Smile Politely

Falling in Love with the Eighties All Over Again

Step by step. Heart to heart. Left right left. I’m coming out. I want the world to know: What’s love got to do, got to do with it? Our lips are sealed. I don’t mind not knowing what I’m headed for — you can take me to the sky. I’m walking on sunshine, woooah — what a feeling!

You know what I’m saying? We’ve all been there: lost in your eyes, lost in emotion … lost in the ’80s! I grew up in the glorious decade of excess, when synthesizers ruled the airwaves, Hypercolor t-shirts and Swatch watches ruled the school, and Kirk Cameron and the New Kids ruled the bedroom walls of teenyboppers. And today, I kind of miss it — well, the music, at least.

In the ’90s, I discovered critically-acclaimed music from the ’80s: The Replacements, XTC, The Smiths, The dB’s, Elvis Costello — even music with a message. But this column isn’t about the good stuff; it’s about the bad stuff that still makes the thirty-something me feel good. Pop music in the ’80s was often decadent and unrefined, and always fun as hell — a fact that I probably would have liked to have forgotten a decade ago, when I was still concerned with being hipper than thou. Today, not so much.

I’m currently working on one of M’s Xmas presents, a three-disc mix of female-fronted ’80s music, appropriately titled Ladies of the Eighties. Compiling this comp has been one long trip down memory lane, as clichéd an experience as that cliché itself. Me, dancing around the records room like the kids in The Breakfast Club while the driving synthetic bass line in “Kids in America” pumps the woofers. (Of course, this happens while M is out.) Me, tight-rolling my jeans, just to see if it looks good minus the high-tops. (This happens while M is out, too.) Me, remembering all the school bus rides set to KZ93’s Gary and Donna, who introduced me to Billy Ocean, Corey Hart, Hall & Oates and Men at Work.

M doesn’t share my typical reservations when it comes to enjoying her musical heritage. She sings along in the car when her favorite artists of old are played on the radio. So this year, she gets this compilation, a free pass to sing along even when her song isn’t on the radio. She loves girl groups, so several years ago I got her Rhino Records’ excellent ’60s girl groups box set One Kiss Can Lead to Another. She’s enjoyed Lesley Gore, The Shangri-Las and The Honey Bees from time to time, but I’m guessing that Ladies of the Eighties will probably crack her regular rotation with ease. It might crack mine, too, if the past couple weeks are any indication.

The playlist is full of all the spectacular one-hit wonders I will now force you to recall: Toni Basil’s “Mickey,” Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” The Mary Jane Girls’ “In My House,” T-Pau’s “Heart and Soul,” The Jets’ “Crush on You” and Stacey Q’s “Two of Hearts.” Hearing those songs again has been a blast. But the real fun has been had choosing which songs to include from artists like Janet Jackson, The Pointer Sisters, Tina Turner, The Go-Go’s, Paula Abdul and Pat Benatar. Limiting myself to one song per artist has kept the compilation to just 60 songs; without such restrictions, I’m not sure if I could have contained this sucker to six discs. I mean, seriously, how can one rationally choose between Exposé’s “Point of No Return” and “Seasons Change”?

I feel awfully sorry for kids who grew up in the ’70s or the ’90s. They didn’t have it as good. The 1970s may be the most diverse decade for music in the past fifty years. Rock further splintered into arena, hard, heavy metal, prog and fusion, then reggae, funk, country-rock, punk, new wave, rap, electronic and disco all received a first look-see from the masses. But the decade is sadly lacking in terms of fun, superficial pop music. “Bennie and the Jets” and the Bee Gees only take a decade so far. The 1970s took itself a bit too seriously. And so did the 1990s. Grunge was good for unleashing all that inner angst, but the genre’s (and I would say decade’s) staple song, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” is a far cry from, say, “Purple Rain.” The ’90s were lacking in grandiose vision and that really hurt the fun factor.

The 1980s will never be accused of having a broomstick rammed up its rear. You could even dance to the hard rockin’ stuff. “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “You Give Love a Bad Name” and “Nothin’ But a Good Time” filled up my junior high dance floor. I’m not pining to return to that dance floor nowadays — awkwardness of that magnitude should remain repressed — but I do miss the pop music, and in more than just a nostalgic sort of way.

So, maybe I’ll get to work on Bad Beaus of Excess (or Totally, Dudes! if you prefer) and wait around for someone in Champaign-Urbana to start up a Jack-FM all-’80s station. The desirable demographic of thirtysomethings is ready for its own oldies station. It’s long overdue.

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