Monday, August 26

Social currents drowned disco


Wednesday, 5/28/97 Social currents drowned disco Interpretation
of past styles reveals much about present-day values

If you hung around for Memorial Day weekend, you were probably
so barraged by the onslaught of "totally ’80s weekends" that you
covered your face with Clearasil and asked your parents to drop you
off at the mall. Singing along to the Waitresses’ "I Know What Boys
Like" in the shower last Saturday started me thinking. When I was
14 (1987), I never heard songs from the ’70s on the radio, let
alone "groovy ’70s weekends." In fact, I have no idea what KROQ,
(the long defunct) KKHR, KIQQ and the Mighty 690 (for longtime L.A.
denizens) played in the ’70s. Those playlists and singles seem to
have been burned when Reagan was elected – save for the Clash,
Blondie, the Police, and other punk and new-wave bands that were
really as much a part of the ’80s as anyone. Disco has made a
comeback in the ’90s, like the culture and music of the ’60s did in
the ’80s, but for a decade, disco was the kiss of death. Why was
there such a huge backlash against the ’70s, and why were the ’80s
spared? Sure, we laugh now at skinny ties and hair-sprayed "rake
bangs," but bands like Heart and Duran Duran endure none of the
venomous ridicule that the Bee Gees and the Village People have
endured. Is it because disco represented all of the things that the
’80s shunned (officially, anyway) – the seedy demise of New York’s
ultra-hip Studio 54, rampant sex, heroin and organic drugs? It
seems that disco fell prey more to racism, homophobia, fear of AIDS
and resentment toward the decade-long party of the ’70s that was
forbidden in the ’80s. Even as an 8-year-old, I remember the "Disco
Sucks" slogan on T-shirts of collegiate types and truck drivers
alike, as well as on banners at sports games (though I missed the
deliberate pun on oral sex). Despite the horrors of the Vietnamese
and Korean wars, the ’80s seem to have done more damage to this
country than the ’70s – mental patients kicked out onto the streets
(thanks, Ronny), billions spent on weapons, billions spent on
dismantling those weapons, the dwindling of the Environmental
Protection Agency, crack, materialism and … materialism. Even if
the intentional oblivion of new wave sprang from these problems, it
doesn’t represent or discuss them – it doesn’t get under the skin
enough to upset us – and that might be why it was never completely
banned. In other words, new wave may have been saved by its own
shallowness and unwillingness to address the decade’s problems
(problems which were, ironically, shallowness and an unwillingness
to address the nation’s problems). This seems plausible, except
that bands that did address the nation’s ills – notably U2,
Midnight Oil and R.E.M. – were put on pedestals, where they remain
today. Also, disco did largely the same thing as new wave – it told
you to forget about war and the gas crisis and party your ass off.
The difference may be that disco was accompanied by an overt
sexuality and a fast-paced culture that never surrounded the more
innocent attitude of new wave. To those of us who grew up with it,
new wave represents the innocence of our youth and the superficial
abundance of the worry-free ’80s, something that disco – and the
’70s – was never "innocent" enough to get away with. Many of those
who grew up with disco were either too young to enjoy its culture
or too worn out by its culture to endure any more of it. Did rock
‘n’ roll decadence reach its limit? Was it OK for Mick Jagger and
guitar-slingin’ white guys, but not OK for African American divas,
gays and their rump-shakin’ fans? The disgust with disco as the
’70s gave way to the ’80s seems to suggest this. Radio also may
have played an important role in disco’s disappearance from the
’80s musical landscape. Like techno (but to a lesser extent), disco
was club music, and may have not been played as much on the air as
bands like the Eagles. Younger fans who grew up with ’80s music did
not have the opportunity to go clubbing and hear it. Maybe radio
stations and formats that gained popularity in the ’80s never
played it in the first place – preferring bands like the Sex
Pistols, Rush, Aerosmith and Pink Floyd. This differs from the
situation today, where stations that played new wave early on in
the ’80s are really popular today and continue to play the
flashbacks their older listeners love. Though Blondie sounds
nothing like Nirvana, it is common for someone to have both in
their music collection or to hear them played back-to-back at a
club or on the radio. This is not as true for Donna Summer and Adam
Ant. As someone who was too busy collecting stickers and playing
with stuffed animals to dissect the musical climate of the late
’70s and early ’80s, all I can do is make conjectures. But I do
remember what I heard on the radio and what I didn’t, and the
airplay choices do raise these questions. Returning to the present
day, I wonder what taste the ’90s will leave in the mouths of the
next generation. There is already a backlash against grunge and the
nihilism that pervades much of the guitar-driven music of the
decade. (Although, if you think about it, the Smiths and Depeche
Mode were just as depressing – at least bands today don’t go
quietly for the bottle of Valium.) As the tide turns again to less
emotional, more electronic music, as was popular in the ’80s, will
the soundtrack of the early ’90s and its scathing comments on what
it’s like to be young and pissed off in America be buried under
layers of oblivion? And worse, will it be resurrected in 2010 as
kitsch by pseudo-angsty teenagers who think it’s a hoot? (Wait a
minute: There are already pseudo-angsty kids mimicking the Smashing
Pumpkins). This is probably inevitable, as even the most timeless
and soul-probing music gets ground into nostalgia and teased for
its dated sound. But music from every decade, no matter how tied to
a political or cultural movement, has an element of truth that
lasts. It is the way we approach and interpret these truths that
changes. The way America treats its past says quite a bit about its
present. Kristin FIore Previous Daily Bruin story: A list of love
songs to indulge all feelings on Valentine’s Day

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