A few weeks ago I was in a conversation—actually a debate—about which decade boasts the best music: the 1970s or the 1980s. One guy I was with is a product of the 1970s so you know which side he took. Another is a product of the 1980s. Of course he was sure that the 1980s had the best music. Also a product of the 1980s, I am most familiar with that decade but would like to see myself as, perhaps, more what you might call objective. Or maybe not. Like many conversations, I took on the role of the passive observer—I needed material for a blog after all— while my friends waxed on the merit of each.
One of the things I thought about during the back-and-forth was, “What do we mean when we refer to an entire decade of music?” Like most of the decades, there is a little overlap. What we mean when we say “the 1970s” doesn’t really begin until about 1974. The same goes for “the 1980s.” For the sake of argument I’m going to start the official 1970s era in 1971 when Led Zeppelin released Zep IV late that year. And even though the 80s vibe was beginning to take shape pretty early in the decade with Air Supply and Kool & the Gang (yeah I said it), acts like Pat Benatar, Queen, Olivia Newton-John, and Blondie (did you know that Parallel Lines is on Rolling Stone’s top 150 all-time list?) were carrying the prior decade’s banner. I don’t think 1981 is that much different. Because of this I’m going to begin the official era of the 80s music with … drumroll … what else but Thriller. Footloose is really really close to being the quintessential 1980s release—happy, tamed anti-establishment, visual—and it was only a year later.
And on the subject of overlap, as I listened to the two throw out artist after artist it became evident that acts like Elton John, Aerosmith, Kiss, Van Halen, and others had hits in both decades. So which decade gets to claim them? It’s a judgment call. The 1970s get Elton pretty much because he was so bad post 1980. Aerosmith is a little more difficult. They probably sold more records in the 1980s so that’s where I put them. Kiss has got to go to 70s while Van Halen goes to both, somehow. Journey, Chicago, and Foreigner … I’m non-committal. Springsteen? He is a statistical outlier in this debate. One thing I know: the 80s get U2.
My 13-year-old daughter recently asked me, “Dad how can you tell which songs belong to the 70s and which belong to the 80s?” I thought about it for a second or two before answering, “Listen for actual musical instruments. If you can hear instruments then it’s probably the 70s.” And it’s true. The music of the 80s seems over produced. Even Van Halen’s 1984 takes one of the great guitarists ever and puts him on keyboards. The music of the 70s, on the other hand, had dark places, mysterious corners, and strange twists and turns that gave us room to explore. The 1970s is so much more nuanced than the 80s and so much more of, in my opinion, what real life has in store for us. It has edges and corners. While the 70s had musical corners where you could go camp out, the 80s was much more cotton candy and polly anna.
In this debate I think we’ve got to consider the launch of MTV in 1981, too. Growing up in a rural community … don’t think I don’t remember the day MTV landed on my black and white television when that guy dressed in an astronaut’s costume put the MTV flag on the moon. Remember Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, and Martha Quinn? I mean, really, how cool were those guys. And don’t forget Nina Blackwood. Looking back, however, MTV sounded the death knell for true musical artistry for more than a decade. Think about it. Once the era of the music video hit, “music” became less the cultural ethos of a generation and more about the dance, the face, the clothes, and the shock. MTV created Boy George for crying out loud! Also because of MTV, music ceased being the collective story. And on that note, I hold MTV accountable for almost killing the concept album, too. In some ways, MTV introduced an era of American music when music was no longer music. With all due respect to the 80s songs I know by heart and love, the 1970s is the greatest musical decade. Not only is the artistry superior, but it’s the last decade of the true storyteller (until recently, but that’s another post).
Is this a trivial conversation to have? Good question—especially in light of our economic woes. But maybe that’s exactly this conversation is important. I’ve come to conclude that the playlist is never trivial. Right or not, the playlist has come to define us even if it’s just for moments at a time. I think most of us would agree that it’s in these moments when we feel most ourselves and maybe even most alive. And I’m not buying the position that music is mere escapism, either. Admittedly it can play that role. But more than escapism, our music gives us a means of expression and articulation—a means of expression when our words come up short. In fact, very often it’s the playlist that speaks on behalf of our deepest places. It’s the playlist that speaks for the heart.