The Promise

Who remembers this song? You may have slow danced to it at your prom, if you were still in high school in the late 80’s, or you may have seen the dance floor grind to a halt when someone requested it at 80’s Nite. Either way, it’s kind of the nadir of 80’s one hit wonders. When In Rome were barely a band back when they were a band, and now the most interesting thing about them is that all three former members are embroiled in lawsuits and counter- lawsuits over who has legal ownership of their name. Because if you had a hit record for a few weeks in 1987, you need every recourse to continue making money from it decades later. In short, it’s a terrible song from a terrible band and you’d never imagine that it could be anything but a terrible footnote in the history of terrible music. Enter Sturgill Simpson. Who is this man with a golden voice who takes a nugget of pure dreck and finds the heartfelt ballad inside? Simpson named his breakout album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, and that itself is a good introduction to the artist. The idea is that the country music is neither dead nor hostage to flag-waving imbeciles; in the hands of a master, it’s alive and as relevant as anything else out there and it can support whatever ideas you want it to, be it the joy of psychedelic drugs or the joy of mining good songs out of bad production.

 

Progress

Russell and Ron Mael really, really enjoyed the 1980’s. When mindlessly chipper pop songs composed of nothing but pre-programmed electronic boops became the norm, it was  like a goldmine for the brothers’ satire. It also freed them up from pretending that Sparks were ever anything but a duo. Ron was the sardonic mastermind behind the keyboard and Russ was his manic foil. They got so good at doing impressions of the crappy pop stars all around them that at one point Paul McCartney did an impression of them. (See Coming Up video.) The garish design, the bad fashion, the cocaine-fueled optimism, all of the tropes of 80’s pop are so ripe with comic potential. You can hear all of the hot trends of circa 1984 on Sparks’ classic album Pulling Rabbits Out of A Hat. It’s basically a walk through everything neon-colored and stupid on the Top 40, and it’s one of the best albums of the decade.

Private Life

You can feel sorry for anyone who gets on the bad side of Grace Jones. She seems like someone who suffers no fools, especially the male kind. She’s a goddess who puts weak mortals in their place with one withering glance. And this is the ultimate withering put-down song, taking aim at the specific narcissism found in entertainment types. The types who can’t tell where the spotlight ends, the types who confuse their own mediocre selves with the characters they play for the public. Those are the one who need to get shot down hardest. Who better to do that than a woman who’s rubbed shoulders with the glitziest glitterati from Warhol’s New York to Saint Laurent’s Paris? Of course, to give credit where no one remembers to, the song was actually written by Chrissie Hynde, who has rubbed shoulders with plenty of friends in low places herself. But Grace Jones has walked away with songs belonging to the likes of Piaf; Chrissie Hynde had no choice but to accept second best.

Private Idaho

I think it says everything about The B-52’s aesthetic that they performed on television with duct tape on their instruments (you can see a clear close up of Ricky Wilson’s mended guitar near the end of the video below.) They didn’t mind looking trashy like that because trash was their thing; fright wigs, thrift store dresses, the dregs of 1960’s pop culture. And most important to their success, total joy. They were really a tall cold drink of loopy juice at a time when most bands took their posturing very seriously. Rock star posturing is fun, though! Camp is fun! Wigs are fun! Inspiring edgy movies about male prostitutes with mommy issues is fun! Ok, you lost me at Gus Van Sant, but whatever, it’s all in fun.

Private Dancer

Tina Turner owns one of the great reinvention stories in rock music. She’s one of the few 60’s rock stars who managed to turn the 80’s into her decade. In the 60’s Turner performed with her husband Ike, who was a brilliant musician but a piece of shit human being. Turner was then mainly known for her raw and sexual performance style. She was way, way sexier than the buttoned-up ladies churned out by the Motown machine and never quite enjoyed the same degree of mainstream success. But it’s the Tina Turner of the 80’s, with the insane feathered wigs and huge-shouldered dresses, that most of us know best; she’s one of the great divas of the era. It doesn’t overshadow the fact that she was already a legend in the 60’s; her preexisting legacy just makes her later success more meaningful. It is obviously a very appealing story arc, as Hollywood didn’t fail to notice; woman leaves an abusive marriage, establishes herself as an artist in her own right and becomes more successful than ever before, while the former husband sinks into obscurity. The vindication of Turner’s success as a solo artist is strongly felt both in her work and her presentation of herself as a strong, street-wise woman. Of course, the context of her life also gives her work a great degree of pathos. Songs like Private Dancer and What’s Love Got to Do With It? are good songs without any context and the emotion of Turner’s performance needs no explanation. But the knowledge that she sang those songs after leaving a husband who beat her, burned her with cigarettes and forced her to perform when she was so sick she’d been hospitalized…well, that gives a whole new meaning to a song about being a whore who dances for money.

The Price You Pay

Here’s another excruciatingly bleak Bruce Springsteen song. Life’s a journey, says Springsteen, using the well-worn metaphor of driving all night. However, Springsteen’s open road isn’t a highway of infinite opportunities, it’s a road paved with regrets and the miles stretching out behind you weigh more heavily than any promise that might lie ahead. No life choice goes unpunished, he seems to be saying. You can run away from your demons or towards them, be good or be bad, but you’re still facing the same dark neverending highway.

Boy, Bruce Springsteen sure needs to lighten up.

Pretty Girls Make Graves

The Smiths are one of those groups that take you into their headspace, and you’d better be prepared for it. In Morrissey’s world even innocuous things like going to the beach are heavy with  existential malaise. Morrissey has become almost entirely campy now, but he was serious as a tombstone when he first pined his way into the hearts and minds of the alienated and sexually confused. Shockingly enough, not everyone recognizes themselves in the fantasies of the Top 40, and the 80’s were particularly escapist and divorced from reality in that regard. Songs about people whose main priorities are sex and partying may not say anything relevant to you about your life, not when you’re the kind of person who doesn’t get invited to parties and can barely interact with another person for five minutes. If you’re the kind of person who for the life of you can’t understand how other people manage to form and maintain attachments, how they even manage to find, let alone follow, the prescribed path through life, then the Smiths are for you.