Every few months, the BBC releases a new installment of Top of the Pops: The Story of…, spotlighting a specific year through lens of the venerable pop music program. The format is strictly documentary-lite, generally apolitical, and typically focuses upon whoever accepts their invitation to provide commentary. (Think VH-1’s decade-themed specials from the Aughts — themselves inspired by BBC programming — but dedicated to a specific venue.)
I began watching them for snatches of punk and wave content, but the anecdotal and archived glimpses into a mythic past were enough for me to hang in through the Big Pop era. Historical curiosity overrode my long-standing aversion to plastic MOR synthpop, big hair, and pastel fashion disasters. Even if the acts weren’t up my alley, it was a fascinating look into a scene which intermingled with the one on this side of the Atlantic, yet still maintained a distinct — and often baffling to these Yankee eyes and ears — identity.
Then the series finally hit 1989, and shit got heavy. I made it about five minutes and a couple of Lisa Stansfield and Shaun Ryder appearances in before getting weirded out by how old everyone looked.
While I’m not above indulging in “hey, did you realize [insert beloved Gen X artifact] is [Y] many years old” social media pronouncements for lazy mindfuck thrills, I generally don’t brood about such things. My mom dreaded getting old so intensely that it contributed to her mental illness and death at age 37. Witnessing that as a teen made me conscious of any such stirrings in my own skull, and the need to squash them whenever they surface. I’m not fond of the random aches and pains or weird proliferation of stray ear and eyebrow hair, but I’m comfortable in my skin and where I’m at…
…except when 1989 is evoked, apparently.
There’s a pat explanation for this reaction. My mom died at the end of 1988, and her passing marked a hard boundary between “then” and “now” in my brain. Any after her death is “recent” memory, shit I can generally recall with a fair degree of clarity even beyond major milestones. Logically, I understand that three decades had passed — though I had to use my fingers yesterday to verify that 1989 wasn’t twenty years ago — but shaking the reflexive “not that long ago” assessment is tough to do.
The extended adolescence experienced — by choice or circumstance — by so many folks of my generation didn’t help either. All those long stretches of day-to-day living, with the traditional milestones absent or muted, can really fuck with one’s perception of time. When my dad was my age, he was a widowed Vietnam vet with two adult sons, making a decent living in a blue collar gig he stepped into when he was 40 after previously working for a defense-tech firm. In contrast, the stretch of time between buying our house in 2004 and the kid’s arrival last Summer was marked mostly by gaming consoles, changes to the household menagerie, and vehicles owned. What major events did happen mostly fed into the sense of stasis.
Generationally, we got locked into a deceptive “island of stability” from our twenties through mid-forties, which made its inevitable erosion all the more disturbing. I lost both my father and grandmother in the space of a year, while Maura lost her mother and a number of other relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Bowie and Prince shuffled off this mortal coil, followed by one cultural constant after another.
Without making light of folks’ sense of grief and loss, this is how things happen. The cycle of life and all that jazz. It’s as natural as a pop star who was 25 in 1989 looking like a typical middle aged dude in 2020, yet here we are…and this is only the start of it.
I am extremely curious and somewhat terrified about how it will continue to play out.