Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Eighties

I was looking back at this blog the other day and I realized that there weren't many entries from the eighties. Lots of seventies, and plenty of recent and nineties releases. Were the eighties a bad decade for music (or is it just me)?

I know, it is ten years. It can't be all bad, and I agree with that. There were some good Talking Heads records, at least. But was there a general slump in the overall quality of popular music in the eighties? And if this hypothesis could be demonstrated to have merit, what could have caused this period of melodic malaise.

I can't really support the idea that the quality of music went down in the 80s, except based on my own personal anecdotal evidence. But what is it about 80s music? Too many synthesizers, sure, but that doesn't explain it all.

First, the decade began on the heels of the punk peak, and disco was still very much alive. Not a good sign. Then there is the synthesizer thing, and that was a major problem in the 80s. Lots and lots of synthesizers everywhere. It was the decade of the hair band. It was in the eighties that Jefferson Airplane became Jefferson Starship. And Elton John became, well, bad Elton John. Artists that had done some vital work turned in their worst work in the eighties: Van Morrison, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, Phil Collins, J. Geils Band, Fleetwood Mac.
It was also the time when pop music became very very big business. The arena tour, the zillion sellers. The major labels knew what they wanted to sell, and if you weren't making it, they didn't want it. Artist development began to change. No longer could an artist release two of three records before one of them really sold. And of course, the independant recording and distribution we see today was not yet established, so if it wasn't on a major label, you didn't know about it.
And the new bands coming up didn't seem to bring much of interest to the table. Let's just look at some examples of mediocrity that seemed to take up so much of the airwaves in the 80s: Bon Jovi, Duran Duran, Journey, The Bangles, INXS, Rick Springfield, Night Ranger, Poison, Culture Club, Styx, Men At Work, Wang Chung, Paula Abdul, Loverboy. Yipes!

Oh, I know it's easy to pick on some schlock from any decade. Goodness knows there was terrible crap in every decade. But who was doing the best work in the 80s? OK: Madonna, Michael Jackson, REM, Squeeze, Devo, Talking Heads, Prince, The Cars, U2, Van Halen, ACDC, Marshall Crenshaw. And who among those brought anything new to the table?
So the decade opened up with post-punk and disco at odds. Over-synthesized pop crap dominated the middle of the decade, and the birth of hip-hop and grunge arrived before the decade was over.

The eighties reminds me now of how good the end of the seventies really was, with the punk and new wave bands revitalizing popular music and at least bringing some emotion into the game. Granted, most of the emotion was anger, but at least somebody cared. And at least disco and punk pushed most of the country-rock out of the way. Although country-rock has made an unfortuanate comeback in the newer "country" music of today, which is mostly just rock balladry learned from those hair bands of the eighties.

In the seventies, everything was happening at once. Sixties artists that hadn't overdosed continued to make some good records, and there were lots of ideas/genres/styles to choose from. Some of the soul music was fabulous, and you certainly can't say that about the eighties. In the nineties things seemed to open back up again, with more styles and genres to choose from, and that seems to continue today.

In fact, the slow death of the major labels is producing music from more artists in more styles today than ever before. It may not be easy to find in a store, but there's everything out there.

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