THE DAY THE WORLD TURNED DAY-GLO: Why is ’80s music just better?

I mean, look: I could listen to Nirvana all day long. Their “Unplugged” album is fantastic. But that’s not the point. The ’90s top-40 is pathetic. There are brilliant bands (Huggy Bear, PJ Harvey, obviously my lady Cat Power) but there aren’t one-hit wonders. And one-hit wonders (a.k.a., the zeitgeist) practically define ’80s music. “Mexican Radio”; “Land Down Under”; “Safety Dance”; “Karma Chameleon” (on the CD player just now); “Sunglasses at Night.” So stupid–yet so good! Why did it all go so right?

My disorganized theories: ’80s music is defiantly nouveau riche. And it doesn’t want to look needy. Topics with potential for angst (“99 Luftballons,” “Der Kommissar,” and, in fact, “Mexican Radio”) are instead drenched in synth-glamour. “The Metro.” “Video Killed the Radio Star.” There’s no percentage in being angsty for its own sake. You’re supposed to be glossy and neon and futuristic and fun. You’re supposed to be, if not Morning in America, at least Happy Hour in America. It’s a weirdly alienated style: In trying to use the music to de-emphasize the alienation in the lyrics (“Cruel Summer”) (“Who Can It Be Now?”) (“One Night in Bangkok”) it ends up conveying alienation much more effectively.

Other theories are more than welcome. Spin me right round, baby, right round.

About Eve Tushnet

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