All you need to know about Laurie Anderson is that she is a very serious art person and her work is intellectually rigorous. You can tell those things because she wears all black and has a lesbian matron haircut. I’ve actually never listened to any of her albums besides this one. Too much intellectual rigor, I guess. Maybe my cutoff point for artistic seriousness is a lot closer to the easily accessible end of the spectrum than I care to admit. However, I do recommend this record. It was an unexpected success in the mainstream-ish music world, and I think it’s actually pretty accessible. It’s weird and ahead of its time, for sure. (And yet also very 80’s, because nothing screams “It’s the 80’s!!!” like a Peter Gabriel cameo.)
Under ‘fun facts I didn’t know about famous albums’, Joe Jackson’s Big World was apparently recorded live, and not just live in the studio, but live as in, in concert. That fact amazes me, because until I perused the Wiki, I never would have guessed. I generally kind of hate live albums. They’re usually really sloppy, heavy on the hits, poorly recorded and used as a cash grab to keep the artist in cocaine and hookers until the next real album comes out. Not to mention that a lot of bands actually kind of suck at playing their own songs, especially some of the late greats who liked to perform while zonked out on a field hospital’s worth of pharmaceuticals, and the live album does nothing but reveal their laziness and lack of skill without the comfort of good studio production. But Joe Jackson, of course, does things his own way, and when he goes to make a live album, he’s armed with the best musicians, an invited audience and an entirely original set of songs. The production quality and sheer musical perfection of Big World belies its origin on the concert stage. It’s so the antithesis of a live record that I’m actually not sure what the point was in the first place. It just sounds perfect. I mean, check out the musicianship in that video.
“Shame on you, you’re having too much fun”
Truly, a cautionary tale. This is from Timbuk 3’s debut album, when their future was, well, you know… One wonders what fun was had that prevented them from staying more aggressively in the spotlight in the following years though. It certainly wasn’t the lack of good material. Probably something to do with not having the personalities for stardom; they even wrote a song about that, called B-Side of Life. I like to think that Timbuk 3 was always just too clever and acerbic for the mainstream. Clearly, Barbara MacDonald’s flow could’ve given Debbie Harry a run for her money, but she didn’t have the hair and legs that sell a million records.
You’ll never take the 80’s emo kid out of me. Doesn’t matter that I’m chronologically a 90’s kid, a Smiths fan is something I decided to become circa 2009, and Morrissey can be as unpleasant an old bat as he wants. The Smiths are still the most authentic music of the decade. Because let’s face it, if you or I were any 80’s rock star, we wouldn’t be any of the cool people selling Pepsi on MTV. We’d be Morrissey, flailing about sadly in an ill-fitting cardigan. The songs that saved your life are the songs that saved your life. They’re the songs that speak to your misery, your dysfunction, your self-aggrandizement and your self-sabotage. We’re all losers who both hate and cling to our shitty personalities, our weird coping mechanisms, and identities as ill-fitting as our cardigans.
Shaking it, if you didn’t know, is a metaphor for sex. You didn’t know that, did you? Yeah. And rock music, even at this late date of 1983, is trying to incite youth to lustfulness, right before your very eyes. David Bowie, whom you’ve never heard of before, may appear to be a very clean and upstanding young man whose hair just naturally looks like that, but he is, in fact, a sexual deviant – like all rock performers – who uses the devil’s jungle music to corrupt your children’s moral fibers. This music promotes fornication and homosexuality… homosexual fornication, even. You want to put a stop to all this gay fornication, but there’s nothing you can do about it, because it’s too late; rock music has become so thoroughly mainstream there’s now a television channel devoted to it, allowing degenerate people like David Bowie to finally infiltrate the American heartland with their entreaties to ‘shake it’ and ‘dance the blues’. Your children are going to move to New York and San Francisco, become homosexuals, cross-dress, fornicate madly, build their own subculture, create great works of music and art and literature, survive the “Gay Plague”, gain political traction, fight for equality, settle down and get married, adopt and raise children, and just generally make the world a better place. And that’s just your sons. Don’t get me started on what your female children are up to. You should have banned MTV when you had the chance.
The only thing you need to know about Soft Cell’s original, banned Sex Dwarf video is that it featured a little person in bondage gear. It was that literal-minded. Of course, in 1981, it was the boobs and leather straps that fanned controversy. What Soft Cell set out to do, and succeeded in doing, was to paint a thinly-veiled picture of the gay underground, with its sleazy clubs and bars, its dark cruising fields, its fearless sexual exploration, and its hunger for real emotion. All gay life being underground life, the key word was ‘thinly-veiled’. Hence, in the videos, glamorous scantily clad women, prominent and ironic. We can view that period now with nostalgia for a bygone era of real authenticity, as everything special and counter-cultural about it becomes fodder for t-shirts. We can also look at is as kind of corny and very very sad, now that everything that used to be in the closet is proudly on parade.
Peaches is best known for a song called Fuck the Pain Away, and for performing in a glue-on mustache and a strap-on dick, so it goes without saying that sex is a favorite topic of hers. I’ve always been of the opinion that her talent for shock value is more interesting than her actual music, but I’m also invested in the idea of music being a vehicle for boundary pushing, big ideas… social change, even. And we’ve often seen that music that effectively does those things is not necessarily the very best music, or made by the most proficient musicians. Peaches may be more of a performance artist than anything else, and she’s confrontational with her image and her ideas. What she’s confronting is vastly complex, but at the most obvious and basic level, her work deals with the images of women and women’s sexuality that we see in the media. It’s the ideal of the pliable, available, eternally open-mouthed sexy girl; and the idea that female sexuality is essentially passive and decorative, an ambiance, pink-hued, warm and moist, always and only there for men to sink themselves into. But here’s this homely broad with frizzy hair and serious Jew-face who likes to get naked and sing about fucking, and she sees sexuality as an imperative, an inward drive, an internalized and subjective experience, an aggressive force, something that men are only incidental to, something they may be on the receiving end of or they may not. This song – a cover of a minor hit by minor 80’s new wave band Berlin – takes a lot of pop song cliches about ‘making love forever’ and Peaches looks the camera dead in the eye when she delivers them. The original song is a duet: female vocalist promises that she is a virgin, a slut, a little girl, a blue moon and a dozen other things. The male vocalist declares that he is a man. Peaches declares that she is all of those things herself. That doesn’t make it a good song, honestly, but it does make it a good piece of performance art. It declares that sexuality itself is performance art; cliched roles may be discussed and subverted by artists and academics, but we still play them in the bedroom with no sense of irony.