Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Whippersnapper Effect

I grew up in the 70's and 80's, and yes, we have a lot to answer for, musically speaking. We will probably never overcome, as a society, the dual whammy put on us by the simultaneous scourges of Rick Astley and the Fine Young Cannibals, for example.

But in a way, we can't really be blamed. Let me tell you what it was like to grow up vaguely counter-culturalish and leftish in those dark days of the Reagan Administration. We were reminded, over and over and over again, that we had failed. Our generation, not Baby Boomers, but not yet Gen-X, were the baby bust, and so there weren't as many of us as there had been or would be. But yet we failed. How did we fail? Simply put, we weren't hippies. We didn't drop enough acid or eat enough 'shrooms, and precious few of us ever really dropped out of society altogether. We were Alex P. Keaton, soulless and empty, with our Gary Numans and our Oingo Boingos. Where were our impassioned political singers? Where were our rebels? Alex P. Keaton's nemeses Nick Moore and Skippy Handleman?* John 'Johnny Slash' Ulasewicz? We knew they sucked, but they were all we really had. Is it any wonder we listened to The Fixx and The Cure?

(And a note: it's worth pointing out here that there were plenty of things to protest in the 80's: nuclear proliferation, apartheid, Iran-Contra. And I protested all of them. But I don't recall seeing many ex-hippies at those events. In that sense, I think they key text might be the film Rude Awakening in which hippies return to find that they themselves, their contemporaries, became soulless and money-grubbing during the 80's. In th inimitable phrasing of Steve-o's dad in SLC Punk!, "I didn't sell out, son. I bought in.")

I was dwelling on this "those damn kids" response, which I remember well as a sort of pervasive cultural force, when I heard this song the other day.

Compelling, and unfortunately still timely. A solid piece of protest rock. It was even something of a hit, for which my generation must be given some credit. (It is an outrage that the proper video for this song isn't on Youtube.) The other tune which struck me in this regard was the warning about the doomsday effect of trigger-happy Americans.

We don't always think of this song as a protest song, but we should. I forget sometimes that we lived under the cloud of nuclear war for much of my childhood, and yet somehow we managed to keep our civil rights. Huh. I knew well that my industrial town, pumped to the gills with defense contractors, was a second-strike target. And yet we weathered it. Thers and I knew a girl in grad school who claimed that she thought about nuclear annihilation several times every day. And we laughed, because this was the mid-90's and it was pretty stupid.

My kid tells me that Linkin Park has a good anti-war song on their new record, and I gather there's a lot of that sort of stuff out there. My point is that no one who has taken a stand against greed and violence has a reason to feel ashamed, or to let older generations tell them they're not rebellious enough.

*Note to self: just because it exists on the internets does not mean you need to read it. Case in point? Apparently, there is Family Ties fanfic out there. Just so long as it's not hentai, I guess.


steve simels said...

Speaking as one of the dirty hippies who preceded you, that is a lovely essay, kiddo.

And you are so right about "When the Walls Came Down" -- a great song, and it's indeed an outrage the actual video for it isn't on YouTube.

I'm not a big fan of videos generally, but that was a rare one that was as thrilling as the song it visualized. B&W, shot in some crummy little rehearsement studio, the band (also in black) singing and playing their hearts out while mad professor Garth Hudson channelled Charles Ives on his Lowery organ off in the back.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding. Now do one on GenX!

"Family Hentais" is a frightening concept, btw.

-Jay C.

refinnej said...

Yeah!! we may not have dropped lots-o-acid, but we DID have neon legwarmers. That has to count for something :)

Family Ties fanfic? Wow....

Heather said...

The Call was a super band. I saw them twice and never understood why they didn't make it. Michael Been shows up in the vocal credits on stuff here and there. That song is one of my favorites.

I graduated high school in '84. It was morning in America, as I recall, and protests were definitely discouraged. Too much of that and you might not get into Wharton.

Anonymous said...

I graduated in '84, as well, (Hi, Heather!) and I've made mention of the fact that there was really quite a bit of protest music in the 80's. Iron Maiden, The Fixx, Dweezil Zappa, Judas Priest, and a surprising amount of "new wave" music had fairly serious topics. (I'd have to do some thinking for specific examples.)

One of the things about 80's music, though (at least the music that I was witness to), was that it tended to not sound very 'angry'. It's almost as though artists were trying to protest without bringing anyone down - and, therefor, a lot of their music belied the serious nature of what they were actually saying.

I don't know - that's just my take. I was really surprised that there wasn't more protest music between 2003-2005.

One other thought - I read, a long time ago, that musical style tends to mirror the political and economic zeitgeist. When things are looking bleak, the music gets louder and angrier and peps up when things are better. On a related note, the same can be said for men's tie width - better economy means wider ties, which, I suppose, says something about the early 80's.

NYMary said...

Count me in the Class of '84 as well. Lot of Orwell, but everyone seemed relieved that the 2-way TVs hadn't come to pass. Of course, as it turns out, he was only about 20 years off. (Waves to NSA guy)

Anonymous said...

1. Fine Young Cannibals weren't all that bad.

2. Shame on you for posting the English language version of 99 Luftballoons.

3. I think there was a lot of political music back then - The Minutemen, Billy Bragg, Gang of Four, The Clash...?

Heather said...

Thanks for the welcome Ripley, and thanks, Mary, for the thought provoking essay.

New Wave music wasn't all stupid happy music, but a lot of it was concerned with personal issues, like coming out, conformity, and so on. I'd add the anti-racism, anti-Thatcher, and anti-apartheid Two Tone artists like the Specials and the Beat to the "political" list. It's interesting that much of what comes to mind is from UK artists; maybe we were just that much more brainwashed here in the US.

Gang of Four's a great example of political music from the '80's. "I Love A Man in A Uniform" - very very sly.

(Hope this comment made sense. My kids woke me up at 5:30 this morning.)