After one of his oldest friends passed away, Ted Anthony took a somber look back on the songs that defined their youth. Many of the Top 40 hits from the 1980s had counterproductive messages, Anthony writes, but “whatever the case, their melodies are now a part of me, interstitched with my memories and my emotions.”
For those of us who came of age in the American suburbs during the 1980s, our songs fibbed to our faces, then smiled Aqua-Fresh smiles as we cheerfully followed them off the cliffs of adolescent self-delusion.
When I say “the 1980s,” I’m defining them completely arbitrarily — as we all do for the eras when we come of age. I’m talking about from 1980 to the end of 1986, before R.E.M. and The Cure and Morrissey commandeered the center of musical gravity in my college years.
I’m talking post-disco, New Wave-inflected exuberance with a backstory of angst, not angst with a backstory of, well, angst (talkin’ to you, “Girlfriend in a Coma”). I’m talking that musical microdecade that was a middle-class kid’s Reagan-era Tin Pan Alley. When we needed aphorisms to help us navigate teenage life, these lyrics offered prefab solutions. I absorbed them. We all did.
Yet embedded in this soundtrack — tucked between the backachingly saccarine (Air Supply), the consciously quirky (Devo) and the thoughtfully hip (Talking Heads) were insidious messages that, for teenagers, were fundamentally counterproductive.
I’m sure this sounds hopelessly naive and cranky as I raise my sons in a Spotified world where explicit lyrics can be pumped into their AirPodded ears from dawn to dusk. But we listened to these songs and they told us, in the loveliest and liveliest of ways, how the world was and how it should be.
And guess what? They pretty much got it wrong. Either that, or we did.