April 10, 2009

1984 Revisited

As popular culture has accelerated at an astonishing pace, thanks in large part to the devices that have helped to define it, I've been thinking about how the music industry had also changed. Our relationship with music has also changed, perhaps irrevocably so. Not that long ago we queued up to purchase albums or casette tapes when an album was released. There was a sense of a release being a sort of mini event, and bands and labels pretty much had control over the flow of the process. 

More importantly, while hits have always been important to a band's success, labels gave bands time to grow their audiences through touring and the support of A&R staff, who also developed strong relationships with the most influential radio DJs across the country.  All this apparatus has been profoundly shaken up with the advent of digital delivery of music. Albums/records have quickly lost their preeminence in favour of singles, and bands unable to deliver quick wins through singles are dropped off the talent treadmill. 

When U2 was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Bono said that the way the industry is comprised now, U2 would have likely never made it as a band as the entire support structure for nurturing talent is quickly vanishing. It might be hard to accept Bono at face value given that U2 have sold around 145 million records, but bear in mind that U2's first  #1 hit was not until their fifth album in 1987.  Just try and imagine a label allowing any new band up to five albums to get a hit. It just would not happen. 

The other causualty of the Billboard obsessed music industry is that music has become just another consumable good. Somewhere along the way music became fast food. Songs are heralded and then almost instantly forgotten, as consumers look for the next fad or hit. The recording artists suffer as labels are becoming just as finicky. No wonder so many are going independent, although this is mighty risky for a young artist or group.  There are only a handful of songs or recording artists that emerged wthin the last decade that will be celebrated in 25 years, or that truly influenced or changed popular culture. Maybe even less.

The problem with consumer culture is that we devalue the products we consume through our very consumption of them. The visceral experience of going to get a release, opening up the liner notes, smelling the packaging and taking in the cover art, is a dying aesthetic undertaking. Songs are written and ordered on a record to create a whole greater than the sum of parts. It would be like judging books by printing random chapters before the whole book is released. 

All this to saythat when we've already thrown aside the lastest hits from a Beyonce, Lady Ga Ga or Nickelback, we're constantly on the look for another hit, another buzz, another instant gratification. We are no longer savouring a piece of music and we tend to think that last week's hit song or band is, well, so last week. But as do people, artists mature and grow and learn. It's not merely nostalgia to appreciate music that might have some moss growing on it. You might be surprised in the genuine aural pleasure of listening to long-forgotten and discarded songs.

So in this spirit, I thought I would partake in what I call the 25-year test and take a look back at the best music of 1984. I tend to concentrate on arists and bands that I believe I will want to listen to in 25 years. It's heartening to be on YouTube and read the comments of youth who were just toddlers when these songs came out and who are surprised at how good the music is and how not only relevant it is but also how well it holds up and can be incorporated into their current lives. 

Yes, yes, there has always been bubble gum throwaway music and, yes, the 1980s had a great deal of utter crap but I read a provocative article recently that argued quite convincingly that the music of the 1980s was far more influential than, as the author claimed, the over-rated music of the 1960s.  What, heresy you say?  Perhaps, but open your mind a little and think about the influence of the New Wave. In any case, enjoy this return to some of the best songs of 1984; songs that actually defined genres, and made a real impact;  songs that hold their own to the menues on the iPods of generation Millenial:

"What's Love Gotta Do with It" (Tina Turner)
"Jump" (Van Halen)
"Like a Virgin" (Madonna)   
"Pride" (U2)
"Girls Just Want to Have Fun" (Cyndi Lauper)
"The Reflex" (Duran Duran)
"Here Comes the Rain Again" (Eurythmics)
"Purple Rain" (Prince)
"Wrapped Around Your Finger" (The Police)
"Got a Hold on Me" (Fleetwood Mac)
"Dancing in the Dark" (Bruce Springsteen)
"Hold me Now (Thompson Twins)
"Footloose" (Kenny Loggins)
"Karma Chameleon" (Culture Club)

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