Thursday, May 11, 2006


I'm interested in how the present becomes the past.

My wife gets Victoria's Secret catalogues. I usually flip through them to see what she'll likely be wearing. The last two have shocked me, because several pages are full of the most hideous '80s stype clothes: leggings, shoulder pads, "Flash Dance" tops, those baggy sweater-dress things. Gah, it's my worst nightmare. I lived through that era once; now it's haunting me; can't you give me a sedative and wake me when it's over?

[Fortunately, my wife likes tight and sexy things on her sleek chassis, so I don't have to worry about the '80s crossing my threshhold. But I'll have to endure it when we step out.]

But if we're finally going to get the long-overdue '80s revival, I wonder what it will sound like.

I've lived long enough to watch the '60s and the '70s go from "now" to "then" to "oh God I can't believe we looked like that," to "retro-chic" to established nostalgia genres. In each case, the decade that comes back bears only a superficial resemblance to the decade that was. It's a zombie, a CG image approximation. A handful of the most outlandish characteristics are selected, jammed together Frankenstein style, and set in motion.

Mostly the nostalgia creature consists of clues and tags. Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" equals unhappy U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. "Age of Aquarius" equals hippies.

Never mind that Hendrix was rather a cult figure, who figures nowhere on the charts in the late 60s and probably most Americans got through the decade without ever hearing his lush and slashing solos. If you look at the 60s through the lens of pop nostalgia, it was one solid wall of Hendrix from end to end.

And look what really was at the top of the charts in '69: Some of the songs that have made it into the nostalgia creature -- "Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In," "Hair," "Crimson and Clover," "In the Year 2525."

But number two on the charts was a piece of bubblegum fluff, "Sugar, Sugar" by The Archies. Who thinks "1969" when he or she hears "Leaving on a Jet Plane," or "Wichita Lineman" or "Crystal Blue Persuasion" or Henry Mancini? Chances are, more U.S. servicemen in Vietnam in 1969 heard Elvis than heard Jimi.

So what will make it into the '80s nostalgia monster's soundtrack? And what very popular things will be left out?

I'm willing to bet Hall and Oates, invoked in the music thread below, will be left out. They were the hottest thing going at mid-decade, but their blue-eyed soul sound is very broad and could as well, with a few beat changes and techno subtractions, have been from the mid-60s. It doesn't quite scream "80s" at you unless you were there.

Same with other very popular acts from the decade like Lionel Richie or the Bangles or Bob Seeger. A typical Bob Seeger song could have been recorded any date between 1966 and now. And whereas U2 and R.E.M. were big in the late '80s, they were even bigger in the '90s, so they won't get to ride the '80s train.

To make the nostalgia team, you have to have a very distinctive sound with a short shelf-life. Actual popularity or relevance doesn't matter. Here's my short list of guesses for what TV and movie producer will use in the future to clue viewers in to "this is set in the '80s":

M.C. Hammer
"My Sharona"
"She's Blinded Me With Science"

Any others?