Synthesizing the 80’s

The two albums that have been getting a lot of play on my iPod lately are M83’s Saturdays = Youth and the soundtrack to Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, appropriately titled Awesome Record, Great Songs! On the surface level, these albums are pretty different: one is a moody, subtle work of pop-electronica, while the other is…well, it’s a collection of silly songs from a TV show. But they’re both raising a really interesting question for me: what are we going to do about the 80’s?

I mean, yes, in some senses, the 80’s are over. We’re approaching the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the decade, and times have certainly changed since then. Yet the decade of decadence maintains a bizarre hold on our consciousness. The simple example is all the women I still see in Jacksonville with side ponytails and Day-Glo shirts with pictures of kittens. Then there are the ubiquitous 80’s nights at clubs, with the accompanying Flashdance-style ensembles. But there’s also a kind of strange collective memory around the time. It boomed like the mid-to-late-90’s, but it was so much more egregious about that success. Everything that happened was saturated and celebrated.

And even though we acknowledge the excess that defined the whole thing, we’re also oddly rapacious to have the kind of recognition the decade gave us. Especially if we were born as products of its aesthetic, and are now growing up in the aftershocks. I myself come from quality yuppie stock. My parents were high-level corporate executives in blocky power suits. They tried sushi. They bought furniture from Crate and Barrel. They bore children named Alexandra and Mackenzie. Hell, my mom is still hoping that if she just waits long enough, puffy hair and shoulder pads will finally come back. (“My shoulders aren’t broad enough otherwise,” she often notes.) My parents’ truncated record collection, which ends abruptly after 1987, contains a fair share of their 70’s rock/folk favorites, but once you hit 1980, the sound is all smooth jazz and synthesizer. And they didn’t even buy many records at that point in their lives.

For the folks about ten years younger than them, I can only imagine what it must have felt like to come of age then, especially musically. Unless you were a dedicated anachronist or a member of an underground scene, synthesizer was just the way popular music sounded. If you went back to 1985 with your Mr. Fusion and took a poll, they’d tell you that synth was just the direction the history of music had taken, that we’d crossed over into new technology and weren’t planning to go back. (Then, they’d probably play you a few bars of “The Power of Love”.)

Both of the albums in my rotation right now try to deal with this history, albeit in different ways. Saturdays = Youth, as its title implies, is all about nostalgia. Take “Kim & Jessie,” the album’s most compelling track. Its lyrics are sad and nostalgic, about the ephemeral nature of time and teenage escape. Yet the driving synths, the keyboard overlays, and the other 80’s touches add a driving force to the song: it feels tough, resilient, over-the-top at times. It seems to suggest that the memory of the celebratory, decadent 80’s has overwhelmed its moments of vulnerability– a major assertion of David Mitchell’s equally wistful Black Swan Green. At the same time, however, “Kim & Jessie” poignantly suggests why teenagers are so attached to music: it adds sweep and grandeur to the tiny disappointments of their lives.

Awesome Record takes an even more layered route to understanding 80’s nostalgia. I think Tim and Eric’s show has been so reviled by so many people because its essential comedic premise is really, really obscure, to the point of meta. The show is not content to parody 80’s tropes; it wants to parody how people absorbed and used (and frequently mis-used) them, and what a strong hold they still seem to have on the national consciousness.

Consider, for example, the fake song “Come Over,” which appears with literally no context on the show. (Sorry for the link, WordPress is refusing to embed Adult Swim’s video player for some reason.)

So this clip is funny on the level of straight parody of the 80’s, right? It has karaoke, which was big then, and the weird whitewashed images that appeared in karaoke video tracks. But then it adds an extra level, because the adaptation is obviously pretty failed: the song is way too explicit about what “coming over” means, to the point of being gross, and the woman in the video is really old and overweight. Hell, the woman isn’t even singing correctly: it sounds like she’s having a bad run at the local bar, circa 1987 or so.

Or take this one, the most strange of the show’s various “Kid Break” segments.

So the initial 80’s parody is all of those weird PSAs targeted at kids: that’s the silly music, the weird graphics that are done in that “chalkboard” font, the obvious grown-ups in their kiddie outfits. But again, there’s the second layer: like “Come Over,” the song is way more revealing than it should be, to the point of being embarrassing. And when the display shows it was paid for by a government initiative, it’s almost like an over-the-top edition of the “diversity” PSAs of the late 80’s– do people who sit down when they pee really need a champion to keep them from being discriminated against?

The fact that both of these albums are of such recent vintage, but so clearly obsessed with the implications of the 80’s, suggests that the vogue of obsession with that decade is not over (try as VH1 might to burn us all out). Is it nostalgia? Is it embarrassment? Is it a longing for a world in which everyone was kind of a big deal? I guess you could say it’s a mix of all these things, a synthesis of all things synthesizer. Until we’ve really seen it for what it is, however, I wonder if we’ll ever get over it. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Thomas Hardy, you can’t go back to the future again. Unless one of you folks has a flux capacitor handy.

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One response to “Synthesizing the 80’s

  1. In the case of that M83 album, I certainly don’t think it’s embarrassment, and it’s not quite nostalgia — or, it’s a specific kind of nostalgia. At the time, as you said, things just were synthesizer. That aesthetic was so proximate that it was impossible to evaluate, it occupied our entire field of view and blinded us to what it was. In the ’90s, of course, it all seemed too ridiculous, and I think we were all so embarrassed by it that we couldn’t even mock it without feeling insecure. After the turn of the century we became a little more comfortable exploring what the ’80s meant, what role they played in our development. At first it was an ironic fascination, so as to protect us from identifying ourselves too closely with a decade we had spent ten years being embarrassed by; but I think a few years ago we began to see some of the value in a lot of the decade’s aesthetic motifs. I think what we discovered was an innocence and a sincerity that we hadn’t been equipped to notice before.

    So, what we find in those motifs now is not nostalgia, strictly speaking — it’s not an expression of a desire to recapture something from the ’80s, or to wish we could live them again. The pleasure we find in the decade is a kind of reclaiming of something that was never completely ours — we’re finally able to fully own those sounds now that we have acquired an adequate perspective on them. They belong to us more than they did when we lived them first-hand, and they have become tools that we can use freely, without stigma, to elicit with fuller immediacy the emotions they were designed to elicit.

    How reliable is this pattern though? Will the trend continue? Or were the early ’90s the end of Modernism in pop culture? The ’90s and the ’00s weren’t as ostentatious as the ’70s and ’80s, were they? Or is it just to early to see that about them yet? Do people now feel that there’s nothing new under the sun? Or are we just in a lull between fashionably forward-thinking trends? Why aren’t we as fascinated by the future as we used to be? What will happen that will cause us to be fascinated by it again? Do we dread it? In ten years will there be records that unabashedly retread the ground laid by M.C. Hammer, Bobby Brown, Vanilla Ice, Paula Abdul, etc.? If so, will people really embrace them like they did Saturdays = Youth? If not, then what was special about ’80s synth pop that allowed it to be successfully re-explored twenty years later?

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