Archive forJune, 2004

A DECADE UNDER THE INFLUENCE

    From Prince to Pixies, Madonna to Morrissey, the ’80s finally graduates from kitsch-decade status and earns a little respect.

A couple of weeks ago, I’m walking along 23rd Street, sneaking into the office at midday, dressed way down. Suddenly, some pudgy, pierced kid – probably from one of the middle and high schools in the area – catches a glimpse of my faded 1989 T-shirt and yells out, pumping his fist…

“Yeah – the Cure!!”

I swear I am not making this up.

It’s the kind of exhortation you might have heard back in 1989, except the older guy’s shirt would have depicted Houses of the Holy and the kid would have yelled, “Yeah – Zeppelin!” No self-respecting Cure fan in 1989, be he goth, stoner or indie kid, would have audibly praised a T-shirt-wearer; to the ‘89 fan, merely wearing a Cure T-shirt might have signaled you were a come-lately poseur. Now, the shirt earns admiring name-checks from skate rats, not even born when The Head on the Door came out, for whom the Cure are totally classic.

Make no mistake – I was charmed by this encounter, if utterly stunned. I had to remind myself that kids half my age now worship the Cure. This despite the fact that Robert Smith’s goth stalwarts haven’t put anything out in more than five years, and their last U.S. hit single was in 1992.

But to a generation of young punk, goth and indie bands, the Cure are Zeppelin, the dark-rock template. The last couple of years have been good for Cure worship. From Blink-182 inviting Robert Smith to perform on their latest album and imitating his baroque-period sound on the hit single “I Miss You”; to ska-punkers 311 covering “Love Song”; to Interpol and the Rapture falling at Smith’s feet and crediting him in interviews with their cobwebby sounds, the Cure have never seemed more now. The band is weeks away from releasing a comeback album. But more amazingly, Smith & co. are headlining a tour of day-long, OzzFest-like shows, called Curiosa, in which the Cure will be supported by several of the current bands they inspired.

Curiosa will probably do pretty well. But it isn’t the year’s most anticipated tour. That title belongs to another comeback by a different alternative-’80s band, the Pixies. Frank Black, Kim Deal and co. finally realized that getting over their differences would be worth it, now that they can easily sell out large theaters and small arenas. (I still say they have enough New York fans that they could probably fill the Garden if they tried.) Though their early shows have been a bit hesitant and sloppy, the band has already earned fawning reviews as they work their way across the country. As if the mere fact of the reunion weren’t generating enough buzz, the Pixies ‘04 are even headlining some dates on the newly revived Lollapalooza tour, playing huge outdoor venues and showing the likes of String Cheese Incident how to rock.

But forget Curiosa, and Lollapalooza – those won’t be the summer’s biggest tours. The winners on the live circuit this summer have already been declared (according to HITS), and the title belongs to two ’80s superstars: Prince and Madonna.

Both His Purpleness and Mrs. Ritchie are selling out arenas, despite the fact that, just prior to 2004, their studio albums were selling like monkey turds. (Prince is staging a chart comeback at the moment, but top 40 radio still isn’t playing him much. More on him later, after I see the show.) Natch, both acts are claiming that this may be the last time they’ll be performing their biggest ’80s hits, which can’t be hurting their box-office take.

The success of these two pop superstars’ tours may not sound surprising, but anyone who follows the live-music biz knows this is virtually unprecedented: it’s the first time the summer’s top concert grossers aren’t ’60s or ’70s icons. The Stones, the Eagles, Paul McCartney, Elton John/Billy Joel – these are the kinds of acts who top the Boxscore chart and gross tens or even hundreds of millions. But this year, most of these guys are sitting out the road, and Fleetwood Mac are reportedly having trouble selling out some of their top-dollar dates.

Meanwhile, Madonna isn’t breaking a sweat, charging what Mick Jagger usually gets away with: well over $100 a ticket – and upwards of $300 for the prime seats. Prince’s overall grosses are, in way, even more impressive, as his top ticket is a more modest $85. Still, he would have had trouble charging even that much just two or three years ago.

Obviously nostalgia is at work here, as Prince, Madonna, the Cure and even the Pixies are finally old enough to tap into the aging-yuppie dollar. But I propose that something bigger is going on here, amid all the excitement surrounding these acts (throw in the Morrissey comeback, the rekindled Guns n’ Roses mania, the new album by Mission of Burma): ’80s music is finally moving past camp, past nostalgia, into the realm of influence and respect.

My theory is that historicism in rock comes in waves: the kitsch wave, the nostalgia wave and the legitimacy wave.

The ’80s’ kitsch wave started a long time ago. In fact, it arguably started almost the minute the ’90s began: My college launched its annual Safety Dance around 1991 or so, focusing almost exclusively on the flippy-floppy period in the first half of the decade, when haircut bands like Kajagoogoo ruled. College ’80s dances began to die off by the late ’90s, as ever-younger students took over and memories of the decade grew hazier.

By then, the larger culture had caught on. Adult-contemporary radio added “’80s gold” to their playlists, and VH1 had a daily video showcase called The Big ’80s, which pumped the likes of Duran Duran but didn’t exactly exalt them as artistes. It took until 1998 for a full-blown ’80s flashback movie to appear: Adam Sandler’s The Wedding Singer, which distorted facts and timelines (an airline clerk in 1985 with Flock of Seagulls hair? bitch please!) in its endless quest for a laugh.

Truthfully, for any decade, the kitsch phase never really ends. We still talk about the ’50s in terms of poodle skirts, the ’60s in terms of love beads, the ’70s in terms of platform heels. Flip to VH1’s quip show I Love the ’80s anytime (and I do mean anytime; it’s repeated endlessly) to enjoy campy comments on that decade’s arcana.

The nostalgia wave is more earnest, and it’s hard to say when, exactly, it begins. Gradually, the look-back shows are focusing less on the one-hit wonders, the “Come on Eileen”s and “Take on Me”s, and more on the titans of the decade. People start saying the new Madonna album’s nice, but boy, was she the shit when Like a Virgin dropped; that new Michael Jackson song is catchy as hell, but man, remember how we all died for Thriller? Obviously, the kitsch wave and the nostalgia wave overlap, but after a while, people can at least talk about the decade’s leading lights while keeping their tongues out of their cheeks.

By the late ’90s, a flip through your local Sam Goody could uncover loving retrospective CDs covering the Police, Gang of Four, Gary Numan. Metal fans, who’d been sent to the back of the bus when Nirvana made them obsolete, came out of hiding, talking wistfully about the forgotten thrills of the Sunset Strip spandex scene. Older rappers made their first attempts to describe the pure joy of early hip-hop, and “back in the day” joined “keeping it real” in the lexicon. As with kitsch, nostalgia never goes away; but some of it morphs and forms into the backbone of the legitimacy wave.

The difference between the nostalgia phase and the final legitimacy wave is about who’s doing the looking back. Nostalgia comes from people who lived through and clearly remember the period in question. Legitimacy is conferred when young people who can’t remember that time – or were barely even alive for it – look to it for inspiration. The appreciation is no longer ironic. But it’s more than that: some kids now don’t think the decade ever needed to be appreciated ironically. Some actually wish they could go back to that time. Remember all the kids 15 years ago who wished they had lived through the ’60s? There are actually kids who think the ’80s must’ve been a blast.

I’d be full of it if I argued that teenagers just started paying attention to ’80s music a year or two ago. Grunge stars spoke of the Pixies as legends the minute they broke up. The mid-’90s ska explosion stole a lot of its moves from the early ’80s two-tone movement. And hip-hop operates on such an accelerated schedule that rappers have been giving open props to Grandmaster Flash and Run-DMC for about a decade (in black music, “back in the day” can mean 1997).

I guess what I’m noticing is that love and admiration for the ’80s, in any pop-culture forum, has become more open in the last couple of years than it’s ever been. (I don’t know, maybe a week of Reagan hagiography is having an effect on me.) Fashion, as usual, was ahead of the curve, unironically bringing back Flashdance off-the-shoulder jerseys and zipper-laden pants two or three years ago. But then, la deluge: the Strokes started copping Blondie; No Doubt switched influences, from the Specials to the Human League; the Neptunes helped pop singers sound like the Gap Band; Justin started moving and singing like Michael. Ozzy Osbourne was a beloved punchline for years – on TV, he still is – but it was rather bracing, when OzzFest began dominating the touring circuit a couple of years ago, that a generation of nü-metal bands spoke of him so rapturously.

Now the most coveted fashion item is a “vintage” rock shirt from an early ’80s metal tour: the Crüe, Quiet Riot, Dio. Sure, there are elements of kitsch and nostalgia in such trends. But did you ever think a Dio shirt would be called “vintage”? I no longer think a hot young thing wearing one of these shirts is wearing it ironically.

I never went to metal shows in the ’80s. So I don’t own any flame-decorated Ts I could Ebay. I guess I was a pretty cheap and lazy bastard and rarely saw any of the biggest bands live; what I wouldn’t give now to own shirts from the Virgin Tour, the Purple Rain Tour, the (Seven and the Ragged) Tiger Tour. My Cure shirt is the only vintage tour merch I own that’s worth a damn. Most of the rest are pretty sad – I’m not giving up my Cyndi Lauper and INXS shirts, but I won’t be taking them out of mothballs quite yet. But just you wait: Cyndi’s critical reevaluation, box-set retrospective and global comeback tour are just seconds away, and my “True Colors 1986 Tour” shirt will make me look très cool.

Comments (10)

WIT 1, BLUE-HAIRED TOURISTS 0

    I haven’t cared about Broadway in years, but the win by Avenue Q at the Tonys last night excites me for some reason.

There were two upset victories in the news this weekend, but only one was a shock.

At Belmont, yet another heavily favored post-1978 racehorse failed to become a Triple Crown winner. (Yawn.)

But at Radio City Music Hall last night, the crowd in attendance reportedly gasped when little-show-that-could Avenue Q stole the Tony for Best Musical from the odds-on favorite, Wicked.

I feel a little like The Onion’s Jackie Harvey blogging about this: I haven’t even seen Avenue Q. But thanks to Ed – my best friend/Best Man/favorite showtunes junkie – I have owned the soundtrack since Christmas. It got me through many a dusty night of packing boxes in my old apartment last winter. The songs – “It Sucks to Be Me,” “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “The Internet Is for Porn,” to name a few – are hilarious, and I can only imagine they’ll get funnier in front of a packed house. I guess I finally have to get off my ass and see this show.

I still see straight plays occasionally, but I haven’t cared about Broadway musicals since I was…oh, 18 or so. I spent most of my teenage years living in Connecticut, and so it figures that I was more interested in musicals then; I was both less cynical and more suburban. I did have a major passion for Chess, the Tim Rice-plus-ABBA musical (no teasing, please). And I’ll always have a soft spot for Rice’s and Lloyd-Webber’s Evita – with Patti LuPone, not Madonna, thankyouverymuch.

I spent the late ’80s seeing most of the major Broadway blockbusters: Cats, Phantom, even (gah!) Starlight Express. (Even my 17-year-old self was smart enough to hate that show.) But moving back to New York in my twenties pretty much killed off my interest in mainstream theater. During the ’90s, I’d generally only go to Broadway shows when someone gave me free tickets or Ed came into town for a visit.

Cost was a major factor; I chose to be up to speed on music, at $15 a CD, or movies, at $10 per screening, rather than $75-per-ticket Broadway shows. And God knows actual New Yorkers want to spend as little time as possible around tourists.

But mostly, I share my generation’s uneasiness with the musical genre. There have been efforts recently to get us interested in musicals again, both on stage (Rent) and on screen (Moulin Rouge, Chicago). But I’ve only recently perked up as some truly off-the-wall, post–Age of Irony concepts have made it to Broadway.

Emily and I saw Urinetown! in the summer of 2001, a couple of months after it arrived on Broadway. Truthfully, it was a good-not-great show – I commented at the time that there was a reason Simpsons episodes only last a half-hour – but we had a blast anyway. A satire about a dystopian town with limited bathroom facilities, the show adeptly poked fun at musical tropes while reveling in them (not unlike South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut). It felt truly contemporary to us, and I appreciated that somebody was finally trying a concept on Broadway that was too weird, too postmodern, too meta for blue-haired ladies from Long Island. Ironically, the blue-hairs loved the show anyway: Urinetown! played for three more years and eventually recouped its investment, only vacating its theater space when a building renovation forced it out.

Urinetown! didn’t win the Best Musical Tony the following spring. It lost to the more traditional Thoroughly Modern Millie, which I guess one could blame on 9/11 and an aching public’s demand for earnestness. This Variety article brings up the Urinetown! loss in comparison with last night’s upset win by the equally meta, postmodern Avenue Q, noting that a strange-but-beloved show like Q normally does at the Tonys what Urinetown! did: loses the big prize while picking up compensating awards in the book and score categories. It’s not unlike what happens to the more interesting films at the Oscars: Pulp Fiction and Traffic win screenplay awards; Forrest Gump and Gladiator win Best Picture.

Why did Avenue Q take the prize last night? I haven’t seen anything on Broadway this season, so I’m not fit to comment, really. And I would hesitate before calling this a turning point for the Broadway musical; I mean, wasn’t the win by Rent seven years ago supposed to be my generation’s coming-out at the Tony podium?

The show that was heavily favored to win last night, Wicked, is itself an ironic take on musical history; it satirizes The Wizard of Oz, a totally mainstream association that gives the show a huge built-in audience. Wicked is a huge hit, but its satire is, by its very nature, gentler, more celebratory. Avenue Q’s sense of irony – trash-talking, sex-having Sesame Street muppets – is much more subversive.

All I can say is, irony in mainstream entertainment is a funny thing – funny as in odd, unpredictable. Pit an ironic show (Urinetown!) against a mainstream one (Millie), and the crowd-pleaser wins. But in a head-to-head battle of irony vs. irony, the more subversive idea (Q) stands a better chance.

The critics didn’t like Wicked nearly as much as they did Avenue Q, but I’ve heard from a few friends, including Ed, that Wicked is based on a decent book and is actually good fun. Maybe I’ll finally see two Broadway musicals in a year, for the first time in a long time. But my priority is Avenue Q – not like the show needs my money now, after last night’s win; but I want to throw my support to a show that clearly knows what people like Emily and me enjoy.

Comments