Unpopular Opinion: 80’s Homogeneity Killed the Radio Star

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There are multiple reasons why the 80’s were my least favorite decade for pop music. I grew up mostly on organic and not sampled sounds. Warm, carefully crafted arrangements rather than sterile synths. Heartfelt vocal performances that gave you the feels rather than the flat and robotic delivery typical of New Wave.

Most of all I like diversity in music. And the 80’s seemed to swallow diversity and spit it out all one color and one flavor–that is, no flavor.

The 70’s were a decade when Carly Simon, Led Zeppelin, the Average White Band and Tom Jones could play consecutively on the radio.

The 80’s, conversely, were the decade when drum sounds, keyboard sounds, vocal performances and even (thanks in part to MTV) fashion and hairdos became more regimented. It’s like all the sudden there was a uniform you had to wear to qualify for the top 40.

Take a listen to this sample of three of the decade’s more ubiquitous hits–by Heart, Cher and Starship respectively:


And now a bit of a medley of some of the diverse sounds created by the same artists in the decades prior:


The first clip illustrates the sound of 80’s pop radio, typified by its uniformity of style and arrangement.

The second is all over the place musically, from riff-driven rock to folk pop to orchestrated adult contemporary to fusion to psychedelia. And yet it’s the same three artists.

The second clip is culled from the years when these artists each forged an identity. And the first is from the decade when they apparently had to forego that identity to stay on the radio.

How many of the 70’s greatest artists became hollowed-out versions of themselves creatively in the decade of the 80’s?

Chicago, Aerosmith, Heart, Jefferson Starship, ZZ Top, Kansas, Neil Diamond, Rod Stewart, and on and on.

I’m not saying these artists didn’t sell loads of records in the 80’s. But I will say their 80’s output a) typically lacked the imagination and diversity of their earlier work, b) was more often written by outside writers than the work that made them famous and c) kind of sucked.

As a teenager Steven Tyler wrote:

Every time when I look in the mirror
All these lines on my face getting clearer
The past is gone
It went by, like dusk to dawn…

Sing with me, sing for the years
Sing for the laughter, sing for the tears
Sing with me, just for today
Maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will take you away

As a 40-year-old he wrote:

Love in an elevator
Livin’ it up when I’m goin’ down
Love in an elevator
Lovin’ it up ’til I hit the ground

And as for Chicago’s steady decline into Easy Listening post-Terry Kath well…Look Away indeed.

As for 80’s pop radio’s slavish devotion to the new, processed, synthy sound, I think it precipitated interesting shifts in radio formats. Plenty of artists who had success on pop radio in the 70’s had to redefine themselves as Country artists in the 80’s.

Exile (“Kiss You All Over”), The Bellamy Brothers (“Let Your Love Flow”), Michael Murphy (“Wildfire”), Michael Johnson (“Bluer than Blue”) and others made music too distinctly traditional-sounding and too organic for New Wave-dominated 80’s radio. After tweaking their sound and their songwriting just a bit they were welcomed by country radio, which experienced a shift toward a more pop-friendly crossover sound in the same decade.

Unpopular Opinion: Prince Lowered the Bar for Sexual Innuendo in Music

While I can appreciate a titillating suggestive lyric in a pop song, I believe even the low-minded can be artfully rendered. And I’d argue that the man most associated with lyrical sexual innuendo was hardly its most literate or proficient practitioner.

Prolific? I’ll give him that. It’s almost be simpler to name the Prince songs that don’t feature bawdy double entendre than it is to give examples of his, uh…dirty mind. I won’t bother.

Popular? A hundred million sold, as McDonald’s used to say.

I’m just here to say he sucked at it.

So if you think

Get on top
You will cop
Don’t you stop
Sh-boogie bop

…is as high-minded as lowbrow gets, I’ll see your Purple One and raise you one Ian Anderson, front man of English art rockers Jethro Tull.

Singer-songwriter-flutist-guitarist and all around mischief maker Anderson rose to the occasion when it came to penning innuendo-laced lyrics, then set them in some of the most ambitiously ornate musical arrangements you’ll hear.

If his mind was in the gutter, his oldfangled English was strictly front parlor. His command of the language turned innuendo into high art. Check out “Hunting Girl” from 1977’s Songs from the Wood:

Why All Country Music Sounds the Same

Greg Todd’s six-song mashup of recent “bro-country” hits (above) along with Grady Smith’s supercut from 2013 (below) reveal what some of us have known for some time: contemporary country is a musically and lyrically bankrupt medium–pretty much creativity’s antithesis.

Which is fine if you’re into that kind of thing.

Just don’t ask my why I won’t listen to a genre of music in which a song is already, in effect, an oldie the day it’s released.

I’m beginning to believe you could actually write a hit country song by simply ticking enough boxes of hillbilly hackney…

blah blah blah blah “small town”

blah blah blah blah “dirt road” blah blah “pickup truck”

blah blah “backwoods”, “moonlight” blah blah “tight blue jeans”

“good stuff”, “cold beer”, “six-pack” and/or “homemade wine”

blah blah on a Saturday Night (or Friday)

Listen to Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried”, for example, which rattles off no less than four of the above clichés within the song’s first seven lines (and that’s not counting the fried chicken reference). Many country songs amount to nothing more than lists of things identifiably rough-hewn and rustic–compiled into a testament either of the singer’s redneck cred or that of the (small town, blue-jean clad) girl of his affection.

It seems the only suitable locale for a country song is a small town. The only vehicle a country song’s protagonist may drive is a pickup, or perhaps a flatbed. The only acceptable dress for a woman in a country song is tight blue jeans. And the only time anything happens in a country song is on a weekend. Pretty rigid songwriting–and listening–requirements.

Now think of great–and I mean great–country songs of decades past. Songs such as “El Paso” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” and “Sixteen Tons” and “King of the Road” and “Behind Closed Doors” and “Stand by Your Man” and “Ring of Fire” and even “The Gambler”. Notice how none of those songs were strewn with lazy lists of all things “country”. That’s because when those songs were popular, country music was the medium, and not the message. The song was about something else, something substantive.

To sum up what’s wrong with (or at least what’s different about) country music today: “country” has gone from being the genre to the subject matter itself. Like a painting of a picture frame.

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