Friday, June 29, 2012

Days of '87

(This blog entry was originally written and published in November 2007, and I am amazed at how relevant it remains as of the middle of 2012.)
These days I can't listen to commercial radio that often, what with pop radio divided between teenyboppers and big bad rappers (ever get the feeling Jay-Z could scare people just by frowning?), while rock music still seems to be recycling postmodern grunge sounds that were last fresh in 1992. It's hard to believe that, in 1987, there seemed to be more hope for the future of popular music.
In that year, various pop performers, having nothing to do with the synthesized and overproduced dance pop music of the time, had some significant commercial breakthroughs, thanks in part to their popularity among college students like myself. Bands like U2, R.E.M. and Los Lobos all had major hit singles, but even more significant was the revival of a genre that had seemed a spent force nearly a decade earlier - that of the singer-songwriter.
Suzanne Vega and Tracy Chapman were the leading proponents of this revival with their driving, energetic but subtly moving and socially relevant folk-rock hits that grabbed people's attention with their depth. Vega's number five hit "Luka" walked a tightrope between being a toe-tapping pop tune and a song calling attention to the trauma of child abuse, and the other songs on her Solitude Standing album were about everything from an Upper West Side diner to a Portuguese neighborhood in Newark to a nineteenth-century German adolescent. Chapman - who debuted in 1988 with her first LP - not only had a number one hit, she had another song of hers immediately get covered by, of all people, Neil Diamond!
The hit, "Fast Car," was ostensibly about escaping poverty but also spoke to the anxiety of middle-class Americans caught in a repetitive suburban living pattern and unable to find any satisfaction in a country with growing apathy and income inequity. Many pop critics were taken aback by how such performers were able to crack the pop charts, and several observers noted that, after several years of pop being in a synthesized rut where dance popsters like Madonna and Janet Jackson could have a hit with a cool video and a substance-free dance tune with a hook, people were demanding music of better quality and greater depth. Even fans of Suzanne Vega hopefully declared that their idol would "lead us into a revolution!"
It was all a mirage. Musical trends were still initiated in shopping malls and dance clubs, not on college campuses, and as soon as 1989 the anti-dance-pop trend was already waning. Rap was becoming more popular, Madonna and Janet Jackson returned with new LPs after three years, and the revolution in which Suzanne Vega was supposed to be a four-star general never happened. Indeed, her own records were already being relegated to bargain bins, and no one noticed Chapman's second album so easily. And 1989 was the year that Edie Brickell proved that you could make a traditional pop record with acoustic and basic electric arrangements - no synthesizers - and still make a lousy, annoying piece of junk.
Since then, hip-hop and dance pop have set the standard in popular music, and there's nothing anyone can really do about it. The manufactured, mass-produced quality of the dance music popular in the early 1990s sparked the the grunge revolt led by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and that produced a lot of good rock in its wake, but again, the revolt was short-lived. Kurt Cobain and his cronies profited off socioeconomic anxiety, which their music reflected; as soon as fears of a protracted economic depression eased, the intensity of grunge also ebbed. So, alas, did its influence on pop. Which is why Madonna, despite her lack of rock credibility, will probably succeed in getting in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on her first try and Vega and Chapman will be lucky to even get nominated once they're eligible. But in a truly evil world, Vega and Chapman would never have been born, and Madge would be singing at the Paris Opera House. :-O
Apart from the grunge revolt, popular music has mostly remained in a regrettable stasis since the elder George Bush first took the presidential oath of office - and it says a lot that people facing the anxieties of life that singers like Vega and Chapman gave voice to somehow failed to translate their unease into political expression and allowed Bush to be elected to the Presidency after eight years as Ronald Reagan's lackey. Despite the similar circumstances between socioeconomic conditions and most popular music today, remember this - a cultural revolt from the kind of performers normally played on college or local public radio stations is not going to happen.
But in 1987, the possibilities for such an escape from musical complacency seemed very different. . . .
(Note: Since this was first written, Madge, as we all know, did get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in her first year of eleigiblity.  Suzanne Vega - eligible since 2011 - has, of course, not been inducted yet.  Tracy Chapman, though eligible in 2014, is  as likely to be inducted as Roger Chapman.) 

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