BACK TO THE '80SThe musical year that was 2004 was a year of many things. It was the year that Lil Jon's brand of crunk was ubiquitous. It was the year that the mash-up came of age, due largely to Jay-Z's Black Album being artfully merged with musical backing from such unlikely sources as The Beatles and Pavement. It was the year that Ashlee Simpson taught us that--gasp!--many performers actually lip-sync their way through "live" performances. It was the year that long-ghettoized indie-rock bands finally cracked the mainstream. (If 1992 was the year that punk broke, 2004 was the year that indie did.)
And 2004 gave us an abundance of reunions and comebacks by acts associated with the 1980s. The hottest concert ticket of the year was The Pixies, who haven't released a new album in 13 years and seemed to hate each others' guts prior to their announced reunion. (One of the band's final headlining shows was at the Arizona Ballroom in the UA student union, a one-off show on a night off from opening for U2 in arenas. When the band finally took the stage after a lengthy wait, bassist/vocalist Kim Deal announced, "Sorry we're running so late." Then, looking directly at overweight frontman Black Francis, "We were at an all-you-can-eat buffet, and one of us just couldn't drag himself away." Ouch!) The Cure launched the successful Curiosa tour, which was supported by a slew of retro-leaning acolyte bands obviously influenced by their headliner. Former Smiths singer Morrissey released You Are the Quarry, his first solo album in seven years, which was greeted with open arms by fans and critics alike. Both seemed to agree, also, that U2's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb--a return to the rockist sound of their '80s heyday--was their best album in many years. The highest-grossing tour of the year was Prince, whose Musicology CD was his best-selling and most revered in a decade.
More evidence of our '80s obsession came in the form of dozens of bands--Franz Ferdinand, The Faint, DFA, the list goes on--that regurgitated the dance-punk and new wave sounds that blossomed in that decade. In regard to these bands, Jon Pareles of The New York Times recently wrote: "Yet no revival is simply a repeat. In their day, electro blips and punk-funk guitars were the sounds of clubland: of hedonism and futuristic ambition. The music was cranky and experimental, a self-conscious alternative to the slicker pop of their era. Now, they inevitably carry nostalgia and homage instead of arty iconoclasm. But there's also yet another twist: What was once racy and rebellious is now just as likely to be devout." Or, as a musicologist friend of mine who's a fan of both this new crop of bands and their predecessors said to me the other day, the difference between the two eras is that the bands of the '80s who traded in angular dance-rock actually had something to say.
Which brings us to Bowling for Soup, who will perform in town this week. The band came to public consciousness at the end of 2002, when they were nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal. You could practically hear astute music fans nationwide collectively scratching their heads: Who the hell is Bowling for Soup? With a dubious history, highlighted by awarding the flute-toting Jethro Tull an award for Best Hard Rock/Heavy Metal Performance, and bestowing the coveted Album of the Year trophy to Steely Dan in 2000, those responsible for voting on the awards aren't exactly the types to be clued into acts flying under the radar. Bowling for Soup's nomination seemed to scream payola, or at least a well-orchestrated lobbying campaign.
Then again, maybe the Grammy folks actually did know something the rest of us didn't. This year, the band's album A Hangover You Don't Deserve climbed the charts based on its inescapable hit, "1985." The song, with its sing-songy chorus, is a cloyingly catchy guitar-pop song that sticks in your head despite your best attempts to exorcise it. The song's lyrics relate the tale of Debbie, a Prozac-popping wife and mother of two who sold out her dreams of being an actress for an unhappy marriage to a CPA and an SUV. Our protagonist is obsessed with the 1980s, the decade in which she came of age, when her future still looked bright, when those dreams were still a possibility.
But the song's narrative is really just a means to calling out--and romanticizing--a litany of cultural artifacts from the '80s: Whitesnake, U2, Blondie and Duran Duran all get name-checked, as do Brat Pack-era movies such as The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and St. Elmo's Fire. While bands that ape the sound of the '80s reference their influences via their music, "1985" is a far-less creative endeavor, matching lyrics that present the decade as one of wide-eyed innocence with a thoroughly modern, made-for-radio pop-punk style.
Nostalgia is inescapable in our culture and it appears in 20-year cycles. When I attended high school in the mid-to-late '80s, most of my classmates were listening to bands from the 1960s like Led Zeppelin, The Doors and The Grateful Dead. In the '90s, every nightclub in town seemed to have a dance night that revolved around disco music. And here in the Aughts, it's the '80s' turn to be rehashed. But, as anyone who actually experienced the '80s can tell you, it was a decade that was anything but wide-eyed or innocent. What gets lost in those 20 years is all the crap that's best left forgotten. Otherwise, Bowling for Soup would be blathering about trickle-down economics, the advent of AIDS, the emergence of corporate greed and Iran-Contra.
The bulk of bands who pay homage to the '80s by integrating its musical ideals seem to have a genuine reverence for the substance of the era, while Bowling for Soup merely tosses out tired cultural signposts from it. "1985" could only come from a band that misses the days when MTV actually played music videos, even if they weren't yet actually around to watch them.
Bowling for Soup perform an early, all-ages show Saturday, Jan. 8, at City Limits, 6350 E. Tanque Verde Road. The show begins at 5 p.m. with opening sets by American Hi-Fi, Riddlin' Kids and MC Lars. All tickets are $15 and may be purchased in advance at the venue, all Ticketmaster outlets, by phone at 321-1000 or online at www.ticketmaster.com. For more information, call 733-6262.