As with any time period, there is popular music of the 1980s that stands the test of time, and music that really doesn’t. I often find myself fascinated by the music of my youth that doesn’t, not because I want to make an argument that it’s really good, but because I’m more interested in why it wasn’t.
That doesn’t mean that all music that fades away is bad, not at all. But there is a commercial reality to popular music where companies can “manufacture” music and then saturate the market with that certain sound until we’re sick of it. Any artistry of these musicians is taken over by that manufactured quality to their sound, their look, and the way they’re everywhere one minute, and nowhere the next.
My hunch is that the 80s was the dawn of a new day in the corporate music world. Lessons of the past coalesced into some sort of new global corporate structures and strategies, aided by music videos, that made the whole thing a little “more” than it was before. Add to that a sound that often incorporated the synthetic and technical, and I think the 80s becomes something of a low point, in a lot of people’s minds, of “good” music and a high point in corporate control.
There’s a lot of things about popular music in 1985 that make me feel like that, too. I don’t begrudge Phil Collins (“Sussudio” and “One More Night”) any of his success (the man was HUGE), but I also don’t respect his music much. In retrospect, he feels like a skilled navigator of the industry more often than he sounded like a “musical artist” (whatever that is). Tear for Fears (“Shout!” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”) and Huey Lewis and the News (“Power of Love”) or even a Paul Young (“Everytime You Go Away”) can take me back, in a good way, but there’s not a lot of love for me in that music when I hear it. It’s kind of like the Energizer bunny to me–it’s alive but not really.
I don’t mean to say these people are not skilled. I’m sure they took their music seriously, too. I know bands like Huey Lewis and the News busted their asses to get to where they were. I also know they brought a lot of joy to millions of people. Millions. And that means something.
At the same time, it’s no coincidence that “college radio” music like REM and U2 had such loyal, young fans in this era. “Alternative” music was an alternative, in part, to manufactured, commercial pop. “Weird Al” Yankovic had a career in the 80s because of the ironic way he could play with that.
So let me try to walk the line and make a list of “popular” songs from the year that are also good, despite being popular, in both the best and worst ways. Indicative of commercial aspect to this, 3 of these 5 songs were featured in major motion pictures that year and part of those movies’ soundtracks. Another was from an artist who benefitted from a choreographed corporate push. One is ironic as it confronts that world of corporatized music.
It goes without saying that this is TOTALLY subjective. In the end it really says more about me than about the music, of course, but here it goes anyway…
5. “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” (Simple Minds)
There might not be more 80’s song tied to a more 80’s movie than this, the musical meat to John Hughe’s Breakfast Club. For people like me, who weren’t old enough to see the R-rated movie until years later, the song was still familiar territory.
4. “Crazy for You” (Madonna)
There is talent in Madonna, and talent in the production of her music. But you can’t talk about her without considering the commercial atmosphere within which she became such a cultural icon. She was already riding the wave of her 1984 album Like a Virgin when this song, featured in the movie Vision Quest–yet another 80s movie mostly about a teen age boy and sex–topped the charts.
3. “Dead Man’s Party” (Oingo Boingo)
Oingo Boingo is probably the least commercial of this week’s offerings. They were a well-known band in LA by this time, and their mix of new wave, ska, and rock made them known among the college radio crowd, too. This song–from the Rodney Dangerfield movie Back to School–certainly made them bigger than before. Lead mad Danny Elfman would, of course, go on to healthy career in movie music.
2. “Saving All My Love for You” (Whitney Houston)
Whitney Houston’s debut album was critically-praised and a phenomenal commercial hit. This, the second single from the album and her first #1 single overall (Houston remains the only artist in history to have 7 consecutive #1 singles, beginning with “Saving”), is a solid showcase of her talent, as well as the effective way she was marketed. In September 1985 she sang it on the Ricky Schroeder TV sitcom “Silver Spoons,” where she guest starred as an emerging singer (of course). It was one of those tie-ins that was so common in the earlier days of TV.
1. “Money for Nothing” (Dire Straits)
This song and its video are indelibly part of the MTV, 1980s generation. What I don’t think people “got” at the time (at least not widely, in the US), was the ironic way the band was commenting on the MTV generation. That they should also come to rule that station’s airtime with the same song is, in itself, so Gen X. (Dire Strait’s 1985 album Brothers in Arms also gave us another legendary 80s cultural moment worth watching.)