A new series in which we look at once common curiosities of pop culture that don’t exist anymore, be it because of changing tastes, the fragmentation of culture, or merely the fickle nature of fads.
My first memories of pop music are around 1981, 1982, age three or so. That dovetailed with the time my parents’ reached that point that most parents reach—when they stop actively paying attention to and keeping up with current pop music. Thus, American pop music began with “Islands in the Stream” and “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” for me, and ended with “Islands in the Stream” and “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” for my parents. Since then it’s been nothing but The Big Chill soundtrack and church music.
This conscious shift into ignorance or semi-ignorance of current chart hits has happened to me, too. I’ve got a kid and a job and a novel I’m never going to finish to tackle, so there’s less time for music. Every day for a few hours while I work I take some time to listen to good indie rock albums I somehow missed over the last couple of years. For my parents, who had at least three children (my memory is fuzzy) life got too busy to listen to music for which they didn’t already own the cassette. It’s incredibly ironic that my parents got too adult for pop music during a period in which pop music was at its adultiest. By which I mean the dreariest.
I probably have a fondness for music from the extremely early ‘80s because the music was incredibly non-threatening to a toddler, and also that the musicians I saw performing the music on The Merv Griffin Show and Solid Gold looked like my parents; the ladies had feathered hair, still leftover from the Farrahtastic ‘70s, and they wore unflattering and formless blousy dresses. The men wore sweaters, rocked chest hair, and almost always had full beards, glasses, and perms. Perms.
Between the slow death of disco and the cementation of what we can all agree is definitive ‘80s music (wonderful synth-based songs about alienation made by precious little British men in funny clothes), Real Adults took over pop music. They ruled the airwaves and the culture with their boring, mellowing songs in which they worked through their boring adult issues both negative and positive, such as begrudginhly reaffirming your love for a longtime partner you awkwardly call “lady,” and the joys of boat ownership. I am not even exaggerating; REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity was the top selling album of 1981; Christopher Cross, whose logo was a pink flamingo, swept the Grammys that same year. Women found Kenny Rogers, the physical embodiment of a midlife crisis, to be sexy. People got their groove on to Laura Branigan’s “Gloria.” Barbra Streisand had multiple #1 hits. It was totally bonkers.
But why? Were the ‘70s, with its Watergates and Vietnams and recessions and Rootses and iron-fisted peanut farmers so stressful that adults were left so fried that they needed to spend a couple of years, even if these were their last years actively consuming the culture, just chilling the hell out, agreeing with Eddie Rabbitt as to the goodness of rainy nights? Or rather, were the events of the ‘70s a complete disappointment, a betrayal of the promise of the countercultural‘60s, that adults needed to zone out and forget about being complete sellout nonstarters to a soundtrack of Michael McDonald forgetting he’s not in love anymore?
Today, musicians on pop radio and in the celebrity-gossip complex, the universally recognizable ones like Kes$ha, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Katy Perry—they do not sound or look like Kenny Loggins, Joey Scarbury, Matthew Wilder, the Climax Blues Band, or Kim Carnes, all of whom were, looked, or acted middle-aged. Sure, plenty of pop stars today are in their ‘30s or higher. That goof from LMFAO is 37. Fergie is 37. Gotye is 33. As is Pink. Hell, David Guetta is 45; my dad certainly wasn’t making club bangers about bitches when he was 45. And yet these particular performers are not any older than the soft-rock gods of the early ‘80s (Michael McDonald was 30 in 1982; Peter Cetera was 38), but they sure seem a lot younger. They act and dress young and make songs about young people things, primarily dancing, the club, and, somehow convincingly, being teenagers and figuring yourself out. Steve Perry, REO Speedwagon, Cross, and the lot seemed a hell of a lot older, probably because of their songs about second chances at love and life and the need to chill. But really probably because of their terrible clothes and facial hair choices.
The end of the monoculture—the now-passed era in which we consumed whatever the Big 3 TV networks and six record labels with six radio formats presented us—has something to do with this. People over the age of 35 still make music that sells relatively well; they just promote it on Live With Kelly and Michael and dominate those “listen while you work” adult contemporary radio stations geared at frazzled adults. Of course, those stations’ playlists are still dominated by “Who’s Cryin’ Now” and “Key Largo.”
Trends change and youth ultimately wins, but it’s related to the much covered concept of my generation and the next’s “extended adolescence.” The generation that liked this depressing music about middle-aged woes, either on purpose or subconsciously, allowed their young to take their time to figure out their lives and to wallow in immaturity and self absorption well into their 20s and 30s. Because if they learned one thing, and could have given us one gift, it’s the idea that being a real adult, with responsibilities, and having a beard, and having to listen to soft rock, kind of sucks.