July 25, 2010

The anti-materialism of the 1980s, music edition

I've covered this theme in passing before, but we might as well set the record straight on this vile lie in full. The anti-materialist trend goes back through the '70s and '60s, too, of course, but there's no popular misconception about those decades. The main difference is between dangerous times when people rise above materialism vs. safe times when they indulge in it. Earlier we saw that the pastoral genre flourishes in dangerous times and is made fun of in safe times. Also, because gizmo worship is mostly confined to safe times, it's largely absent in dangerous times, even if they have pretty impressive gadgets like the Walkman, the Apple II, the cordless phone, or anything with a remote control.

Now for some examples from the broader popular culture. I'll begin with music and will probably cover movies and TV soon. I won't be touching on things that are merely not materialist -- that was most of it -- but that go against it.

Before covering individual songs, let's remember the charity record, which died out in the 1990s and 2000s (except in the U.K.). True there were some attempted revivals, but in order to count it had to have had a major impact on the culture. I'm ignoring things like the death of Princess Diana since that's not about the less fortunate. Rather than just pimp their ride, add on to their crib, and pile some more bling around their neck, pop musicians used to make charity records or concerts. I know this probably had little impact, but it's better than nothing, and in any case we're focused on what people's mindset was -- the common charge is not that celebrities used to be high-minded but not very effective at charity; it is that they were so materialistic, unlike today's celebrities. Aside from records, there were also huge international concerts like Live Aid.

Probably the best known examples are "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and "We Are the World," made by ensembles of hit-making pop stars. The name of the Canadian variation is a great reminder to the navel-gazing whiners of the '90s and 2000s -- "Tears are Not Enough." Even the heavy metal dudes stepped up for African famine relief with Hear 'n Aid. Now you can object that these songs stink, and they do. Still, one charity song not only raised money but is a great listen, too -- "Man in the Mirror" by Michael Jackson.

Moving on, we have to get this out of the way first. "Material Girl" by Madonna -- it's a tongue-in-cheek parody of gold-diggers, not a praise. The Wikipedia article provides the detail, but you don't need to do anything more than listen to the rest of the album to see it in its proper context. Remember, when Like a Virgin came out in 1984, most people were listening to albums, not single mp3s. None of the other songs even remotely praise materialism, and one of the other hits, "Dress You Up," is explicitly against it. It's about a girl trying to win over a guy by pointing out that while he may possess lots of fancy material things, they can't compare to her burning love. It's the exact opposite of all this bragging you hear now about what designers some tone-deaf slut is wearing, how much bling she has, bla bla bla.

If only Madonna were British, she would've been given credit for recording a parody of materialist values. The Pet Shop Boys, who are British, had a hit song "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)" that satirized the overly ambitious stock market quants. During the booming past two decades, we didn't hear anything like that, even though the bubble lasted longer and was more severe than during the '80s. After all, we only got out of recession in 1983, and the romance (such as it was) finished on Black Monday in 1987. Even that tiny stretch of exuberance caused culture-makers to remind enthusiasts not to be so arrogant.

Talking Heads had a hit with "Once in a Lifetime," which warned about the spiritual danger of coasting through your career goals and status milestones without thinking about the bigger picture.

For her breakthrough album, Cyndi Lauper covered "Money Changes Everything," whose message is self-explanatory. It broke into the top 30 in the U.S.

Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" features an unemployed dock worker and a diner waitress, but plenty of songs talk about small-status people. Rather than brag about how he still has enough money -- borrowed money -- to throw some d's on his car wheels, he reminds her that sticking together and being in love is more important than living a too-comfortable life.

"Everybody Wants to Rule the World" by Tears for Fears isn't anti-materialist, but it was a hit song about the overly ambitious and power-hungry, which is close enough to the main theme here. "Everything Counts" by Depeche Mode fits in here as well.

"You don't have to be rich to be my girl. You don't have to be cool to rule my world."

From the Footloose soundtrack, "Let's Hear it for the Boy" plays down the boyfriend's faults on material dimensions since he makes up for them on social and love-related dimensions. ("What he does, he does so well -- makes me wanna yell!")

Rather than continue to glorify the razzle-dazzle of the fashion industry and inflate famous girls' fame-seeking egos even more, "Girls on Film" by Duran Duran says it's not all it's cracked up to be.

I'm sure there are other examples that I missed, but you get the idea. As I said earlier, these are only the ones that explicitly comment on the topic of materialism, and are against it. Most people were too busy having a life to seek refuge in shallow obsessions. And these are not trivial cases but some of the most popular musicians of the decade. Trying to find these strands in the '90s and 2000s would be a largely futile exercise, especially regarding Wall Street wiz kids during the recent 15 year-long boom.


  1. Your analysis is spot-on, however it was my observation that most people in the 80's completely missed the irony and took the songs literally.


  2. Interesting. On the subject of Madonna, wasn't it her music video for "Borderline" where she defaced a Porsche with a can of spray paint? Nothing spells disdain for materialism's spell and triumph over "love" like plagiarizing a man's most prized material possession.

  3. Agree with jm_kaye - I distinctly remember in middle school, the kids were playing "Material Girl" all the time, by itself, not in context with the other songs of the album, and it would never have occurred to them to even think about it as having a message in that context. They took it literally.


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