I’ve discovered that I really like the Alan Parsons Project’s early-80’s synthpop, because it blends right in with today’s synthpop. I mean, I knew who Alan Parsons was, but I never allowed myself to enjoy his music more than a little bit, because it felt like ‘wimpy music’ for a snobby teenager with weird and specific standards of cool. But what comes around comes from somewhere, so they say, and even though not a lot of people would point to Vulture Culture as a seminal work of great import, I guess it was more influential than I thought. It sounds pretty on-point, now that music that sounds like this is widely popular again.
I used to think, as a kid, that this song by Sparks was the height of New Romantic romanticism. The keyboard curlicues are so dramatic, and Russ delivers it with such romantic conviction. It takes a few listens to realize that absolutely none of the words make sense, as if the songwriters had gained a weak grasp of the English language entirely by listening to romantic pop songs. The songwriters are actually American, and what they’ve grasped is that the bar for ‘words that make sense together’ is very low in pop songs, and it’s the delivery and production that people respond to. All the lyrics have to do is deliver a vague sense of the general sentiment. Ah, it’s romance! And dancing! Please, say no more.
In the annals of one-hit-wonders, Rockwell is the ultimate cautionary tale. It proves, for one thing, that a foot in the door and celebrity friends aren’t enough to launch a career. Aspiring singer Kennedy Gordy had the might and power of his father Berry Gordy’s entire Motown empire as his springboard. Imagine having a father with the power to tell Michael Jackson to come sing backup for you, and then finding out that people only bought your record because they thought it was a Michael Jackson song. Maybe Rockwell’s first mistake was taking that overly ambitious stage name, which all too easily became an ironic punchline. Rock well? He does no such thing! Actually, his first mistake was trying to launch a musical career while having very little talent at a record company known for congregating some of the most legendary musical talent of all time. But also it was the dumb name, which made the singer seem like an anonymous hack, a corny guest artist on what’s very obviously a Michael Jackson song. And people still think it’s a Michael Jackson song. It’s on all the Michael Jackson compilations, while Rockwell’s own album isn’t even available on Spotify. The lesson is, don’t try to disguise your own mediocrity by standing next to someone outstanding.
In my ongoing deep-dive into obscure 80’s music, I’ve rediscovered my sweet tooth for prog rock. There’s really something about pop songs that aspire to be orchestral but somehow still sound light and fluffy. So I’ve been digging the Alan Parsons Project, a ‘group’ in name only, who developed a reputation for being nerdy and cerebral but just sound like heavily produced AOR. Which, um, I guess I really enjoy because I wish I was middle aged in the mid-80’s?
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?
I don’t know what jet-setting playboy Sade Adu was trying to write about, but she might as well be describing herself. Sade may not live the life drenched in diamonds and intrigue that her music implies, but we don’t know that. That’s what makes her so smooth. Sade’s career started in the 80’s and survived the cultural shifts of that decade and beyond. She breezed through the years when Madonna made it fashionable for female performers to reveal every inch of their bodies, then the decades when confessional singers like Sinead O’Connor made it seem necessary to reveal the deepest traumas. Sade did never did either. She revealed very little of herself, except her impeccable style. She has managed to keep herself in the public imagination for decades while keeping her private life private and making relatively little music. Her releases may be spaced far apart, but her music is trend-proof. Mystery and sophistication are in short supply, and Sade has been a main supplier, if stingy. That stinginess, though, is part of the appeal, part of the legacy. Sade shows how it’s possible to have a commercially viable and acclaimed artistic career without bending to what anyone else wants. Whether that may be musical trendiness, physical or emotional nudity, or just more and more albums, she’s not obligated to provide. She provides what she wants on her own schedule. That’s what makes her so smooth.
It’s a near certainly that none of the people who rhapsodize about the wholesome superiority of small town life ever had to deal with being the only gay kid in a 50-mile radius. No who waxes sentimental about living in an environment where everyone knows all their neighbors ever dealt with being made a pariah by their own community. No one who has been taunted and made to live in fear by people they’ve known from childhood would be willfully naive enough to make a celebration of being geographically isolated and socially insular. Frankly, people who uncritically hold small town living up as being somehow inherently more wholesome make me sick. Sure, I grew up in a small town myself, and yeah, leaving your car and your front door unlocked is pretty great. But I didn’t have to be the gay kid going to a high school full of gun-loving hillbillies. I wasn’t the kid who had a mental breakdown and made suicide attempts. I didn’t have family members who did fucked up shit and went to jail for it. I wasn’t involved in any scandals or tragic accidents. I didn’t leave school to have a baby. I didn’t do, or fall victim to, any of the thousands of things that, in a small town, will get you labeled – forever – an outsider, an unwanted person, a object of derision, a designated victim. Things that, in any place with any degree of anonymity and freedom, a person can quietly move on from will stick to you for the rest of your life in a small town. You can’t even go have a drink with a person without everyone you know knowing about it. Forget the freedom to make, and not be defined by, mistakes. The implied violence of conformity is what allows small towns to feel safe, on the surface. To reiterate, there’s only one good thing about a small town: the feeling of leaving it the fuck behind.