Sunday, December 03, 2006

80s or 90s?

I have a long-running dispute going on with a friend of mine about which decade was musically more bounteous, 80s or 90s. To me the issue seems absolutely clear, it has to be the 80s. My friend is unconvinced, and as far as I can see his case seems to rest on the fact that the 80s was the glossy, bouffant decade of Thatcherism/Reaganomics, of vulgar, brazen consumerism, of mulleted, skinny-tied, shoulder-padded yuppies chopping up lines of coke with platinum credit cards in grotesque nightclubs overflowing with plastic palm trees and revolving mirror balls, of open scorn for the less well off and smug adherence to the vicious, self-serving simpleton’s philosophy that unfettered market forces are not only beneficent to the chosen few but actually a righteous dispenser of social justice. Phew, well I have to admit he’s got a point there… but only a rather obvious and superficial one in my opinion.

And before I go on it’s time for a slice of long overdue humble pie – I have been quite correctly chastised for referring in my previous post on Dg. 307 to the years of normalisation in Czechoslovakia as a “cultural living death”, which is surely contradicted by the very fact of Dg. 307’s existence, and I shall now proceed to shamelessly plagiarise this argument. What I should have said is that it was the mainstream, officially sanctioned culture that was a living death, but one that inadvertently and perhaps inevitably produced a vibrant counter-culture. This of course now puts me in the precarious position of looking like I’m advocating a polarising if not downright repressive polity, but I can only comment on what I see (or in this case hear) and this is a risk I’ll just have to take.

It may well be the case that it is precisely thanks to dear Maggie, as well as the fear of the impending apocalyptic showdown with the “evil empire” referred to by that, even at that time, already patently senile old goat Reagan, that the 80s produced such musical gems as the Pop Group’s “We Are All Prostitutes” or the sometimes hastily dismissed but often superb Goth movement, for example. Over on the other side of the Atlantic it was surely the very vacuous and mean spirited nature of the Reaganite dream that helped form and galvanise the overtly political ghettoes of hardcore punk and hardcore rap. These cultures were clearly parasitic upon Reagan, for evidence just look at how lost that pitiful old panto dame Jello Biafra looks these days without him. As well as that there were the less obviously political, more retreatist but no less ghettoised indie rock scenes of giants like Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth and those who followed in their wake, or in the UK the “bedroom boy” outsider vogue of the legions of Smiths fans, all delighting in their marginalised status.

Added to this there were of course not only those who operated subversively within the mainstream, proving that here too there was room for manoeuvre, such as highly controversial pop acts like Prince or Frankie Goes to Hollywood, but also those who, even out on the margins, refused to accept the facile, Luddite ethos of many alternative rock bands that technology can only be a repressive tool of the powerful to enforce the status quo – for example the staggeringly innovative techno masters Kraftwerk, a massive influence on rap artists such as Afrika Bambaata or dance pioneers like Juan Atkins, who towards the end of the decade were triumphantly vindicated by the counter-cultural explosion that was Acid House.

So much for the 80s then, and apologies for what might to many seem to be a statement of the bleeding obvious. But as for the 90s, well frankly I’m baffled. What legacy is there to suggest the 90s can compete with the above? Setting the political context, rightly or wrongly I personally could never muster the same kind of outright hatred for a dullard like John Major as I could for Thatcher, and whilst I found and still find the likes of Blair and Clinton deeply sinister a part of me guiltily pined for the black and white, class war clarity of the Thatcher era – I guess metaphorically speaking I’m just a barricades and Molotov cocktails kind of guy. I’d rather tiptoe around pedantic, post-modernist style debates about whether or not originality or any kind of radicalism has now become impossible (call me a coward if you wish, probably guilty as charged), but I couldn’t help feeling that something had indeed been lost. What did the 90s produce musically that hadn’t already had its path marked out in the 80s? There may have been a few lurches forward in the area of rap and dance, particularly jungle/drum n bass, but surely the spade work here was done in the 80s, and the 90s was merely a time of perfecting, smoothing off the rough edges of the groundbreaking invention which had already taken place, essentially a decade of diminishing returns. As for rock music the situation seems almost laughable. Granted, there may have been a couple of bands worth listening to, but compared to the 80s they seem pretty few and far between to my ears. Oasis, for God’s sake? Slap me if I’m being facetious.

My contention is that a principle of polarity is at work here. In the 80s it was, as Black Flag put it, My War, or My Ghetto. You were one of us, or you were one of them. The 90s was a decade of alternative culture being co-opted, made palatable for the MTV generation. To mention a 90s icon, it was this co-opting that was undoubtedly a contributing factor in the identity crisis and subsequent (alleged) suicide of Kurt Cobain, who tragically confused his own genius for a pop tune for evidence that he’d sold out. Whilst the obvious nastiness of the mainstream culture of the 80s was toned down and humanised in the “caring” (read false) 90s, in a shabby trade-off the edge was taken off the underground also, the alternative rendered unthreatening. The 90s may not have produced anything so blatantly odious as Mel & Kim’s “Fun, Love and Money”, but neither did they come anywhere near producing a masterpiece such as “Psychocandy”. In the 90s, basically, we were conned.

I am aware that I am probably hugely guilty of stereotyping here, and freely admit that I am really pretty ignorant of 90s music – having found what I have heard so uninspiring I haven’t made much effort to do any research. Nevertheless, on the small amount of evidence I have got I believe that the 90s were generally characterised by blandness, a lack of passion. I hereby throw down the gauntlet to you, Mr. Siedloczek, to convince me otherwise – and although I don’t usually like to get drawn into arguments unless I’m pretty sure of my case, this is a situation where I’d be quite happy to be proven wrong. Some CDs of 80s music are on their way to you as a Christmas present – I challenge you to match it. Touché!


Post a Comment

<< Home