In 1985, I was in my senior year of high school, in Saratoga Springs. A typically morose and self-involved teenager who imagined he had a slight touch of the poet, I hated school, and was most happy when either playing guitar in my awful metal band, or sneaking cigarettes and warm beers in the woods with my boom box and a few close friends. I found the popular culture of the day to be heinous, and interpreted most of it as if it were created for the sole purpose of offending whatever sensibilities I’d managed to cling to amidst the soul-deadening drudgery of Catholic schooling.
Yeah, I took myself way too seriously. And for this fact, I blame Madonna. Or at least, I blame Madonna in part.
You see, she was pretty much the biggest thing in popular music at the time. The girls at school wanted to dress like her, though the relatively strict dress code at my school messed with their ability to tie rags in their hair and wear leg warmers and multi-tiered skirts. The guys all seemed to have the hots for her. Concerned parents feared she would corrupt their darling little daughters. Her music – this was around the time of “Like A Virgin” – was everywhere. The world loved her.
But not me. I couldn’t stand her. When I watched “Desperately Seeking Susan,” I thought Rosanna Arquette was way hotter than Madonna, who, I crowed, couldn’t act any better than she could write a song. “Get Into the Groove”? Really? Why on earth would I want to do that? There’s no guitars there. And the lyrics are completely banal. To say nothing of the “Groove” itself, which sounded like the work of a cheap Casio drum machine, and was decidedly ungroovy.
Yes, Madonna, I hold you responsible for turning me into an angry young man. You represented everything I wanted to rebel against. Well, you and anything else that vaguely resembled authority.
Pop music in 1985 was in a very strange place. And looking back from the present vantage point, it’s perhaps even stranger.
Everything that made it into the charts and onto MTV at the time was overproduced. The drum sounds on all popular recordings boasted this ear-offending gated reverb, an effect which, in layman’s terms, made the snare drum sound like an army of snare drums played by a troop of hair-sprayed tossers marching off to Valhalla in spandex trousers. Plastic was the gold of the day, to the point where anything warm and organic in music – natural drums that sounded like they were made out of wood, guitars that had something resembling a soulful tone, keyboards that didn’t sound like video game drones – had been kicked to the curb. An athletic giddiness prevailed, and pop music was sounding like the soundtrack to an aerobics class attended by the sort of people in my age group who were convinced they were going to live forever and dance to horrible pop music for even longer.
Madonna was one of the worst offenders, though she was far from alone. In addition to heavy rock, progressive music and jazz, I loved funk, R&B and some disco at this point in my life, but Madonna’s dance-pop sounded hopelessly suburban and middle class to me. Being suburban and middle class, I, naturally, was greatly offended by this. You couldn’t flick on MTV without being bombarded by her videos. I wanted that faux-gondola she was writhing around in during the “Like A Virgin” video to sink, and take her career with it. I figured she’d last about as long as Tiffany or A-Ha.
I was wrong.
Thirty years later, Madonna is still all over the news, even if the release of her new album this week is being slightly overshadowed by a viral video that shows her taking a fall while attempting to execute some 1985-style dance moves during a recent performance. I’m no longer an angry young man. I’m now an angry middle-aged man, and I don’t have to take my boom box into the woods in order to crank tunes and drink beer. But what else has changed? Interestingly, not that much. There’s still an awful lot of great music being made. And you still need to look elsewhere than the mainstream to find most of it.
Let’s take a look at the biggest artists of early 1985, and take stock of where they were, where they are now, and where they might be heading.
1985: Riding high on “Purple Rain” fever, and also scoring hits via tunes he penned for other artists, Morris Day & the Time and Chaka Kahn among them.
Still relevant?: Big time. Prince released a pair of killer albums in 2014, and these days is rightly revered as one of the greatest living R&B artists. He needs to come back to Buffalo for a show.
1985: I will forever hear Springsteen’s gazillion-selling “Born in the USA” as a collection of great songs all but ruined by some of the most offensively overzealous production of the era. Springsteen was everywhere in 1985. But he was about to slam his foot down on the brake pedal, in terms of pop celebrity. It would turn out to be the smartest thing he ever did.
Still relevant?: Clearly. Over the past 15 years, Springsteen has gone from strength to strength, both as record-maker and live performer. He’s still got plenty to say, and seems to have little trouble finding new ways to say it. By focusing on the music, Springsteen has managed to age gracefully.
1985: “Careless Whisper” was everywhere. It made me want to vomit.
Still relevant?: Wham doesn’t exist. And in terms of artistic relevance, George Michael barely does. So I guess that’s a no.
1985: The Genesis drummer was at the peak of his solo success, with mostly awful tunes like “One More Night,” “Sussudio” and “Easy Lover” clogging up the pop culture plumbing and making hardcore Genesis fans cry bitter tears into their pint glasses while cranking up “Supper’s Ready” and wondering what went wrong.
Still relevant?: Phil Collins is one of the greatest rock drummers of all time. There should be no debating this fact. However, some serious back pain issues have prevented him from playing much at all, of late. That’s a shame, because enough time has passed for us to see Collins’ entire career in context, rather than focusing on the dodgy pop stardom stuff.
1985: The year of the Material Girl. And it turned out to last a lot longer than a year.
Still relevant?: Madonna dropped her 13th album, “Rebel Heart,” this week. It’s a fairly unfocused mishmash of contemporary dance-pop stylings, proving that Madonna still has an ear for pop music fads, and is capable of bending those fads to her own ends. Lyrically, there is a bit of maturity creeping in to crack the “all sex, all the time” façade. That said, Madonna still dresses like its 1985, which is to say, like a burlesque dancer with a penchant for bondage gear in some bizarre B-level theatrical presentation. I didn’t get it back then. I still don’t get it.