breathing a sigh of relief that we made it through that dreck (thanks to IRS, SST, jangle pop, college rock, and hardcore punk, of course). The other celebrates the decade as "cheesy" fun, full of naïve, silly singles; bad haircuts; big synthesizers. It's a school intent on reducing it all as nostalgic fodder -- and whenever '80s music is written about in this fashion, it's always given ironic adjectives, straight out of the height of valley girl speak. All this ghettoizes an era in pop music that was rich in innovation, great one-hit wonders, oddities, and inexplicable flukes that make it a wonderful cross between the first days of the British Invasion and the peak of AM pop in the early '70s. It was the last great era for pop singles -- the last time that singles really mattered, the last time that something totally unexpected could capture the minds of the public, before radio consolidation meant hits couldn't build in a region, before MTV turned to non-music programming and cut off a national outlet for new music.
I admit it - I'm more or less an album guy. That's why the '80s have always bothered me. It seems like after Thriller, the goal pretty much became "How many hit singles can we extract from an album?" Not "How can we make a great album, and then maybe possibly pull a song for a single?" So imagine you're me, it's 1998 and you're exploring a lot of music, and mp3s don't really exist yet. Are you going to want to buy or borrow a CD that has a couple of great songs on it, or are you going to want to buy or borrow a CD that has a lot of great songs on it? Yes, thanks for playing.

But as Erlewine suggests, there were bands who focused on albums in the '80s - it's just that they were the alternative bands. Unlike the '60s or the '70s, where there were some cult acts, but on the whole almost every significant artist made a mainstream impact in some way, the '80s really were two decades. As if one '80s wasn't scary enough. There was the mainstream decade, and there was the underground decade. And the two decades did not interact. Aside from a few select artists (whom I may discuss), the mainstream did not know the underground even existed, and the underground had little desire to be associated with the mainstream.

Until recently, I've never liked this. I like music that's thoughtful, creative, and challenging, and yet somehow finds an epic place in the sweeping pop culture narrative that is unfolding in my head. "Our band could be your life," The Minutemen sang. Well what if I imagine my life to be grand and mystical? If a band could be my life, could I pick The Beatles? Maybe I'm like that working-class Republican who doesn't support raising taxes on rich people because, hell, I'm a-gonna be rich someday too. Why would I want a band to be my life? My life sucks!

It's probably fair to say that the underground and mainstream somehow merged once again in the '90s, before both concepts ceased to mean anything, and all music in general, mainstream or underground, became rather crummy. Thus is the world in which we find ourselves today. Suddenly that split in the '80s doesn't seem so bad. I have to say that, in comparison to contemporary pop music, '80s mainstream pop music is sounding pretty damn good. At least I can find several shamelessly catchy and memorable singles sprinkled liberally throughout the decade. I'm not even asking for deep, profound music here. I just want something at least on the level of "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" or "Everything She Wants."

There are rock critics who would argue that the alternative '80s was the "real" '80s, and that the mainstream '80s was just a big fraud and a sham. But here's my opinion: I don't really prefer one over the other. For years I have found both halves of the '80s to be lacking. The mainstream '80s was too singles oriented, and the singles were often blandly produced love songs with overly-generic lyrics. The alternative '80s was too navel-gazing, amateurish, and sonically abrasive. Everything was out of balance. There was no perfect '80s. But hey, I knew this already.

So here's what I am going to do. I am going to talk about the alternative '80s, and I am going to talk about the mainstream '80s. I am going to talk about them separately. In my mind they are genuinely separate things. They remind me of two completely different eras in my own life. The alternative '80s reminds me of my college years. The mainstream '80s reminds me of my childhood in a visceral way that I find somewhat disturbing. Depending on what mood I'm in, I can enjoy both equally. I am that rare beast. Well, me and Stephen Thomas Erlewine.

How am I going to do this? Simple. To discuss each aspect of the '80s, I am going to utilize two separate music collections as my launching pads. To begin my discussion of the alternative '80s, I am going to write about The Pitchfork 500. To begin my discussion of the mainstream '80s, I am going to write about what is known in my family simply as "The '80s Tape."

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