Monday, January 28, 2013

The Guardian, December 28th 1989

by Simon Reynolds

For many, the Eighties was the decade when pop finally grew up. Demographically, the decade saw the twilight of the Teen Age, with the rise of the 24-35 age group as the music industry's principal market. But the decade also saw a concerted and conscious effort on the part of a new breed of pop artists to distance themselves from rock'n'roll's original driving impulses: irresponsibility, narcissism, a spendthrift attitude to time and self. The luminaries of the new 'progressive pop' were determined that something good should finally come out of pop.

This Eighties pop meritocracy (Sting, Eurythmics, Tears For Fears, George Michael, U2) was determined not to repeat the glaring abuses of the pre-1976 rock aristocracy. From punk, they had learned the importance of control, learned how to say "no" : to manipulative record companies and managers, to the ruinous lure of drugs. In the Eighties, pop was no longer an arena for dissolute playboys, for the shooting star who burned out after a brief burst of glory. Eighties pop
stars planned their careers, invested their earnings prudently, spread their assets by branching out into production or other media. Above all, they paced themselves, aimed for longevity.

And like other successful capitalists, eventually they looked to legitimise their ascendancy, with acts of altruism and philanthropy. Live Aid signalled the triumph of this new consciousness (idealism married to pragmatism). In its wake trailed a seemingly interminable procession of less spectacular charity iniatives, dwindling down to this year's unsuccessful Spirit Of The Forest record in aid of the Amazonian jungle (which sold only 4,000 copies).

For the more daring, the new selflessness took the form of political alignment: benefit concerts (for the striking Miners, Mandela, AIDS research), or Red Wedge. The latter was an attempt to forge a Socialist pop culture, where certain consumer choices were deemed to have a natural fit with certain political values. Paul Weller of the Style Council typified this mentality. He looked back to the early Seventies protest soul of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye as a model for his agit-pop, and was widely imitated by the likes of The Christians, Blow Monkeys, and Simply Red. In the Eighties, soul became the voice of the new spirit of care and concern.

But behind this spirit of passionate compassion lay something rather less noble: a shame about pop, about being involved in something so "obviously" trivial. What resulted was a pop adult-erated by the Left's longstanding ulterior attitude to culture and pleasure (as something of only instrumental value).

But the Eighties also saw a massive reaction against the new conscientious consensus, in the form of pop that refused to be ashamed of itself, that was happy to be a glorious waste of energy. There was rap, with its grandiose, groundless pride, its egocentric universe, its sadistic relationship to its own audience. There was hardcore *, a genre that descended from the side of punk bound up with outrage, delinquency and nihilist despair, rather than the more positive side (which blossomed in Rock Against Racism and Red Wedge). Hardcore groups like Sonic Youth, Swans, Big Black and Butthole Surfers were driven by a morbid fascination for the worst in human nature, the worst that can
happen (bizarre accidents, psychosis, perversion, acts of monstrous cruelty). The appeal of this vicarious, voyeuristic aesthetic is rooted in what the French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva calls the psychedelic "powers of horror": being confronted with the unthinkable is mindblowing.

As well as the brutalism of rap and harcore, there were other pop subcultures that were simply careless, un-concerned. These were musics specifically designed to erase anxiety and transport the listener out of the real world (of everyday worry and political commitment). There was the "acieed" scene. Acid house's hypnotic, repetitive electro-pulse, its lack of conventional narrative and lyrical focus, empties the listener's consciousness like a mantra. Acid tracks are endless trips into polymorphous pleasure (one acieed slogan is "where now lasts longer"). An acid rave is a kind of communal isolation tank, hermetically sealed from reality.

Very similar in effect, if not in sound, is what's been called "oceanic" or "nirvana" rock: the blissed-out dreampop of the likes of Cocteau Twins and A.R. Kane. These groups' hazy, radiant guitar sound and lullaby vocals invite reveries of halcyon childhood innocence. Like acid house, the oceanic sound is wombing. Oceanic rock appeals to subconscious memories of the maternal heaven-on-eart' that enfolds the suckled infant. It stirs up nostalgia for this time before time, where the child lives in a beatific 'forever now', free of anxiety.

This is the big difference between uncaring/care-free pop and mainstream mature pop. Care-less pop lives in the present tense (whether blissful or threatened). Care-worn pop is creased with anxiety: about the future, and about a pop past whose legacy it feels it must live up to (Live Aid was an attempt to realise Woodstock's dream of a benignly united youth, while Red Wedge harked back to Seventies soul and Rock Against Racism). This explains why the most musically progressive music of the Eighties (rap, acid, hardcore) has been the most emotionally regressive, and why the most politically progressive manifestations of mainstream pop have been invariably couched in such retrogressive and retrospective music. If nothing else, the Eighties have proved once again that the Devil has all the best riffs.

* - what I called 'hardcore' here would be more accurately designated post-hardcore -- i.e. 1980s American underground rock, noise etc

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