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.

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