February 14, 2012

Slow dance music for a New Wave Valentine's Day

As people withdraw from social life during falling-crime times, their ego needs a soothing and flattering cover story, typically a derogation of the good old days. When the world was more expressive and approaching toward others, it was easier to find cases at the far extreme of that spectrum, so clingy that they invite easy caricature. "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," "Don't You Want Me," etc. -- hardly bad songs, but still ones that will understandably be the first targets of the pro-cocooning dork squad.

Hey everybody, that hysterical neediness is what openness and gregariousness ultimately lead to -- and you don't want THAT, do you?

The mellow response is that, sure, sometimes they'll go too far, but you can just ignore those and enjoy the ones that have plenty of vital force without going overboard -- "In a Big Country," "Save a Prayer," "Back on the Chain Gang," and so on. In order to keep this obvious truth from people's sight, only the easily mocked extremes can be allowed to remain in the public's memory, so the richness of the full range must be erased.

By the late 1970s and early '80s, rock music had gone through a coming-out-of-its-cocoon phase, then after the initial headiness wore off, an attempt to steer it in more Very Artistically Serious directions, followed by a reaction against that pretentiousness and back toward a stripped-down early sound.

Yet musicians and audiences must have felt that the deliberately retro approach of punk-influenced rock music and Motown revival R&B music had been a bit too knee-jerk -- yeah, all of that overwrought stuff from the late '60s and early '70s took itself too way too seriously, but abandoning that level of seriousness doesn't mean you have to be so self-conscious about it. Having that mental spotlight switched on only makes it harder to get absorbed in the music.

Around 1982, what would become New Wave music began taking over, somehow combining the lack of pretentiousness from punk, the inventive and ornamental drive from the Counter-Culture era, as well as the carefree spirit from rock music's younger years. It really did sound new! Although its heyday was already gone by 1985, its influences could still be heard later in the decade in "Shattered Dreams" and "Need You Tonight," among others. Pioneers Duran Duran released the recognizably wave-y hit song "Come Undone" as late as 1993.

(And when, for a few years in the mid-2000s, the culture moved somewhat against the trend of drowsy and unskilled songwriting, it was the body of New Wave music that they looked to revive.)

Most people today, even if they were around for its original release, probably don't remember Roxy Music's final album Avalon, even though at the time it topped the UK and Australian album charts, and still reached #53 in America. It's saddening to think that the major force keeping it alive in memory is a karaoke scene from the watchable but mostly forgettable movie Lost in Translation.

So both for preservation, as well as for Valentine's Day, here is the greatest slow dance song ever written:

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