America

Music in the 80s Sucked


- July 12th, 2019
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In an excellent essay making the case that pop music was at its zenith in 1984, Julie Kelly writes that the era represented a patriotic swoon. She might also have mentioned that the same year, Lee Greenwood released “God Bless the U.S.A.,” the most patriotic song of the year though it was not, strictly speaking, a pop song.

The year 1984 may have been the high point of pop and rock, but that is not saying much. The entire decade is more notable for the musical malaise it created. As a music director for radio stations during that decade, I should know. It was during the ’80s that radio stations began to tighten their playlists all to the happy applause of corporate music execs. The rapid creativity of the 1970s radio stations died, to be replaced by preplanned and survey-tested radio formats. The most significant of these were the songs stations received from the radio syndication company Drake-Chenault

No longer were program and music directors left to their own knowledge and gut as to what made a hit. They deferred to the “experts.” It was a disaster. The same songs were played and replayed to the point of monotony. Music and then radio began to lose its audience, and the music that was created for just this purpose suffered. In a significant way, it all began to sound the same.

The 1980s represented the creeping destruction of musical creativity. The few shining moments in this decade were achieved by those acts allowed by their corporate producers to test the boundaries of acceptable on-air material—Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” falls into this category. 

Most of the music in the 1980s, however, to put it colloquially, sucked.

It is remarkable that the music execs and radio gods decided to clamp down on creativity at the moment they did. It was only 10 years earlier, in 1974, that a small band signed with about as independent a record label (London) as one could get at the time, and packed Austin stadium with 80,000 of their closest friends. Try doing that without major label backing. ZZ Top did it, though, and they were immensely popular even before their hit song “Tush” and their signing with Warner Brothers. But in the 1970s, as now, the market craved something original, even if it was not audience tested and approved. It worked. 

When the record labels merged and clamped down on musical talent, they froze out the bands that would have carried their creative market into the next decade. Those who wanted to remain a signed act were forced into the company playlist with company producers and company song writers. Many bands before the explosion of the internet and independent labels were sadly never to find broad fame and marketability they deserved because music executives really did not have the expertise they thought they had. 

Case in point was a West Coast band called the Crazy 8s. They packed whatever venue they played in the 1980s. When I was a music director at a radio station, I pleaded with many label reps to sign the band. Every time they told me, “We’d love to, but we do not know how to categorize them.” The Crazy 8s never were signed to a major label, but they inspired their standing-room-only crowds to go wild simply because they were not a cookie cutter band and they offered a unique sound that resonated. They also had the added benefit of being a talented act. In one concert, I remember the college age crowd of the ’80s nearly destroyed the venue upon hearing the immensely popular Johnny Q—a rip on mainstream media before it was cool.

The pressure the industry put on artists in the ’80s led to the present musical explosion we are now witnessing. Suffocated by the music industry’s grip on what was acceptable, bands started to go on their own. The best songs of the ’80s were not created in that decade, but long after. As one astute student told me one day, “Interpol is the ’80s done right.” To that you can add Bloc Party

It was not just pop that stunk in the nostrils of the musicians and smart disc jockeys of the day. Country also suffered from the same stagnation. The slow rolling creation of an entirely new genre (alt-country) that came out of the Byrds (via Gram Parsons and Scott Hillman) would not reach its breakout moment until the 1990s. This is a legacy even the Beatles do not have. The Byrds were the most influential band in American music for what they unleashed and created, but it took time because of the resistance from the major labels that wanted to kill music not created in their hot-house market tested image. The tight grip of elite music producers and writers caused Robbie Fulks to pen this irreverent tune to corporate execs. But he was not the only one who did so

The indie and alt-country movements were born out of the putrification of a decade. When people like Jack White of the White Stripes lent his support behind not only recreating the minimalist sound, but also independent record companies to put the power of music back in the hands of the creators and the fans, new radio stations under the new influence began to fill the void and thousands of fans left the preplanned and predictable sounds of the major labels. 

The 1980s stunted music’s growth. That is why Greta Van Fleet is so popular, and sounds like a band we’ve heard before. They are experimenting with an age that the record companies killed off. Indie saved rock-n-roll and saved us from the 1980s and ’90s. We are all better off for it. 

Photo Credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

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