The 80s are back: This much no one denies. The coasts hate the celebrity president, a Tory woman is prime minister in the U.K., rock music is ridden with synthesizers, neon colors and shoulder pads are in. I rest my case.
But what were the 80s? At one point, I considered the 80s the worst decade in rock music history. One is hard-pressed to think of a rock artist, previously established, who improved, or for that matter broke even, during the 80s. David Bowie put an end to the experimentation with krautrock and Middle Eastern rhythm that had characterized his late-70s period and traded high art for pop success with tracks like “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love.” Bob Dylan, well, went gospel. We all know how that went.
Everyone either caved to the new way of things — the synthesizers, the punchy, hollow beats, the guitar solos that were just a couple of discordant notes — or else faded into irrelevance. The 80s were not kind to anyone — and yet there’s something irreducible about that decade, and I’ve since changed my mind.
New Order, the name of a British post-punk band, is incidentally a good name for what the 80s represented in the world as well as in rock. The 60s had seen a near-breakdown of American society over civil rights and the war in Vietnam. Joan Didion’s essays reflect an almost apocalyptic picture of American life: the breakdown of the family, riots and, over it all, a sense of dread. The 70s, hardly more peaceful, saw the postwar economic boom come to a grinding halt during the OPEC oil crisis of 1973. The old order was dead, the new one not yet born.
In the opinion of a noted historian, Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 because he saw that Americans were demoralized after the loss of Vietnam and a period of economic stagnation. He gave a country that no longer believed in itself something to feel good about. Depending on one’s political orientation, the vision Reagan offered America was either a malicious fiction or a visionary vindication. I take no position on this question.
What is less up for debate is that the civilization of the 80s grew like a pearl around a grain of Reaganite sand. Even over the loud protests of the left and as the slow decay of American manufacturing accelerated and urban crime skyrocketed, an order took shape in America, a sense of equilibrium not seen since the 1950s. In a way, it was like our own miniature Victorian age, replete with aesthetic maximalism, repression and liberation, and roiling urban discontent. This sense of equilibrium is reflected in, among other things, the music of the period.
The 60s and 70s don’t, properly speaking, have a sound per se. Trends in rock music were being constantly reinvented; bands sounded completely different in the second half of 1965 from how they sounded during the first half of the same year — as New Pornographers frontman A.C. Newman recently noted in an interview. It wasn’t until the 80s that sounds solidified. The 80s, start to finish, are instantly recognizable sonically. A strain of 80s-ness pervades almost every genre of popular music during the decade — the only untouched realms being those like hardcore, which hung on, mostly in the United States, loud and unassimilated.
Rock has never been so obviously Janus-faced as in the 80s: On one hand, bands like Journey and Bon Jovi and Toto manufactured kitsch-rock confections, songs as catchy as they are robotic and vaguely horrifying. These bands demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that rock had ceased to be countercultural and had begun to be merely cultural: not a criticism of the age but an unconscious reflection of it.
On the other hand and largely in the U.K., a new generation of bands kept rock counterculture alive as they explored what lay beyond the punk moment — that brief and endlessly productive flowering of the end of the 70s. Labeled rather imprecisely as post-punk, a whole constellation of bands moved in the shadows of the new order, well known to a subculture of fans but only very seldom breaking through to wider renown or a place on the Top 40s. The Cure, Joy Division, Bauhaus and, of course, the Smiths, are only some of the biggest names of this movement. Their music was certainly of the 80s — it was determined by the ruling culture of the Western world — but it was the music of the discontents of that order, the lonely and the miserable.
Of course, the decade in rock was not quite so evenly divided into two; there were artists who straddled the great rift between the unthinking hits and the consciousness of the underground, U2 and Prince being the most obvious examples. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say, though, that the 80s belonged in some very important way to the Smiths before anyone else.
The music itself was unlike anything else, featuring lead singer Morrissey’s maudlin keening, an unpolished production style, and lyrics alternatively literary and darkly suggestive. In an age of rock machismo and maximalism, the Smiths were a band whose frontman was a celibate, anti-monarchist vegetarian, who hinted at homosexuality as often as he expressed distaste for the empty hedonism of the burgeoning LGBT scene. The songs were more often composed one at a time than as album units — in that sense, they fit the instant consumption spirit of the times. Like all great artists, the Smiths were somewhere between epitomizing and opposing the spirit of their time. Morrissey was as British as he was anti-British. On the title track of the Smiths masterpiece “The Queen Is Dead,” he wails of the “pub that saps your body / and the Church, all they want is your money.” Without the Queen, Church and pub, what do the British really have left? A cup of tea?
Their influence was tremendous. As the 80s came to a close and bands like Pixies and My Bloody Valentine marked the transition to the 90s in rock subculture, the Smiths began to be considered pioneers of indie rock. Shoegaze and lo-fi, meanwhile, began to evolve into recognizable contemporary forms as, respectively, dream pop and mainstream indie rock. Meanwhile, as the Berlin Wall fell, the order of the 80s disintegrated with it, as a world now suddenly unplagued by the Cold War became immensely less sure of itself culturally. While good economic feelings persisted through the 90s, a sense of cultural foreboding slowly crept over rock music, and the sound changed from the grunge of the early 90s to the indie rock of the late 90s.
As we think about what it means to be reliving the 80s in pop culture as in politics, it befits us to wonder which version of the 80s we are reliving or wish to relive. “There was more than one Reagan youth,” goes the chorus of a song on Superchunk’s new album “What A Time to Be Alive.” The civilization of the 80s, this seems to say, had at least two sides to it: a conformist-kitsch side and a lonely, independent, hyper-aware side. For Superchunk, it’s very clear which side they’d like the listener to be on, and though much of their new album is a little on the nose, I happen to agree with this sentiment. Though there’s nothing quite as catchy as the blind, deathly kitsch hits of the 80s, if there’s anything to imitate about the 80s it is the unhappy sharpness of the Smiths, the glittering gloom of goth-rock. After all, there’s much to be miserable about in this world, and we had better be aware of it.
Contact Nick Burns at njburns ‘at’ stanford.edu.