Friday Five: 80’s dance

Here’s part 3 of my homage to 80s R&B, my selection of some of the best dance hits of the decade:

5. “Let the Music Play” by Shannon (1983)
Too much 80s here but it’s all the right kind.

4. “Lovergirl” by Teena Marie (1984)
The soulful Teena Marie.

3. “Come Go With Me” by Exposé (1987)
I had a high school, lunchtime conversation once where we debated which member of Exposé was the sexiest.

2. “Don’t You Want Me” by Jody Watley (1987)
Her music had so many of the elements of 80s club tracks that they don’t get played much today. At the foundation, though, they were good beats from a great performer.

1. “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” by Whitney Houston (1987)
This is one of my favorite songs of all-time. My kids have been instructed to play it at my funeral.

Friday Five: 1989

The end of the 1980s was the high point of the reign of hard rock.  After Motley Crue and (especially) Guns N’ Roses, if you had long hair and you were in a guitar band that played L.A. clubs, you just might become a rock star.

The formula was simple: you had to have at least one guitar-driven rock video and one ballad, usually a love song.  Oh, people loved them some big-hair, 80s rock ballads!

So here are five of my favorite rock ballads from 1989…

5. “When I See You Smile” (Bad English)
When Journey broke up, guitarist Neal Schon (who started Journey before Steve Perry and later reformed the band without him) reunited with former Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain and joined forces with vocalist John Waite and bassist Ricky Phillips, two of Cain’s former bandmates from The Babys, one of Cain’s pre-Journey projects. Billed as something of a US-British “super group,” the band had only minimal success, largely due to this hit ballad.

4. “Heaven” (Warrant)
Probably one of the most successful of the second-tier 80s rock bands, Warrant hit it big with their debut album Dirty Filthy Sticking Rich, an endeavor that spawned three MTV hits that crossed over to the radio charts. This ballad was the engine to their album sales. They’d repeat their success with their follow-up album Cherry Pie a year later, and another ballad (“I Saw Red”) before disappearing under the wave that was grunge.

3. “Patience” (Guns N’ Roses)
Guns N’ Roses might have been the most respected of the 80s rock bands.  They were seen as more talented, artistic, and authentic than the MTV manufactured kind. G N’ R Lies––the follow-up to their monumentally successful album Appetite for Destruction––was an acoustic EP (“extended play,” or not quite a full “long play” album) release from the band, a reflection of the way they honed that reputation.  “Patience” was the only release from the album, and so its only hit.  It’s a masterful example of the genre, in some ways because it is so simple.  (It wasn’t the only song to be widely known, however. Among the unreleased tracks was “One In A Million,” a song that featured lead-singer Axl Rose spouting off in a racist and homophobic mini-tirade.)

2. “What It Takes” (Aerosmith)
Aerosmith were kind of the granddads of the 80s rock movement, a 70s rock band that experienced a “second career” starting with the release of their 1986, best-selling album Permanent Vacation. The follow-up, 1988’s Pump, was an even bigger commercial success. “What It Takes” was the album’s final single to be release, barely scrubbing the charts in 1990. As an owner of the album, however, it was on frequent play for me throughout 1989 and 1990. This quickly became my favorite Aerosmith song, mostly for its bluesy rock style, but also for the feeling of playing my cassette and driving with the windows down as I went to meet friends for a night out.  It still sounds like youthful grown-up-ness to me.

1. “Love Song” (Tesla)
Sacramento-based rockers Tesla straddled stardom until their 1989 album The Great Radio Controversy made them into the proverbial “overnight success.” In truth, their love of the blues and Northern California 70s rock really gave them a distinct sound, and secured a reputation of more legitimacy in the hard rock world than if they were “only” a ballad-playing MTV band. That said, they remain forever known by one song––one ballad––one ballad that just might be the king of 80s rock ballads.

For a bonus treat…the song played a memorable role in the band’s acoustic album, Five Man Acoustical Jam. Recorded live in Philadelphia, the song acted as a transition to a short “electric” set. The crowd’s sing-a-long speaks volumes about the song’s popularity.

Friday Five: 1988

This weekend is my 25th high school reunion!!  25 years!!

I can’t be there because I’m in Tampa at a conference, a commitment I made before the date was set.  So what better way to celebrate than a selection of tunes from 1988.

5. “Hands to Heaven” (Breathe)
There were a lot of ballads that topped the charts in 1988. This song, by the British group Breathe, was one of them. My sister once walked in on me singing along to it at the top of my lungs. I was not embarrassed.

4. “Parents Just Don’t Understand” (DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince)
We first met Will Smith back in 1988, but we didn’t know it yet.

3. “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” (Tracy Chapman)
Maybe the best thing musically about 1988 was the self-titled, debut album of Tracy Chapman. It included her hit single “Fast Car“––which remains a favorite song of mine to this day––and this song, the lead-off track on the album. In this video Chapman performs the song at Wembley Stadium as part of the festival concert in June 1988 to commemorate the 70th birthday of Nelson Mandela. Younger audiences should note, Mandela was still imprisoned in 1988, with the support of much of the West.

2. “A Little Respect” (Erasure)
I love this song so much. I have sung along with it, laughed with friends while it played, and gotten as sweaty as a person can get while dancing to it. It is one of my top 20 sons of all-time, solely for the the memories and many meanings it has had for me. A classic. Here’s the original video, along with a 2014 live performance that shows it means a lot to others, too.

1. “Push-It” (Salt-N-Pepa)
It’s more than a catchy tune that can be used for commercials in 2015, and make my kids laugh. Put it in context: In 1988, the idea of women rappers was revolutionary. They were trailblazers. And they did it well.

Friday Five: 1984

Rolling Stone once called 1984 “pop’s greatest year” and, in many ways, it was.

It was a big year for Cyndi Lauper and for Prince. Madonna, who had already become a star, now became a cultural phenomenon. Bruce Springsteen re-emerged to be rediscovered by a whole new generation. And the continuing stardom of Michael Jackson made him into even more of an unreachable star.

The year 1984 was a memorable cultural moment in other ways, too. It was the year of a presidential election, one where Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman to be the VP nominee on a major party’s ticket. The Olympics were in Los Angeles (I got to go to the shooting preliminaries). “The Cosby Show,” “Murder She Wrote,” and “Miami Vice” all premiered on TV. And the movies! The Terminator, Footloose, Splash, The Natural, Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, Gremlins, Red Dawn, The Karate Kid, This Is Spinal Tap, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and, of course, Purple Rain, all came out in 1984.

I could make a list of just Prince, Madonna, and Michael for 1984 (or just 5 songs from each) but, instead, here’s 5 songs that snuck in around them to help make the soundtrack of the times.

5. “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” (Dead or Alive)
Few songs are more memorable in the decade than this dance hit. For that matter, few videos more reflective of the times. As much as the synthetic, rapid beat marked the times, the group was a bunch of New Wave, glammed up, baggy shirt wearing British guys. So 80s.

4. “Wake Me Up (Before You Go-Go)” (Wham!)
I can remember the first few times I heard this breakthrough single from Wham!, the duo of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. There was this peppy beat, harkening back to the 50s and 60s tunes that were the basis of a lot of 80s pop. But what were they saying? We kept listening to the song trying to figure out what they hell they were saying. And then we saw the video, and the next thing you know everybody seemed to be wearing one of those shirts. At some point I stopped caring about figuring out the song. It just was. Everywhere. And we liked it.

3. “People Are People” (Depeche Mode)
I had never heard of Depeche Mode until this song climbed the charts, but it felt like I was the last person to have heard of them when it did. I never really became much of a fan but this song takes me back to my youth like few others. I used to shower every day at 7:00, in my parent’s bathroom, and listen to the Top 40 station’s “7 at 7” countdown of top requests of the day. This song seemed to be there every day, and it seemed to stick around longer than any other.

2. “You Might Think” (The Cars)
Without a doubt, this is one of the most memorable videos of all-time. There’s nothing particularly good about it, at least not to our 21st century eyes, but at the time it seemed to be new, modern, and funny in a techno kind of way. The graphics, in particular, made it stand out, as did the movement of those graphics. It won the “Video of the Year” award at the very first MTV Video Music Awards. Oh yeah, the song was a hit, too, and not without justification.

1. “Take On Me” (A-ha)
Here’s how good 1984 was: this song–by a Swedish group who were an international hit–it simultaneously indicative of the 80s and yet, strangely, timeless. It still feels like a fresh hit to me, after all these years. It’s a beautiful song, hitting vocal notes most people can’t touch, and most of the lyrics are completely unintelligible to the US ear. On top of that, it just might be the best video ever made.

Friday Five: 1982

I bought my first radio/cassette player sometime around 1981, using my own money “earned” by recycling newspapers. (Since my dad was the one who subscribed to, read, and neatly stacked our copy of the LA Times, and since he or my mom were the ones who drove me to the recycling plant across town, it didn’t really do much to get that money.) Around the same time, I joined my first music club, Columbia House, using one of their ads inside of the TV Guide. I got my dozen cassette tapes for 1¢–including albums like Journey’s Captured and Escape; Pac Man Fever by Buckner and Garcia; and The Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat–and then would buy a handful of albums (at full price) over the next year (things like John Cougar’s American Fool.

It was a time of a lot of music exploration for me. I started to hear a lot of stuff I would have never heard if not for the music club and I started to listen to the radio all the time, exploring the diversity of LA radio and, more often, trying to record my favorite songs on blank cassette tapes (my first of which, I still have).

All this is a long-winded introduction to my own personal 1982, but it’s an important part of my musical context. Vital even. When I look at the list of Billboard’s weekly number 1 singles for 1982 I not only know each of those songs, I can remember really liking them at the time. (Only 15 songs reached #1 that year, at the time the smallest number since 1956.) When you’re listening to radio all the time, of course, you’re bound to hear the hits more than anything else. With that box in my hand, those ear phones on my head, I felt like it was my music.

Here’s five songs from that year…

5. “Eye of the Tiger” (Survivor)
The story of this song is interesting enough that it might make any list for this year purely for the pop-cultural-kitsch factor. It’s relationship to the movie Rocky III is also a big part of what made an impression of me. The movie was a big hit (two words–Mr. T!!) but also a big slice of the kind of 80s encapsulated in this song. “Eye of the Tiger” is derivative, indulgent, and intentionally commercial above all else. It should be nothing more than “common” in the final tally. But one of the decade’s best guitar riffs, combined with a group who knew what they were and what they were supposed to do, makes for a rock classic.

4. “Rosanna” (Toto)
Toto doesn’t get a whole lot of respect from mainstream pop culture. If you hear them or their music its usually as some ironic joke. I can understand that. The mainstream sounds of 80s pop were so distinct they can seem a little more dated (and less artistic) than other eras of music. This hit single, which also won the Grammy for Record of the Year, is filled with a lot of those musical markers. But if you dismissed it for all those reasons, you’d be missing out on a song that also has some greatness in it. Drummer Jeff Porcaro’s playing is, perhaps, the best proof of that. His “half-time shuffle” is well-respected in musical circles. Porcaro died really young but recorded with Steely Dan and had a prolific career as a studio musician, in addition to his work as part of Toto.

3. “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” (Culture Club)
Boy George the singer would not enter my consciousness until 1983, when I saw the premiere of Culture Club’s video for “Karma Chameleon” on NBC’s “Friday Night Videos.” My friend and I spent much of the rest of the weekend arguing over whether or not Boy George was a boy or a girl. Ah, the sheltered life of Catholic school boys! I first heard Boy George the voice the year before, with the release of this single from their first album. Without the video, there was nothing but the power, smoothness, and irresistible soul of his voice.

2. “Vacation” (The Go-Go’s)
From the band’s second album of the same name, this single was a huge hit in the summer of 1982. I had a thing for Belinda Carlisle starting around this time. How could you not? The band’s all-female line-up was the main sell in the press and, truth be told, in an era of video it didn’t hurt that they were all so good-looking. But they were also so much more than looks. The Go-Go’s made some excellent music. They’re the epitome of LA music in many ways. Post-punk, New Wave, beach and garage, they remain worth a listen.

1. “Love Plus One” (Haircut 100)
This song never fails to make me both happy and nostalgic. I don’t have specific memories of it, to be honest. It was one of a handful of new Wave hits from the time as well as one of the many one-hit-wonders for the decade. I liked it, but it probably meant less to me than “Pac Man Fever.” But I was a kid. The grown-up me likes it more and more. It does a whole lot of things right, and is catchy as all hell.  I love the soprano sax, too. A nice change from the typical 80’s horns.




Friday Five: Prince

If you read my blog and these posts with any regularity, you will understand my love for the music of the 50s, 60s, and 70s–essentially, the soundtrack of the “baby boom” generation.

But it would be wrong to think that I don’t love the music of my generation, too. I was born in 1972 and came of age in the 1980s. Like all children of the 80s, I adored the holy trinity of Michael Jackson, Prince, and Madonna. I was in high school when hard rock took over MTV and I was in college during the grunge years. I listened to(and liked) both, in addition to other trends that were less mainstream and popular.

Since I get as much out of these posts as anybody else, I thought I should start focusing on the popular music of my childhood as a way to better appreciate some of the good things that can come from mainstream pop when we stop, listen, and think a little.

So let us start with Prince.

My goal with this list is to provide an introduction to Prince and all his greatness in only five songs. If you know anything about him, you know that’s not possible. He is not only a prolific artist, but he’s one with a career now in its fifth decade. (Just writing that makes my head spin.) During that time he has been a cultural phenomenon, a has been, and an artist who has managed to reinvent himself more than once. Simply put, there is more than one Prince.

So let’s narrow it down to the glory years of the 80s. In the ten years from 1980 to 1989, Prince put out nine studio albums. That’s one every year with the exception of 1983. One of those albums is one of the best of all-time, certainly in any Top 20 list. Much of the music on those albums not only dominated the pop charts of that decade, it redefined what those charts sounded like.

So here’s five from the 80s by Prince.

Since Prince’s music is near impossible to find on YouTube, the links here are from Spotify.

“When You Were Mine” (1980)
From the album Dirty Mind, this is a contender for my favorite Prince song ever. Ever. The album is a mighty move forward, a bridge between sexy-soul-funk-club music of the 70s and the decade to come.

“Purple Rain” (1984)
The Purple Rain album was released on June 25, 1984, the soundtrack to the movie of the same name. By the first week of August it was the number one album in the country. It stayed there through the first weeks of the next year. Five of the nine tracks were top 25 hits. Four of them top 10. The title track was recorded from a live performance, with some over-dubbing in the studio after. It’s a masterpiece, pure and simple. Put on the headphones for this one…

“Raspberry Beret” (1985)
Prince’s 1985 album Around the World in a Day was a commercial failure but it spawned two hits despite the fact. Prince wanted the album to be experienced as an album, and so delayed releasing any songs as singles. It’s still worth a listen from start to finish, but if you have to choose one song…

“Sometimes It Snows in April” (1986)
The album Parade was the soundtrack to Prince’s second movie, his 1986 directorial debut Under the Cherry Moon. The movie kind of bombed, though my sister and I saw it soon after it opened. (This was a big deal. I was still 12, and it was rated PG-13, and I was very Catholic.) The album featured the megasuperhit “Kiss,” a song that deserves all the attention it continues to get on radio. But there were some other gems, like “Girls and Boys,” “Mountains,” and this ballad.

“Sign ‘O’ The Times” (1987)
By 1987, Prince had been a cultural phenomenon and best-selling artist as well as a commercial and critical flop in the music and cinematic worlds. He was a mixed commercial bag, but still someone who got attention when he released something new. I can remember the first time I heard this, the title track to his ninth studio album. Memory is an imperfect record, but I remember it being a pre-planned release on KIIS-FM radio. They played it twice in a row, starting at 8:00PM. I remembered that first listen almost every time I heard the song over the next weeks and months.

The song is performed on a synthetic instruments, mainly the now-legendary Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument). Surprisingly, Prince largely used the beats and samples that came with the keyboard, essentially “stock” music riffs. The synthetic additions he makes, along with his deeply memorable lyrics, made this a standout.

Historical Songbook: “Los Hijos de Hernández” (1986)

Los Tigres del Norte are the most famous and accomplished conjunto band in Mexican musical history.

Their own story spans the border between California and Mexico (the group came together in San Jose, CA), and does so while playing norteño music that has a lot of cultural significance for Mexico’s north and the US Southwest (especially Texas). In short, they are emblematic of so much of the transnational character of Mexican American history.

Los Tigres are famous for their style of corridos, a Mexican folk tradition that often communicates the particulars of everyday life of most mexicanos, including their social/political struggles. For Los Tigres, their narco-corridos—songs that detail aspect of the illegal drug industry—are some of their most famous. Hardly confined to the dramas of the drug wars, they are a politically and socially-conscious group for a host of other issues as well.

In 1986, they released a song that demonstrates their both their radical sensibilities and its artistic expression, “Los Hijos de Hernández.” The song tells the story of an encounter at the border between a man and a border agent. Here is a quick translation:

Returning from my land,
and crossing the border,
an officer asks me
to fulfill my duties.
That if I had papers
I have to show to them.

And while he was reviewing them
I heard him murmur
something that made me angry.
That with so many emigrants already
many North Americans
can not work.

I told him very angrily
that which you murmured
has a lot of truth.
Latin Americans,
in the view of many Americans,
have taken away their place.

If we work very hard
and are not “chicken” either,
if life must be risked
in the fields of combat,
they have advanced us
because we know how to fight.

My children were born here,
ignoring the prejudice
and the discrimination
their homeland claimed,
and on the battlefield
they showed heart.

There no one noticed
that the Hernández’s they signed up
were cannon fodder.
Maybe my sons took
the places not filled
by the sons of some Saxon.

If on the payroll
look you in disgust
at my name in Spanish,
you will see on another list,
that upon reviewing, are missing in action.

While this he shouted,
the migrant wept,
and he said with emotion:
you can cross the border
anytime you want.
You have more valor than me.

Though the song is from the 1980s, and about the 1980s, it is also all about the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s. It testifies to the widely-held belief that Chicanos and mexicanos were disproportionately sacrificing their lives for a nation that denied them substantive equality in most other sectors. In this way it is a reflection of the ways the Vietnam War remained such an unsettled event, both for the wider US society as well marginalized communities within that larger whole (like that of Mexican immigrants).

Or maybe its a tale that reflects the hidden ways the US did grapple with the lessons of Vietnam. After Vietnam, the US armed forces were all-volunteer, with the hugely unpopular draft coming to a formal end just before the conclusion of US military involvement in Southeast Asia. Among the many strategies the military would come to employ to assure a ready supply of able-bodied, trained soliders, would be to create new targeting strategies to attract more young men of color.

“Los Hijos de Hernández” reflects the contradictions of this increasingly “brown” army. Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans alike would often be coveted and welcome into the US military while still forbidden entry or effectively marginalized within the US.

“Los Hijos” is a fantastic song in so many ways. Among its more powerful qualities is its desire to voice an experience that is so true, often (and tragically) unifying within the ethnic Mexican community, and yet almost completely absent from the mainstream US imagination. As a snapshot of the mid/late 1980s, the song also unifies the narratives of (im)migration, labor, war, and memory in a very powerful way.

Historical Songbook

I’ve taught a class for the last seven years that focuses on the racial justice movements of the late 50s to the early 70s. We learn a bit about the mainstream Civil Rights Movement but spend much more time on radical movements involving black, Chicano/Latino, Asian American, and Native American youth.

The very first mini-lecture for the class is something I devised about two years before I first taught the class. It’s a short historical exercise based on specific images and a song from the mid-60s. The main objective of the exercise is to frame what I like to call “historical empathy”–the critical practice of viewing the past through the eyes of those who lived it, with the critical understanding that you are destined to fail in that practice.

Music seemed to be a great way to help transport my students into another time and, perhaps at best, to keep them cognizant of the ways they might rush to judge the past by their own present subjectivity. As I tell them, how you think or feel about the political projections of the youth we study are secondary to first grasping how they envisioned and acted on their own “truth.”

And so, I began including a song into most classes, not only as a way to teach historical empathy but also to show them how radical, critical, and utopian understandings of racial justice found expression in the musical arts.

Well, I’ve found myself thinking lately about the kinds of classes I’ll develop and teach for the last 15-20 years of my professional career and, as I do, music seems to be one of the more powerful analytical organizing tools for me. Specifically, I am starting to conceptualize teaching a class based on the 80s and 90s. But there is very little historical scholarship on the recent past. In fact, in many ways, the mainstream narratives of this period remain unwritten. Accordingly, the question of what to teach is really open and filled with critically-creative possibility for me.

(Let me jump in here to say I know it might seem weird to non-academics for me to be thinking about the back end of my career when that “back” is about 25 years away. But in my world it’s not unusual for people to teach certain signature courses for decades. More importantly, historical work is slow and the expectation I have for myself is that I teach courses that align with the kind of historical research/writing I want to do. I have a current research project and another in development, and after that I might only have another two or so major projects left. I would hope to begin teaching courses relating to those other research topics within the next 5-7 years, in the hopes that doing so for some time will help me with those projects. And so, I’m starting to think now about the courses I might teach years from now to help me write about stuff I will write about even more years from now.)

As I start to think about what I would teach in this undeveloped class on a week-by-week basis, music seems to help me identify possibilities. At least maybe it helps provide me a way into those times as a professional historian, as well as a professional nostalgist.

And so I’m going to start something here that I am going to label “Historical Songbook.” These posts will usually involve me writing about one song from the 80s or 90s and using it to make sense of a particular moment, topic, theme.

These aren’t going to be long essays or anything (although, as you can tell from this brief introduction to the project, I can always be wordy). They will be spaces where I can explore some things and maybe even “think out loud.” While my big picture goals are pretty historical and analytical, I’m hoping to be more impressionistic than anything else.

My goal is to also begin to use my blog more regularly, as a space for me to write in non-scholarly and non-authoritative ways. Simply put, to write “me.” But that doesn’t mean non-historical. History is more than my job. It’s my hobby, my intellectual love, and my enjoyment. My thought is that I can share the way I might build a narrative for a time period by riffing off of music, another great love.

I don’t know how many regular readers I have out there these days (hi Steven!) but that doesn’t matter much. I’ve come to realize that what I write here is more for me than for anything else. If my blog is to be anything useful, it has to be a space for me first. Maybe then, in the end, it can at least interest my kids when they want to look back and rediscover their old man from a new angle.

So I hope you enjoy. I’ll try to be pretty regular with these posts and make it my Monday writing warm-up. Of course, the academic life holds few promises other than regular avalanches of “unexpected” work.