Friday, April 19, 2013

Pop Hits of 1990(-ish)

The year is 1990. The child is seven years old.
That's me on the carpet, the one rearranging wooden blocks into a fort for my toy soldiers. My family's brand-new color TV is running in the background, softly enough not to bother my parents, uncle, grandmother and great-aunt as they talk around the table. It tends to be tuned to VH1 or to musical segments on other channels because there's never anything good on anyway. I don't actually have a concept of artistic expression at that time but i can appreciate the 'catchiness' of tunes on an animal level and i am fascinated by the notion that those people on screen are allowed to dress up weird, be loud and make funny faces and voices at each other.
Now, most of what i hear goes in one ear and out the other. I have no context for pop music and no frame or reference by which to judge it. Two decades later, i realize that a surprising number of musical snippets from the late 80s sound familiar despite the fact that i've never specifically looked up music from that period. Subliminal programming works.

However, the context of the programming is somewhat unique. I was exposed to various hits, but i had very little pressure placed on me about whether or not to enjoy them. My appreciation was based almost purely on how catchy the songs were to my ten-year-old ears. So, i've been wondering lately, how does that old stuff hold up? How do the all-too-popular, catchy tunes of those years actually fare in terms of content, meaning and complexity?

Some lend themselves to easy answers.
Michael Jackson may have been largely a stage entertainer and not a cerebral musician, but many of his big hits are relatively complex by pop standards and you can't tell me this lacks meaning in its social context. At the very least it's not the eternal "ooh baby baby i love ya baby" one learns to expect from pop. He had energy. His best songs were driven, purposeful.
I feel like i'm on much more solid ground with Jean-Michel Jarre. Huge influence in techno. The song i remember listening to at seven was Calypso but if you really want a short, clever treat, listen to this using headphones. No, i don't think one can reasonably contest Jarre's importance. He's one of those rare individuals who could make "art for art's sake" into more than a smokescreen for uninspired simplistic fads.

With others though, we get into shaky footing.
This, for instance, captivated me when i heard it in the mid-90s. It's repetitive, simplistic dance-fodder. Never goes anywhere. Was i ever that young?
I'm marginally less ashamed of liking Ace of Base. At least this song and couple of others have... well, lyrics, such as they are. The songs progress slightly from start to finish. Still, i can't believe i never realized all their songs sound exactly the same. They had a catchy hook and rode it to death.
I know i was listening to Sinead O'Connor. I remember the bald scalp, but i don't remember the actual songs. Not a good sign. Hearing some of it now, it sounds fairly generic, just a mass of vocalist-centered ditties with no real depth. 
I think Return to Innocence owed its popularity to the music video more than anything. Fast-forwarding, rewinding, etc. were still considered clever novelties by many, myself included. I'm tempted to just qualify it as mindlessly easygoing, touchy-feeley new-age crap, but to be honest it's honest. That obsessive chanting which makes up the Enigma songs i've heard is well performed. It embodies the idealized vague noncommittal desire to make oneself seem deep and interesting which defines much of the New-Age movement. If you want some quality ululating to which to attach your own mental imagery, there's your song.
Still, there's not much there. A passing fancy.

On to the pleasant surprises.
On to Walk like an Egyptian, which was a great song to hear as a child because, well... yeah. Any excuse to clown around. I listened to it again after hearing it in Religulous and was surprised to find that those words in between the "ey-oh"s were actual lyrics. I don't mean just "yeah baby baby" etc. but an honest-to-goodness poetic theme, a toned-down, upbeat, kiddie-safe version of transience. I'm not much for sugar-coated social comentary, and maybe my opinion as an adult male is a mite skewed by the fact that the gals looked good struttin' their stuff in that video, especially the short redhead, but still, it's a decent little tune.
But if the Bangles might curry favor with their overgrown 80s hairstyles and hobo-chic fashion sense, Scatman John must exonerate me. I am not sexually attracted to men, much less to lawn gnomes. I like the song in itself. Obviously, the draw for me as a twelve-year-old with no great interest in music was again, the clowning, but listening to it now i like the message. It works as poetry: "Everybody's born to compete as he chooses, but how can someone win if winning means that someone loses?" Preach it brother, i hereby declare you an anarchist in the true sense of the word.
Here's another sociopolitically charged song: Istanbul (not Constantinople). Apparently it has a long history, being dredged up now and then since its appearance in 1953. Can't say i entirely care for the original version, too slow-paced for my tastes without making up for it through complexity. But, this one arguably sounds better than the 1990 TMBG song. Transience, indeed.

However, i'm not one for subtlety. I'd rather overwhelm than leave doubt.
I don't know if 99 Luftballons had ever ceased to be popular since 1984, but it was certainly being dredged up in a big way in 1990-91, likely in response to the gulf war. It amuses me that American audiences, ignoring the lyrics altogether, tend to interpret its mocking derision of military machismo as a lighthearted romp (i myself was reminded of the song by seeing it referenced in Scrubs in a scene where the characters are joyfully kicking a roomful of balloons around). This is not a happy song. Apropos of nothing, that blond snot with the carefully-tousled hair in the video? Makes me wanna smack that self-confident pretty-boy pout off his face. I should know better than to watch music videos, i know, i know.
It doesn't pull punches. It treats martial bravado as the hollow, delusional grasp at social rank it really is - each one thinking he's Captain Kirk. Imagine it superimposed as the soundtrack to a war movie. So much of human conflict is not villainy but sheer stupidity. The cold war insanity which likely prompted this song was a perfect example. How can you react to that mindset?

Hast du etwas Zeit für mich
Dann singe ich ein Lied für dich

Slow down, boy.

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