Reader Request Week #6: 80s Pop Music
Lis Riba asks:
So, why is the pop music from the early 1980s just so damn good?
It’s not. Or more accurately, it is neither quantitively nor qualitively better than pop music from any other particular music era one might choose to think of. However, at the moment it has the advantage of being the music that the currently emerging crop of culture tastemakers, in their late 30s to mid 40s, were listening to when they started caring what music they were listening to. So we hear a lot of it in the background of movies and TV shows, on what passes for broadcast radio these days, and see it snarkily/ironically/reverentially referenced in the media on lots of different levels. Just as, say, those of us who were teenagers in the 80s heard a whole goddamn lot of late 60s/early 70s music in those same positions back in the day. Twenty years from now, we’ll be hearing lots of millennial pop jammed into the same position, so get ready for a whole lot of N*Sync references come 2029, folks. I know, I know. I’m scared too.
That said, I certainly like early 80s pop music. And in fact, I like both major streams of it — the American melodic AOR stream, typified by bands like Journey and REO Speedwagon, and the British synthpop stream, typified by Duran Duran and all the other bands that hit it big because MTV started and these Britpop bands were the only ones that already had videos (Gen-Xers, insert your “I remember when MTV showed videos” comment here). And let’s not forget the SoCal sound, typified by IRS Records and KROQ, or the Minneapolis sound, a wholly owned subsidiary of Prince (with the Replacements tossed in for the funkless). And towering above it all, in a way not yet creepy: Michael Jackson. Really, what’s not to like about any of it?
I love it all, but then I would, because I was in my tweens and early teens when this all went down, and that’s when we really love our music, because that’s when we start to pick our music for ourselves, and we don’t know enough to realize that none of it stands in a continuum of pop music that began before we were born and will continue long after we’re dead, so it’s towering and special and perfect. Later on we learn it’s just part of a whole river of ever-receding stuff that was once popular, but of course we don’t care. You never forget your first love. I mean, I no longer believe that Journey Escape is my all-time favorite album, any more than I believe that Karin, the girl I had a crush on in the eighth grade, is totally the woman for me. It doesn’t mean I don’t still think fondly of both.
The way to most accurately judge the quality of a pop music era, in my opinion, is not by the stuff universally acknowledged as the high points of era, but by all the other stuff that happened to be popular too, and whether it’s better or worse than the average pop song of any other era one might think of. Ask yourself: was Howard Jones‘ output any better (or worse) than that of Herman’s Hermits, or that of Good Charlotte? Each of them were more or less equally popular in their eras, twenty years apart (actually, of the three, Herman’s Hermits probably cast the largest cultural shadow at the time); who wants to argue that “Things Can Only Get Better” is manifestly superior or inferior to “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” or “I Just Wanna Live“? I personally find it difficult to do; they are all perfectly cromulent examples of the music of their era, the sort of music that becomes the mix-n-match filler of those “SUPER HITS OF THE XXs” compilations that get squirted out after the fact. When you look at neither the high points nor the low points of a pop era, but rather the stuff right smack dab in the middle, you see that it’s all about equal in the end.
So, sorry, Lis. Early 80s music actually isn’t just so damn good. But at least it’s not just so damn bad.