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Rock & Roll and Culture
By Anthony DeCurtis
Duke University Press Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
In November of 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected to his first term as president of the United States. A little more than a month later, on 8 December, John Lennon was shot to death outside his apartment building in New York City. Each of those events had its own all-too-real causes and consequences. But each has also come to bear the weight of symbol; each is a lens through which the mood and the manners of the 1980s, the cultural climate of the decade that followed, may be read.
Some say the 1960s died at Altamont; others say the 1960s died at Kent State. But whatever vestige of 1960s-style visionary thinking and progressive politics managed to survive the 1970s—when, after all, the Watergate revelations and Nixon's resignation at least partly vindicated 1960s radicalism and inspired a brief resurgence of idealism among the young—who can deny that the election of Ronald Reagan proved to be the fatal blow to the 1960s dream? Even the liberal values of the Great Society, which were little more than an extension of the civilizing efforts of FDR's New Deal, were anathema to Reagan—let alone the wild utopian urges that were meant to transport us to the Gates of Eden, or the road of counterculture excess that would lead us to the Palace of Wisdom.
The generous collective impulses of the 1960s may ultimately have yielded to the Me Decade hedonism of the 1970s. But who knew that the next stop would be the pinched privatism, the smug selfishness, the glib pragmatism, the grim status consciousness, the greed masking as taste, the brutal superficiality of the 1980s? Who knew that the hung over sybarites of the Me Decade would transform, as if in the course of a nationwide Night of the Living Dead, into the desperately sober workaholics of the Gimme Decade?
Could there possibly have been a place for the likes of John Lennon in such a world? The point is not that Lennon was a saint, too good to live among the gleefully solvent sinners of the 1980s. It's just that he was too ungovernable, too unlikely to play by the rules, too interested in the margins to succumb to the savage mainstreaming of the last decade. The willful experimentalism, loopy romanticism, and smiling politics that Lennon represented—this was a man, you will recall, who believed that bed-ins and planting acorns could bring about world peace—are not virtues that would have carried much weight in an era during which greed was the ultimate good.
The characteristics that define the personality of Lennon's assassin, Mark David Chapman—an obsession with Lennon's media image to the point of obliterating the reality of Lennon the person, a worship of Lennon's power and celebrity so intense that it shaded into violence and hatred, a need to destroy the ideal he could not himself attain—are far more central to an understanding of the past decade.
Like the killings at Kent State, Lennon's death struck at the very souls of a generation and made idealism seem senseless, even dangerous. The vacuum left in those dead souls was filled in the 1970s with a craving for pleasure that could be kindled in a moment and extinguished just as quickly, pleasure not as a means of self-discovery—not even to be enjoyed for its own delicious sake—but as a distraction from numbness, a way to feel something, however briefly. Money and possessions—things that could be counted, measured, and used and that, for those reasons, provided the illusion of certainty—filled the vacuum in the 1980s. That so many of the people who wept and lit candles to mourn John Lennon's death eventually fell into step with the unforgiving individualism of the Age of Reagan is only one of the innumerable contradictions of the decade.
Musically, the 1980s got off to an unsteady start indeed. The punk explosion of the late 1970s had succeeded in stalling the alienating superstar juggernaut that had defined the earlier years of that decade, but punk itself became too self-infatuated and failed to gain much of a popular audience. Progressive artists like Talking Heads and Elvis Costello found a niche, but many of their contemporaries had either burned out or simply fallen by the wayside. In the early years of the decade, the economy was poor, video games—a technological harbinger of the very real war games to come—had seized the imagination of the young, and record sales were down significantly. It hardly seemed as if music mattered at all.
Then an event occurred that would energize the music scene once again and set in motion all the forces that would go on to shape the popular culture of the 1980s. On 16 May 1983, before a viewership of nearly fifty million people, Michael Jackson performed his Number 1 single "Billie Jean" on Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever, the television special that commemorated the twenty-fifth anniversary of Motown Records. After that, for better or worse, nothing was the same.
To that point, Michael Jackson's Thriller, which had been released on 1 December 1982 and had hit Number 1 during Christmas week, seemed as if it were going to be a successful record in the manner of Off the Wall, Jackson's fine previous solo album, which was released in 1979 and had sold more than six million copies. But Jackson's electrifying performance of "Billie Jean" sent fans streaming into record stores, where they often purchased another album or two before leaving, giving the music business a much-needed economic shot in the arm. Thriller would go on to sell some forty million copies worldwide, making it the best-selling album in history, but its significance is far greater than even this astonishing number would indicate.
It must be remembered that Jackson's appearance on the Motown special was not exclusively, or even primarily, a musical performance. Jackson lip-synced to a recorded track—the better to execute his breathtaking dance steps, including the mind-boggling Moonwalk—and there were no musicians onstage even to create the illusion that a band was playing. For imagery, atmosphere, costuming, and choreography, Jackson drew on the video he had made for "Billie Jean"—a prescient strategy that would go on to become conventional wisdom for artists like Madonna, Paula Abdul, Jackson's sister Janet, and a host of other acts in the coming years. In a decade in which visuals meant as much as music, and live performance aspired to mimicking the static perfection of videos, Jackson's rendering of "Billie Jean" on Motown 25 was a watershed.
Just about a month or two before Motown 25 aired, MTV had broken its de facto boycott of videos by black performers and begun showing Jackson's "Billie Jean" and "Beat It" clips. In the "Beat It" video, Jackson's audacious fusion of heavy metal—Eddie Van Halen played guitar on the track—and black street-gang imagery proved forward-looking, and Jackson and MTV proved to be a peerless match.
Founded in 1981, MTV had been flexing its muscles for a couple of years, finding a primarily youthful audience for a seemingly endless series of visually striking British bands of questionable talent like Duran Duran, Thompson Twins, and Men Without Hats and, to far more desirable effect, shaking up radio's monopoly on hit making. Still, MTV's standing was sufficiently precarious at the time that, rumor had it, CBS Records pressured the network into showing Jackson's videos by threatening to pull the clips of all its other acts. By the end of the decade, MTV's preeminence was so thoroughly established that such a threat would have been tantamount to filing for bankruptcy.
Quite apart from its considerable musical merits, Thriller defined both a strategy and a standard for success in the 1980s. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones had liberated recording artists from the tyranny of the hit single in the 1960s and had established the album as a means of making an artistic statement. That tyranny returned in spades in the 1980s. Artistic statements or not, albums were seen as little more than collections of singles in the wake of Thriller's seven Top 10 hits—and this was as true ofBorn in the U.S.A. and The Joshua Tree as of Like a Virgin, as true of Purple Rain as of Forever Your Girl. You might be a brilliant songwriter and a stunning musician, but after Thriller's ground-breaking videos and the apotheosis of MTV, you'd better be something of an actor, too—or at least a pretty face.
And about those sales figures: a gold record—earned by sales of more than five hundred thousand records—might have impressed people in the 1960s and 1970s, but those days are long gone. AfterThriller, platinum sales—earned by selling a million or more copies—were a prerequisite for stardom. Except for rare prestige acts—performers whose recognized status as important artists made them valuable to record companies despite their relatively low sales—the notion that you could have a productive career selling a few hundred thousand albums with each release was dead.
To a greater degree than ever before, marketing—the creation and selling of an image—became an essential component of an artist's success. Videos, video compilations, long-form videos, corporate sponsorships, product endorsements, T-shirts, book deals, interviews, television appearances, movie tie-ins, songs for soundtracks—all that began to envelop what was once considered a rebel's world, the world you chose because you had no other choice or you hated the idea of working for the man, because you wanted independence and freedom and nothing less, because you wanted that greatest of all possible goods, that most sublime of all possible states: to be a rock & roll star. Being a rock & roll star became a job, and true to the 1980s ethic, you'd better be willing to put in the hours and produce—to smile and make nice with the powers that be—or you might as well go back to the bars.
By the mid-1980s, rock & roll was well on its way to becoming terminally safe. Joining a rock band had become a career move like any other, about as rebellious as taking a business degree and, if you got lucky, more lucrative. Your accountant was likely to be as hip as your lead singer. And far from resisting the marketing demands made of them, artists seemed to be tripping over themselves in their eagerness to sell out, to lease their songs to sell products, to put their dreams in the service of commerce.
Then, just as it seemed that rock & roll was incapable of offending anyone, Tipper Gore discovered the line about masturbation in "Darling Nikki," on Prince's Purple Rain album, and founded the Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC). The drive to place warning stickers on albums was underway. Due to the influential standing of Gore, who is married to Albert Gore, Jr., the Democratic senator from Tennessee, and her colleague Susan Baker, wife of Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Senate hearings were held in which members of Congress pondered the meaning of rock lyrics. Rock & roll was the first target in the war on the arts that would soon escalate.
Eventually—and predictably—the controversy over lyric content and the effects of popular music on young people centered on the two musical forms that, despite their massive sales, still retained something of an outsider's edge: rap and heavy metal. Given how polarized our society became during the Reagan years, it is impossible not to see elements of racial and class prejudice in that development. While both genres have very much entered the mainstream, the core audience for rap is still black and the core audience for metal still consists largely of working-class whites. These constituencies are typically not given much credit for being able to tell the difference between the dramatic situation in a song and the realities of their own lives.
For that matter, the performers who speak to those constituencies are not thought capable of that distinction, either. If Eric Clapton—who is white and, better yet, English—covers a Bob Marley song and sings about shooting the sheriff, it's understood that he's an "artist" and doesn't really mean it. He can enjoy a Top 10 hit unhindered by questions about his motives or the effect on his listeners of the song he is singing. If the members of N.W.A, who are black, rap about a violent confrontation with the police, as they did on their blistering 1988 album Straight Outta Compton, they are presumed to be too primitive to understand the distinction between words and actions, between life and art. Their reward is organized boycotts and FBI harassment. In the case of 2 Live Crew, the reward is arrest and potential imprisonment. In many ways, the response that those groups have ignited—along with the legal difficulties endured by Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest in cases involving the effects of their songs on listeners—lends validation to the provocative content of much rap and heavy metal. The closest parallel to this persecution is the Nixon administration's effort to deport John Lennon in the 1970s because of his activism and the political content of his music.
But if rock & roll succumbed to the ethos of greed that characterized the Gimme Decade, and if it is still struggling to find the conviction to battle the incursions of bluenoses, it also helped restore a semblance of social consciousness to a period that, for the most part, borrowed its attitudes toward the less fortunate from Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. It took Bob Geldof, the charmingly brash leader of a failing Irish rock band, for example, to focus the attention of the entire world on the famine in Africa with Band Aid and Live Aid.
In response to a statement Bob Dylan made from the stage during his performance at the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, and Neil Young organized a series of concerts to assist the struggling farmers in America's heartland. U2 headlined a series of shows in 1986 that helped bring a little-known London-based human rights organization called Amnesty International to the forefront of political awareness in the United States. Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Tracy Chapman carried Amnesty's banner around the world—often to countries with frightening human rights records—two years later.
Those high-profile actions were not universally celebrated, however. They occasionally drew criticism—some of it justified or at least understandable. The big show could be seen as a kind of quick fix, and the quick fix, preferably as executed by internationally known celebrities, was a very 1980s phenomenon—as was the sense of boredom and even resentment that just as quickly set in when the quick fix inevitably failed to work.
Consequently, it was important that mammoth gestures on the order of Live Aid and the Amnesty tours were backed up by hundreds of artists like Jackson Browne, KRS-One, Living Colour, R.E.M., Simple Minds, and 10,000 Maniacs. These performers consistently played benefits and supported causes in quotidian ways that demonstrated that problems do not disappear because a bevy of superstars fill a stadium and move their fans to dial an 800 number.
If rockers looked beyond the borders of their cities and countries and addressed the larger issues in the world around them, they also looked beyond their aesthetic borders for inspiration in their music. Talking Heads, led to African rhythms by their producer Brian Eno, stunned the music world in 1980 with the release of Remain in Light, an album whose relentless drive and thematic reach set the stage for similar experiments by other artists. Peter Gabriel's solo records and performing bands through the 1980s borrowed a host of sounds from musicians around the world. Gabriel returned the favor in 1989 by establishing his Realworld label, distributed by Virgin Records, to bring the sounds of what had become known as "world music" to the West.
Certainly the most commercially successful—and controversial—cross-cultural fusion was Paul Simon's Graceland. Released in 1986 in a charged political atmosphere, the album drew critical raves but also incited a firestorm of protest because Simon had visited South Africa to record the album, violating the cultural boycott declared by the United Nations and the African National Congress, the organization leading the struggle against apartheid. The debate that ensued was bitter and prolonged. The musical merits of the album often seemed beside the point as the discussion centered on the proper role of artists in the political battles of their time. Undoubtedly the experience was unpleasant for everyone involved, but it provided further evidence of popular music's vitality and its ability to comment on and even enter the essential struggles of the age.
Excerpted from Present Tense by Anthony DeCurtis. Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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