You know that something has failed in the world when songs written in 1980 resound exactly the same as they did back then. You’re supposed to look back on pop culture from 39 years ago like transmissions from an alien planet. And, of course, most of the cultural dreck from the 1980’s does look and sound weird and exotic. Except, ironically, the most politically charged material. If you didn’t know that The Clash were a band that flourished between the years of 1976 and 1986, you would think they were a fresh batch of angry kids agitating about the instability of the world. (Complete with a shoutout about the dangers of “Kissing the microchip circuits.”) It appears that the fashion trends of indolent teenagers change a lot more over the course of time than basic institutional problems like violence and inequality.
Someone told me recently that I needed to learn more about goth music. He said it in a way that implied that I had wimped out somehow. Sorry I’m not the smol goth gf of your dreams. I only know 80’s musical subcultures as a tourist. I’m too young to remember a time when gothness wasn’t something you could purchase in a starter pack at the mall. But am I intrigued by people who like to fester and smoke aggressively while wearing black? As fuck. I’m about halfway to having the angst and the aesthetic to fit right in, except that I’ve never smoked. Anyway, here’s Sisters of Mercy.
Sometimes a new discovery isn’t new at all. Who remembers Jody Watley? I sure didn’t, but I guess I do now. She had a series of big hits in the late 80’s, and then, presumably because New Jack Swing went out of style, continued recording with a much lower profile. Obviously, I don’t know very much about 80’s funk music, so there’s a lot of artists who had major moments of fame who I’ve barely heard of. Also, in the 80’s, there was still a fair amount of market segregation, so that artists who enjoyed great success with black audiences didn’t necessarily become well known in the white-dominated mainstream. That means that Jody Watley may be one of the most successful dance music artists of all time, and one of the most successful black women singers, but in her day ‘dance music’ was code for the gay nightclub demographic, funk and R’n’B were for black audiences, and female singers were considered bubblegum. Does that mean that Watley was unfairly overlooked and deserves to be taken much more seriously? Probably not. Her music was pretty unambitious pop-funk, but it does offer a refreshing alternative to the same old handful of generic white-girl pop hits that we’ve come to associate with the decade.
Never before have I featured Rod Stewart. I decided many years ago that I didn’t like him, for no better reason than his face bothers me. I mean, look at it! I don’t like his face and I don’t like his voice. Yet, this song, plaintive and corny, gets stuck in my head. I relate to the sentiment, of course, as the singer feels sorry for himself for not having what other guys have. Don’t we all, though?
Suzanne Vega does not write about ordinary things the way ordinary songwriters do. That is, she certainly writes about ordinary things. She writes, as most people do, about her interior life, about love, and about the human condition. It’s what she has to say about those things that makes her, in my mind, one of the greatest songwriters. It’s a unique poetic perspective to view solitude not as a purgatory or some kind of punishment for romantic failure, but literally as a friend who takes your hand. (It is also, like quite a few of her songs, a little bit gay.) It’s the unglamorous truth that for writers and artists, solitude very much is their best friend, more compelling and rewarding than any romance. It’s what makes creative types so unrewarding as romantic partners. But the condition of being alone isn’t usually made the subject, maybe because it’s essentially boring, maybe because exploring it would reveal the artist’s essential selfishness. I’ve come to realize that, as a lifelong fan, it’s very much what I relate to in Suzanne Vega’s writing, the way that so many of her songs are explorations of solitary experiences. The observations made sitting in a cafe or wandering around an outdoor market, the feeling of lying alone in a dark room, the cleansing ceremony of cutting one’s own hair, the act of writing itself. Those are all ordinary things, made interesting by the sensitive and inquisitive mind of a writer whose greatest subject is her own interiority.
This plea for solidarity came out in 1983 and we’re no closer to it 36 years later. Black Uhuru makes a pretty convincing case, laying out the universal basics of our shared needs. Our underlying common grounds should be self-evident, so evident it shouldn’t take even a reggae song to lay out the obvious. Everyone wants the same things, fundamentally. We just can’t seem to get around the mentality that getting those things needs to come at the expense of other people having those same things. Keeping your children warm and your family protected should not take away from warmth and safety of anyone else, and yet violent tribalism outweighs both empathy and common sense. If people insist on behaving like feral dogs fighting over the last scraps of garbage in a time of plenitude, it’s chilling to think of what will happen when resources become scarce. The concept of solidarity remains an abstraction, an ideal to talk about from the solitude of our individual corners, a hippie pipe dream – anything except a real call to action – when it needs to be a philosophy for day-to-day living. It’s something we should all think deeply about and internalize, but instead we’re spinning out into nihilism and despair.
I miss old-school guitar rock culture. It was a simpler time when the main arbiter of quality and relevance was whether or not something ‘rocked’. Okay, that’s actually a pretty one-dimensional means of measuring quality, and let’s not ignore the fact that guitar rock culture was mostly the mindless lionizing of mediocre white dudes’ pretensions. But let’s not throw out the baby, as they say. The simple pleasure of rocking out has become undervalued. How have we come to this? Is it purely reactionary? We may be tired of elevating guitar players to god-like status, but there’s no reason not to go on elevating the music. Rocking is, after all, the cornerstone of all popular music, no matter how far it has strayed from 12-bar blues. And it will, like all things, come around again.