Letting some web site autogenerate my blog entry was a resounding flop. Let’s see if I can do any better.
“Eighties music.” I bristle whenever I hear some ponytailed, puff-jacketed whelp use the phrase. “It’s got cheesy synthesizers, like eighties music.” The cadence of the phrase, with the accent on the first syllable—“EIGHTies music.” God, I want to start swinging a machete.
I’m a little disturbed by how intensely it grates me. I’m also perplexed. Because I know what music they’re referring to, and I don’t like it either. I didn’t like it when it was brand new, when I was the target audience. The synthesizers were cheesy, the production values grotesque, the hair styles…structurally unsound. Everything on the radio made me cranky. I latched onto anything I could find, from metal to the abortive progressive revival of '82–'83, to avoid it.
So why am I now stung when I hear kids implying that Glass Tiger, Kajagoogoo, et al are the quaintest thing ever? Why do I feel compelled to defend Platinum Blonde from the gentle mocking of Daryns and Vanessas? I guess it’s because I have a small slice of ownership in that decade by dint of alive and aware at the time. I don’t like it when people tar whole decades with the same brush. They always get it wrong.
I just finished a superb book about eighties music, Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life. The book profiles 13 influential bands from the eighties, from Black Flag to Beat Happening—the bands who basically did the grunt work that enabled Nirvana to break big in 1991.
The book doesn’t advertise this fact, but almost every band profile is accompanied by the story of a record label, a subplot that I found as appealing as the main narrative. Bands and labels helped strengthen each other’s identities, strained each other’s loyalties, bickered and became estranged from each other with the same regularity as the individuals within the bands themselves. The Black Flag story is also the story of SST Records, The Replacements had Twin Tone, Minor Threat and Fugazi were synonymous with Dischord, Big Black and the Butthole Surfers kept Touch & Go afloat. Nearly every chapter ends with the band’s defection to the majors and their “inevitable” artistic decline.
I laughed out loud through the entire thing. Azerrad gets some priceless stuff from his subjects. There’s debauchery: several eyewitnesses gleefully recall Gibby Haynes’ drunken, violent (and naked) rampage at a Dutch Festival. There’s introversion: the Dinosaur Jr chapter is a hilarious litany of passive aggression, pettiness and insecurity. Even Henry “Garfield” Rollins and Ian MacKaye raise an eyebrow with their confessions of an arena rockin’ youth—“We would read about the Nuge and the thing that really rubbed off on us was the fact that he didn’t drink or smoke or do drugs… We thought that was so impressive.”
I admit I wasn’t a fan of most of these bands when they were around. I now wish I had been one of the eight other people in the club during one of their early tours. Most of these bands played Vancouver regularly. I found out about them too late, when they had already finished, or were within an album or two of breaking up. Maybe I was too busy hating stuff in the eighties to find out anything good (and truly contemporary) for myself. Maybe I wasn’t cool enough.
It’s easy to decide how good something was after it’s run its course. It’s often harder to objectively assess something in the present, to take a stand and decide what you like, really like, now. I think that’s what bugs me about the kids and their “eighties music.” It takes very little effort to deride the past, just as it’s very easy for them to glibly accept what TV and radio spoonfeeds them in 2003. You own your present. I owned the eighties when I was teenaged, somewhat sentient, and looking for cultural sustenance, but I was too chickenshit to try to improve the situation. I just hated it. Those kids own today. They’re the audience, they’re as responsible for all the mainstream crap we have to endure as anyone else. If people used their imagination and looked at what they have today with the perspective they’ll have five years from now, I’d hope to see riots in the street. But that’s just misguided old me, expecting people to care.