THE CAREWORN VERSUS THE COULDN'T CARE LESS: AN OVERVIEW OF EIGHTIES POP
The Guardian, December 28th 1989
by Simon Reynolds
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.
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
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.
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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