I just worked three overnight shifts to complete the holiday setup. It ended up being more like two-and-a-half shifts, which was a relief. Lynn brought her sound system and we listened to 1980s pop all night. The awkward hilariousness of the lyrics was not lost on us. After the fourth or fifth time through “Jessie’s Girl” I wondered aloud when Rick Springfield was going to kill Jessie. The discussion quickly went down the rabbit hole of Rick planning the murders of subsequent boyfriends and, ultimately, the titular Jessie’s Girl.
Why is 1980s music so fucking creepy? The lyrical content is stalkery and often describes borderline illegal activity, if not outright condoning it. The Police alone (and I’m talking Sting, not the guys who choke you to death for committing the terrible crime of living in America) have enough songs about unconventional relationships to give me this vibe, and they were one of the most popular bands in their day.
Throw in “Jessie’s Girl” and we’re developing a trend. When I was a kid, I thought Rick Springfield was Bruce Springsteen’s shitty little brother. It initially makes little sense, even with the similar names (that’s not how surnames work, Bobby), but I assume it’s because my child mind somehow recognized all the other celebrities and their less talented siblings. Sylvester and Rick Stallone (see, there it is. The S-name, the “Rick”, the shittiness), John and Jim Belushi, Patrick and Don Swayze.
“Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler isn’t so bad on its own, but I’ve seen the video. In those days you couldn’t divorce the MTV extravaganza from the tune itself. It was an important part of the presentation, and since this particular one featured the singer lusting after young schoolboys I’m going to put her down in the “set sail for prison” column.
Perhaps this is me at my most Tipper Gore, and I’ll accept that criticism. Thing is, I’m not saying it’s necessarily bad or that it should be loaded onto a rocket and fired into the sun (that’s ska. Build the ska rocket now – we have the technology). I’m only telling you it makes me feel kinda funny, and not like climbing the rope in gym class, Garth.
Lyrical content aside, 1980s pop has always sounded haunting. Even as a child I was creeped out by it. “Thriller” by the late King of Pop was supposed to be scary, but “We Built This City” by Starship (no Jefferson here) and “Out of Touch” by Hall and Oates are equally unsettling. The synthesizers are ethereal and unreal, existing in the uncanny valley of musical production. Earlier prog rock situations have this effect on me as well, but that shit was supposed to be weird. When it’s appropriated for club music, everything sounds like a funeral.
I’ve always been haunted by it in the same way that 1930s and 1940s big band music sends a chill down my spine. Other genres don’t do this to me. Rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and 1960s, hard rock in the 1970s, that shit is alive. Motown, funk, and psychedelia, they still move after all these years. Tears for Fears, however, sounds like a dirge. I know I was just a little guy, but it seemed that way then.
I hear the freakiness in other places, though. There’s something chilling about gritty old blues, country and western recordings. Warbly 1920s jazz crooners send a shiver down my spine. Hell, Kurt Cobain sounded like a dead man before he decided to do a little at-home dentistry. Radiohead? All of it.
If we’re talking about an entire era, though, holy shit. You could make the Haunted Mansion at Disney a whole lot freakier by piping in 1980s Top Forty Hits. Goddamned electric organs, sadness, and lyrical threats of spying and molestation. Instead of hitchhiking ghosts the exit mirrors would reflect everyone with shoulderpads and bad hair. Hell, a lot of those songs were what was cranking while Dad helped set up the Trumann Jaycees Haunted House in the early 1980s, so I’ve experienced it in person. That could also be the cause of my bias.
If I’m going to engage in introspection, there may be other reasons I associate 1980s music with death, but I’m certain I have something concrete here. Crank up Foreigner’s “Waiting For A Girl Like You” on an overcast autumn day and tell me that shit isn’t spooky. Halloween is coming. I’ll be waiting for you down at the motel in a plywood maze that smells like spray paint. Jessie’s dead, kiddo.
It’s just you and me now.