The music of the 1980s grew out of reactions to what was on the radio. Remember that, in the 1970s, radio was the main way people had of learning about music. AM radio in the 60s was all about the pop charts, but FM radio grew to fill a need to provide alternatives. In the 70s, that meant art-rock and the first wave of singer-songwriters. Meanwhile, the charts were full of lushly produced love ballads and the macho posturing of hard rock. A two word description of the music of the period might be, “artful pose”.
Towards the end of the seventies, some musicians sought to break away from that. The big idea behind punk was to smash down the pose, and present something real. Coming close on its heals, new wave confronted the artful aspect, by presenting ditties, songs the reveled in their disposability, and therefore made great party music. It is ironic that punk itself eventually became a pose. And some of those disposable new wave songs were created with such love that they have become impossible to dispose of. New wave music also reacted to the overt emotionality of 70s ballads by presenting an aloof attitude, and exploring themes of miscommunication and alienation.
Meanwhile, radical changes were in store for radio itself. By the mid 80s, MTV had become the main source of new music, with radio following its lead. As MTV scaled back their music programming later, the internet took over, and radio permanently lost its primacy. Meanwhile, radio stations were being bought up, and becoming parts of large corporations. This tended to homogenize what could be heard on the air. The corporate owners also created niche programming, so that a station might only play country, or only hits of the 70s.
Songwriters were thinking about all of this as the late 70s became the 80s became the early 90s. And sometimes, they wrote music about it.
Elvis Costello: Radio Radio
Elvis Costello thought about how listening to music on the radio could limit or broaden, but mostly limit, your choices. And his conclusions became a classic. Costello considers how a musician must rely on radio to gain and hold an audience, and how this can dictate what and how you play. This is both more and less true now than it was thirty years ago. Radio formats are stricter than ever, and maximizing your reach on the internet may mean making artistic compromises too. But it is also easier than ever to seek out unusual music.
Thomas Dolby: Radio Silence
Where Elvis Costello’s radio tries to dictate what kind of music he makes and sells, Thomas Dolby’s serves to expose him to the world. Radio Silence is all about keeping secrets and maintaining privacy in an age of communication overload.
Wall of Voodoo: Mexican Radio
Stan Ridgeway of Wall of Voodoo presents radio in a foreign language as a metaphor. Lines of communication are open, but no communication is occurring. There must also be mutual understanding, no matter what the technology.
Chris Whitley: Dust Radio
In all these radio songs, Dust Radio gives off the most puzzling signal. Chris Whitley even emphasizes this. The song ends with a potential listener retuning the radio to try to get a better signal, and getting other stations by mistake. Whitley seems to be saying that this relationship feels so strong to him that it must be giving off its own signal, but it is nevertheless a private thing.
R. E. M.: Radio Song
R. E. M.’s Radio Song brings us full circle. R. E. M. had been a cult band throughout the 80s, never achieving mass success. By 1991, they were leading off an album with this song, about how a song can get stuck in your head. There is a definite element of sour grapes here. Ironically, the second song on this same album would get stuck in a lot of people’s heads. It was called Losing My Religion.
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