How the music of the 1980’s define the way we listen
Published: Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 22:10
According to the informal study I conducted in Buckley Dining Hall, nobody likes 80’s music. To be fair, the 80’s were not the best time for a lot of things. Neon colors, high school clichés, the Democratic Party and hairstyles in general took a pretty severe beating in that decade. However, in terms of music, the 80’s were an incredibly interesting and diverse time that doesn’t get the credit it deserves.
As it is with any decade, mainstream icons such as Madonna, Bon Jovi, Styx etc., are, for better or for worse, well remembered. Anyone with ears would agree that in terms of pop music, the 80’s doesn’t have much to say for itself, but neither does any other decade since then. Current pop music is at best mimicry and regurgitation of 80’s pop and at worst an abominable perversion of it. Cyndi Lauper was the 80s independent party girl. Her 2000’s counterpart Ke$ha is just a train wreck. Lady Gaga’s trademarks of synthy production, edgy lyrics and habit of never wearing actual clothes are taken straight from Madonna’s playbook.
Standouts such as The Cure and The Beastie Boys are still well known and loved, but the general consensus seems to be that they don’t outweigh the offences of hair metal and dance pop. Regardless of your feelings towards pop music (it has been alleged that some people actually like it), it’s hard to argue that it was worse in the 80’s than it is now.
The 80’s wasn’t all Journey and Whitesnake either. The underground movement that took hold in the 80’s laid the foundation for what music is today. After watching the first generation of punk get picked up and destroyed by major labels, punk went back underground and spent the next decade developing into the diverse, artistic genre that the 90’s helped to rediscover.
Small independent labels sprang up to support niche groups. Commercial success was viewed as an anathema and bands were proud to do everything themselves. Since there was no motivation to appeal to a wide audience, there was a lot of creative freedom. Labels such as SST of Los Angeles, Dischord Records of Washington DC, Homestead Records of New York and No Idea Records of Gainesville, FL had almost no success in the music industry’s traditional terms, but were able to foster ideas that musicians would continuously employ for the next twenty years. The bands they signed, such as Sonic Youth, Black Flag, The Replacements, Big Black, The Pixies and Fugazi set the standard for creative, innovative music in the decades to come.
There were independent labels long before the 80’s, but none of them had the impact that the 80’s formula had. When mainstream music rediscovered punk in the early 90’s, a new precedent was set for the way bands and labels would work. It was cool to be less commercial and be on an independent label (or at least it was cool to pretend you enjoyed making less money). Today it’s perfectly common for artists to self-produce, demand more control over their work, or start their own record labels. In fact, one of the most notable trends in music over the last ten years has been the push away from major labels. The Internet has made it easier for more bands to be successful without “selling out,” but it certainly didn’t invent the idea. The ethos of being strictly DIY, championing your principles and appealing to a small subgenre are distinctly inherited from the 80s. The “revolutionary” ideas of this decade have been around for over 30 years.
Within and beyond the underground scene, the 80’s were a time of unparalleled diversity and innovation in music. There were so few trends or qualifiers that can be applied to every genre-something different was going on everywhere. The Smiths, Madonna, Bad Brains and Michael Jackson were all huge in their respective scenes and have almost nothing in common – except that they’re all straight up 80’s.
It was a decade when both Robert Smith and Bruce Springsteen could be heartthrobs. Judas Priest, Duran Duran and Talking Heads were all mainstream. Bands with radically different musical interests such as The Flat Duo Jets and Bauhaus could all be sustained by underground scenes.
The 80’s was the decade in which music finally came to terms with its place in pop culture. Rock and roll wasn’t a commercial product and it wasn’t the gospel. It was art. The notion of it that formed then is largely the way we view it now.