October 9, 2011

Songs that "embody the '80s"

That's a question in the comments to the post below. I take it to mean which songs embody the general feeling in the air. Well the '80s were part of the apocalyptic phase of the zeitgeist cycle, which began in the mid-'70s and lasted through the early '90s. That new worldview brings along all sorts of other changes in people's thinking, feeling, and behavior.

Those features are what really set that period apart from the cult of curability from the 1960s and early '70s, and from the glib nihilism of the '90s through the mid-2000s. Here are the most important pieces of the zeitgeist, as I see it, with one or two songs that capture that feeling. There are lots to choose from, though, because any truly important part of the atmosphere will have a pervasive influence.

- The initial revelation that the apocalypse is coming:

"I Know There's Something Going On" by Frida, one of the singers from ABBA. Despite the menace in the song, she doesn't sound panic-stricken or paralyzed. "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins works here too (and so would the average new wave song), but I give the edge to Frida for the electric guitar that makes it feel more charged up.

- Broadening the group that you feel solidarity with, beyond your nuclear family:

"Man in the Mirror"
by Michael Jackson for class and economic status. "Born in the USA" by Springsteen for patriotism (nobody cares what the lyrics "really mean" when we're talking about capturing a feeling).

- Intenser relationship bonds:

"Summer of '69" by Bryan Adams for buddy-buddy relationships. For male-female, "Like a Prayer" by Madonna and "Livin' on a Prayer" by Bon Jovi. Surviving larger threats requires building a broader and tighter social network.

- Looking to the supernatural for redemption or salvation:

"Higher Love" by Steve Winwood. There were some other religious pop songs, but none anywhere as great as this one. The exotic rhythm and instrumentation, plus the guest vocals by Chaka Khan, underscore the cross-racial focus of the religious revival.

- Hedonism:

"Flesh for Fantasy"
by Billy Idol takes an accepting though ambivalent look at the pleasure-centered culture. The insider addict's view is better conveyed by Depeche Mode's "Strangelove." Hedonism was of course a minority choice in the face of a seemingly unstable future, but it did become a larger minority then than during other times.


  1. I know you're disappointed with pop music lately, but there is a sizeable contingent of 80s-inspired, current indie pop artists (who you won't hear about unless you're a music junkie because people don't care about good music any more). Maybe you could call it copy-catting, but most of them have an original spin.

    Here are a few artists and choice tracks, I'd be curious what you think.
    Destroyer ("Kaputt")
    Cut Copy ("Need you now")
    Twin Shadow ("When We're Dancing")
    Neon Indian ("Fallout")
    M83 ("Midnight City")

    Also, if you haven't seen the movie Drive, it's steeped in 80s aesthetics and has a nice soundtrack too.

  2. Well I've been disappointed with pop music more than lately, like since the early '90s. Even in middle and high school I was mostly listening to college rock, punk, and arty rock from the later '70s and '80s.

    To be honest, all five of those songs are soporific. Nothing against them specifically, the whole music culture has lost its pulse.

    - Languid tempo

    - Plodding march-step drum rhythm

    - Little or no syncopation on bass

    - Keyboard melody used for drowsy, heroin chic effect, rather than building tension

    - Limited octave range of the voices, and emotion restricted to oozing the words out of the mouth like a Play-doh factory

    They may have instrumentation similar to an '80s band, but the basic composition sounds nothing like it, belonging clearly to the just-droning-on zeitgeist of the past 20 years.

    I thought the "post-punk revival" bands who hit it big in the mid-2000s did a decent job of imitating the original sound, though. Probably the last time I'll go out twice a week to dance to new music! But at least there's still '80s night.

  3. Fair enough. I think the whole question of what makes music sound good to different people is an extremely interesting one.

    I'll admit that the vocal ranges are limited. Maybe it's readily available technology that allows people to get away with mediocre singing skills. However, I personally love the instrumentation of the new synth-pop stuff. You have to give them credit for rich, multilayered sound texture.

    I guess if I had to describe in a single word what I go for in music, at least lately, it's "cool." True late 80s/early 90s songs with this sort of vibe that immediately come to mind are Sophie B. Hawkins "Damn I wish I was your lover" and T'pau "Heart and Soul." For you, it sounds more like "fun" or "excitement", which is legitimate.

    I'm also nostalgic for the early 90s gangsta rap and grunge. Although, at that time I wanted to project "rebellious" and "bad", being the suburban 10 year old that I was.

    I still won't give up totally on current music, if you dig deep enough into indie stuff, you're bound to find something you like.

  4. The sound textures are neat-sounding, but that's just the skin. The melody, harmony, etc., is the life force underneath.

    You see the same superficial imitation of the '80s when people who can't loosen up and have fun (like people used to) then put on American Apparel clothes, instead of changing their attitude.

    I actually bought the album that "Heart and Soul" is on over the summer, and the Gen X guy at the record store recognized it too. If you like that and dig R&B, "Knocked Out" by Paula Abdul is right up your alley.

    There are lots of hidden gems from the late '80s because by then rock was about to move into alterna territory, so new wave, punk, and post-punk bands didn't sound so up-and-coming anymore. I've been meaning to do a post on all those guys sometime.

  5. Never heard that Sophie B. Hawkins song before. Shades of "Stand or Fall" by the Fixx...

  6. Nice recommendations. I dig the Paula Abdul track but it's about one step short of going all out Madonna, which puts my masculinity in a dangerous position.

    What are your thoughts about these, off the top of my head:

    -Human League "Human"
    -Billy Idol "Eyes without a face"
    -Gary Numan "Cars"
    -Pet Shop Boys "West End Girls"
    -LCD Soundsystem "I Can Change" (actually a 2010 track, I forgot about it in my other comment...one that critics considered a top song of the year)

    As a separate question, I've heard you praise the 80s for authenticity/sincerity. I see a lot of current radio music as insincere in one of two distinct ways: either blatantly commercialized, or self-aware and ironic. What do you think is currently the most sincere music being made?

    Shit, on that note, one more and I know I'm starting to get obnoxious, but check out the video for St. Vincent "Cruel" -- melodic but dark and weird. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Itt0rALeHE8&ob=av2e

  7. Hey, sorry for taking awhile to get back. Yeah, all those new wave and synthpop songs are awesome, probably my two favorite movements.

    The whole Rebel Yell album is one of the greatest ever, and has a stylistic variety that you only find with a King of Pop kind of album like Bad.

    I was listening to the Talk Talk album It's My Life yesterday, and you'd like that one too. More introspective lyrics, cool vibe, but still with that anxiety / paranoia and fun hooks that characterized new wave. Dum Dum Girl, Such a Shame, It's My Life, Call in the Night Boy -- all worth getting the full album for.

    I couldn't say what the most sincere kind of music today is. I started tuning it out after that post-punk revival trend died out. That was a brief moment of somewhat carefree music, and now it's back to self-aware irony and commercialism like you said.

    The whole Franz Ferdinand album was fun, parts of Silent Alarm by Bloc Party, that one song Maps by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Libertines album, Chain Gang of Love by the Raveonettes aka Psychocandy rebooted, Logic Will Break Your Heart by the Stills...

    I guess the most recent one would be Lust Lust Lust by the Raveonettes, probably the last new album I've bought. They're more like an easy-going cover band, not addicted to navel-gazing irony, and they're imitating a very fun-loving and good-humored period of pop music.


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