Armagideon Time

As a kid, pop music was something I passively encountered rather than actively sought out. The twin vectors of exposure were my parents’ record collection (the Easy Rider OST, the Doors, Neil Diamond) or my elementary school classmates (AC/DC, the Bay City Rollers, the Grease movie soundtrack). Apart from occasionally environmental wild cards — such as getting spooked by Supertramp’s “Logical Song” at a drive-in’s snack bar — these defined the boundaries of my listening experiences.

Things changed up a little after my teenage aunt moved in with us in 1980. While not a dedicated new waver, she alternated the suburban hesher standards of Zep and the Stones with spins of the first Clash LP, early Adam Ant, and the Blues Brothers, inadvertently shaping my tastes in ways that would only become apparent years later.

Mostly I just went along with the flow, paying note to certain songs only if they lent themselves to some satirically scatological interpretation.

Between “Jerkin’ Back ‘n’ Forth” and Greg Kinh’s “The Breakup Song,” my pals and I got a lot belly laughs performing the “jack off” gesture in time with the saliently prurient parts of the songs. If only my current audience was so easy to please.

My aunt’s youthward shift of our domestic incidental music was kicked into overdrive after a cluster of events which took place towards the end of 1982.

1. To help make ends meet after my dad was laid off, my mother took a job at stereo component factory staffed by a motley bunch of wannabe musicians and audiophiles.

2. My family bought a Chrysler Cordoba with an 8-track player, and my mom took advantage of that by picking up a half-dozen recent K-Tel compilations to listen to while driving.

3. My dad got himself a Panasonic boom box to provide tunes when he was out working on his leathery tan.

4. Boston’s 103.3 FM station switched to a “hot hits” format under the WHTT callsign.

5. I hit an age when having specific musical tastes and interests became an essentially part of my pre-adolescent identity.

All of the above also happened to coincide with the high-water mark of the “new music” phenomenon. Though the sounds of the post punk diaspora failed to gel into a full blown fad during the period immediately following disco’s demise, it was given a new lease on life thanks to MTV and the bands’ forward-thinking embrace of the music video format. The paucity of material (abetted by MTV’s whitewashed playlist) and popularity of the format allowed many otherwise “outlandish” acts to go head-to-head — in the public consciousness if not the charts — with the AOR establishment.

Yet while the video aspect was important from an exposure standpoint, it was working in tandem with the equally significant fallout of punk rock’s imperfect paradigm shift which allowed scores of offbeat subgenres to nibble at the fringes of the mainstream. As they disproportionately came to dominate the discourse, they set the tone for unaffiliated acts seeking a slice of that pie.

The dominiance of AOR, soft rock, and smooth R&B wasn’t toppled, but they were forced to share space with artists that, in many cases, qualified as novelty acts. The trend only lasted until the industry could adapt to the new videogenic status quo, but its brief moment arrived the most effective point of personal impact.

It was the soundtrack for a new decade, of pixel-abstracted videogames and chrome-sheened futurism and nuclear dread. It was bizarre and otherworldly, in ways that dovetailed perfectly with an eleven year old geek’s obsession with funnybooks, sci-fi, and the apocalyptic promises of the coming digital era.

It was the awakening of my generational awareness, the sense that these were songs specifically speaking to me.

And so I’d camp out at my mother’s sewing table in our cramped kitchen-slash-dining-room, parked in front of my dad’s boom box, dial turned to WHTT, waiting eagerly for each hourly rotation of my favorite tracks.

It’s shocking how much power these songs still wield over me, even thirty-odd years later. It’s not just limited to the “cooler” stuff that I sought out on used vinyl once my punk puritanism began to slacken in the early 1990s, either.

The slick, the cheesy, the haunting, and the cheesy — they’re all part of that nostalgic tapestry, whether I’d like to admit it or not.

Each time I queue up the Billboard Hot 100 for 1983 as an at work playlist, the number of skip-aheads shrinks in direct proportion to the number of fucks I have left to give.

5 Responses to “1983: The Year My Voice Broke – The Tunes”

  1. Matty.s

    Hi Andrew,
    What a great write up on how a lot of us eighties kids regard the music of the era.
    I’m a couple of years younger than you and would say that my years of pop culture coming of age was 85/86.
    Totally agree on the fact that stuff like toto, Dexys and leppard would not have been on my playlist when I was in my thirties but now I guess I also have fewer fucks because I really do love this stuff.

  2. Chris Wuchte

    At the time I was listening to those very songs, it never dawned on me that I would still be hearing the same music years later. I know some of it is due to nostalgia on the part of our generation, but I also think certain musical eras hold up better than others. Walking through a grocery store today, I”m as likely to hear a song from the early to mid ’80s as much as I am to hear one from 1965-66.

    Last weekend, I happened to tune in a rerun of Casey Kasem’s Top 40 from 1974. I was a little surprised at how many of the songs he played have been utterly forgotten. I guess the long-haired, sensitive male genre of music lacked durability. My wife kept begging me to change the channel, but there was something oddly fascinating to discover a time in music for which we as a society collectively decided “Meh…”

  3. SJB

    Now this “the number of skip-aheads shrinks in direct proportion to the number of fucks I have left to give” is a turn of a phrase

  4. Frank

    Music from this era is the soundtrack to the life I thought I would have but know now that I never will. Listening to it blurs the line between wistful nostalgia and brief lapses into best forgotten delusions of futures past.

  5. DensityDuck

    Chris: must be a long-hair-dudes thing. Most hair metal has vanished into the ether as well, beyond a few old standbys played once a day as a rememberance, the way a devout Catholic lights candles on Sunday mornings…

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