Monday, September 8, 2008

In which three smart NPR hosts (including former Sleater Kinney singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein) act like total schmucks when discussing the eighties (i.e. "Were They [the eighties, not the three NPR hosts] Really That Bad?"). Of the three, Brownstein is the least offensive; perhaps the memory of this screed shushed her. Robin Hilton and Steven Thompson giggle like fourth graders making fun of the fat girl when they play Tears for Fears' "Head Over Heels," and when it's Deniece Williams' "Let's Hear It For The Boy"'s turn, they exhibit her like a victim ready to be tarred and feathered. In a nearly hourlong broadcast, they don't bother to acknowledge that the "poptimists" won; that a generation of limey dolly boys with synthesizers didn't balk at sullying their aesthetic principles with pure commercial ambition; that the false dichotomies they proffer (the "timelessness" and "earnestness" of indie music on guitars vs the "datedness" and "preening" of synthesizer-based music) mean little to anyone who's danced to Gang of Four and a-Ha in the same club. Like Brit Hume, Charles Krauthammer, and Bill Kristol dissing Obama on the same show, this panel was an echo chamber in which unanimity -- of tone, subject, and purpose -- ruled. You saps, I wanted to say, you lost.

Chacun a son gout and all that. Fine. But why bother proselytizing for The Bats or Bush Tetras? Why the false dichotomy between their "values" and The Outfield, or between "I Will Dare" and Starship's entry in the Worst Song of All Time list? Other than the by now obligatory nod to Bad Brains and praise for Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" (guess why Hilton and Thompson loved it in 1988), no mention of black people. Michael Jackson's absence was galling, as if 2008 was MTV circa late 1982. Not a syllable about Prince. Or Scritti Politti, cleverly toying with gleaming surfaces; they tell me a lot more about how I respond to music than the Bats, whose pretty good to excellent punk-folk offered straightforward pleasures that a R.E.M. circa 1984 fan could appreciate (and MTV played a few Reckoning videos, so...).

Broadcasts like this illuminate practices rather than preferences. From the number of qualifiers uttered by Hilton, Thompson, and Brownstein (which sounds like a second-rate law firm) and the sense of shame when they admit to digging something they shouldn't, the inescapable conclusion is that for them music listening is akin to working for the secret police of a totalitarian state: their subservience to ideology binds them to ruining everyone else's fun, while they secretly worry about their own arrest for thought-crimes.

As for the hapless Deniece Williams and her Footloose soundtrack Number One, I like it. Unassuming, perky, and rather sweet, "Let's Hear It For The Boy" is the ne plus ultra of teenage crush anthems (Shanice's 1992 "I Love Your Smile" and Robyn's "Show Me Love" are worthy rivals). Of course, I grew up listening to the innocuous little thing; beside its fellow soundtrack horrors, Ann Wilson and Mike Reno's "Almost Paradise" and Kenny Loggins' title theme, its humility is almost a state of grace. Correspondences form: the programmed drum introduction reminds me of Stevie Nicks' "Stand Back," a Top Five hit a year earlier that's like a letter written by Williams' college-age big sister. Thomas, however, disagrees -- he may retract this when he finds out that he's on the same side as Carrie Brownstein about something.


rcobeen said...

I remember the amount of abuse I got one time on a Salon chat page when I suggested that the 1984 Best Song nominations for the Oscars were the best set of recordings they ever nominated ("Let's Hear It for the Boy", “Footloose,” "I Just Called to Say I Love You,” “Ghostbusters,” “Against All Odds”) I would be fine with never hearing Phil Collins again, but the rest are great pop songs, even fucking Kenny Loggins.

I do think you could do without the "poptimists winning" stuff, unless you were playing off of Gina Arnold's "We Won" statement post Nirvana breakthrough. There is no win or lose, unless you compare the charts of 1984 to the current charts, in which case we are without a doubt currently losing.

Alfred Soto said...

I left this out of the draft: 1984 has become the de rigeur champion of Best Year in Pop. Even if the panel disagrees, I'd think that it's their job to acknowledge the consensus.

Anonymous said...

IIRC the first time I had seen 1984 invoked as 'best year ever' on that front was Chuck Eddy's entry for 1984 by Van Halen in Stairway to Hell back in 1990. Quite prescient, and he gave a rundown as to why that was such a good radio year in particular.