Saturday, November 10, 2012

The end of the 80's

Every time I travel to Europe it seems as though I discover a great music video channel completely by accident.  In the breakfast room of my hotel in Milan, the TV is usually tuned to a channel that plays a mix of 80's and 90's videos every morning (and perhaps all day long, if the ads on this channel are any indication).

Every day I eat my breakfast to a mix of Italian pop songs and videos I haven't seen in ages, if at all, even by bands I really like(d).  I'm not sure I'd ever seen the video for Def Leppard's "Women", and I listened to "Hysteria" about a billion times in '88-'89 and thought I'd seen every video made from that album.

One morning I heard these three songs in less than half an hour and could have sworn they were all released in the same year:

Basia - New Day for You
Aretha - A Deeper Love
Enigma - Age of Loneliness

Of course they weren't all released in the same year, and I already knew they weren't, but a first time listener could have been fooled into thinking they were.  I had absolutely no recollection of Aretha having a hit song and video in the 90's, and would have pegged this for no later than '90-'91 based on the music alone.  The video, featuring clips from "Sister Act", was my only giveaway that I was listening to a mid-90's song.  So it had to be at least the second time I'd heard "A Deeper Love" because I did see "Sister Act" in the 90's (unfortunately), but for all intents and purposes I was a first time listener and I know the watered down NYC-house music style from 1990 when I hear it.  Enigma released some great music over the years (I was freakishly into "Sadeness Part 1", I'll still stan for it if prompted) but "Age of Innocence" isn't their finest moment.  And Basia's "New Day For You" is a well crafted 80's dance pop number that has aged surprisingly well.

As a side note, I think people often place most pop music within a narrow British/American frame, or alternatively, originating from countries where English is an official language (i.e. incl. Canada, Australia, Ireland ...).  We think we only see acts from those countries showing up on charts everywhere in the world, whereas every other country's music is relegated to their own national charts, never to be heard or seen elsewhere in the world.  In this musical world view (which may not be as prevelant as I'm assuming) there are few exceptions (e.g. ABBA) outside of the occasional international fad/punchline (e.g. "Macarena").  But 80's and 90's pop had plenty of international acts.  There were the Eurodance acts, obviously, and Ace of Base, Basia (Poland), Enigma (Germany via Romania), and many more.   

Obviously the 80's didn't end, musically speaking, on New Years day 1990.  It took a while for the sound we associate with the 80's to peter out, just like Nirvana didn't complete their takeover of alternative radio  in a day.  So how long did the 80's last anyway?  Those Enigma and Aretha Franklin songs were from 1994. Enigma were a 90's phenomenon if there ever was one, but "Age of Loneliness" feels like something too primitive for the 90's (maybe it's because of the chanting).  

A lot of artists who had hit albums in the late 80's were able to carry their success into the 90's without changing hardly anything about themselves.  Prince, Paula Abdul, and Janet Jackson were still wildly successful, and Duran Duran actually made a comeback in the early 90's!  So what killed the 80's for good?

I really don't know.  Some ideas:

-- Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men releasing one interchangeable ballad after another, driving the electro and dance elements completely out of R&B.

-- MOR "alternative" rock like Semisonic making the leap from alternative to mainstream radio and taking the spots of the legacy rock acts like Bon Jovi and Bryan Adams.  Of course those guys would have the last laugh by staging huge tours in the 00's and earning enough money to buy back every Smashmouth album at full retail price (90's retail price even!) and destroy them forever in a massive CD bonfire, but we're talking about the charts and radio playlists now.

-- Country making a huge comeback in sales and popularity, causing non-grunge rock to be pushed into the background.  New rock bands had to wear flannel or go at least a little bit country, never forget that Hootie and the Blowfish were heard everywhere in the 90's.

-- Major acts with dance music credentials such as Madonna, Whitney Houston, and Annie Lennox switching directions and trying to sound more "adult", leaving behind a vacuum on the charts that was filled by the very different sounding Eurodance acts.        

EDIT:  The morning after posting this, I saw these two videos:

Van Halen -- Right Now
Dire Straits -- On Every Street (live from what appears to be a Roman amphitheatre, most probably was in the Arena of Nîmes since I see they recorded some of the "On The Night" video there)

Another pair of very interesting examples!  Specifically, what happened to Dire Straits in the 90's?  They'd gone from big to huge in the 80's and adapted well to the new reality of MTV by releasing some one of the decade's most iconic videos.  Among rock acts, perhaps only Springsteen was bigger and more successful in the mid-80's thanks to the phenomenal success of "Brothers In Arms".  It's been suggested that they killed their momentum by waiting too long to release the follow up to "Brothers In Arms" (seven years), but I've never bought into that.  It's not unusual for artists to take time off and come back as big as ever.  Maybe we should take the Occam's razor approach ...

-- Running in place.  Give or take a saxophone solo here and there or Mark Knopfler's choice of headgear, that video for "On Every Street" could have been shot at nearly any point between 1978 and 1992.  People get tired of bands that stick to only one thing, no matter how much they excel at it.  U2 and Depeche Mode are two examples of 80's giants who completely changed their look and music entering the 90's, kept fans and curiosity seekers guessing, and became even more successful because of it.  They returned to their more traditional sound in the 00's but after more than twenty years of making music headlines they were practically bulletproof.  Every move they make is a big deal because an entire generation of fans has grown up with them as a Big Deal.  See also: Madonna.  

Ah, but what about Van Halen?  They had a number of hit songs and albums in the 90's, and their sound is as constant as it gets.  But they did change, sort of.  After a rough transition period, Sammy Hagar was firmly entrenched as their new singer by the start of the 90's.  Eddie van Halen's solos might have sounded more or less the same, but Hagar was the right guy in the right place at the right time to help with the shift from the cartoony, testoterone filled David Lee Roth era to the more politically conscious "Right Now" era.  Van Halen might have become a punchline without the slight attitude and personnel changes.  Consider AC/DC, another band whose music was as constant as they come but were spent as a chartmaking force after 1990's "Thunderstruck" (although of course they continued to clean up on the tour circuit).   

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