"Do you like Huey Lewis and the News?" This line, and the soliloquy that followed, from American Psycho, is one of the most iconic moments in all of cinema. Patrick Bateman, the title character, is ready to murder one of his colleagues, and as he does so, he unloads a robotic soliloquy about the most forgettable pop music. It's a statement about the character — that he adopts music tastes indifferently, like masks, memorizing critical data about them. But it's also a statement connecting the money-driven frenzy of the go-go 1980s, in which the movie is set, with the supposedly terrible music of the era.
Because if there's one thing most everyone agrees on, it's that '80s music was terrible. And this critique of the music is often tied with a critique of the commercialism of the era, along with questionable aesthetic decisions like big hair and shoulder pads. Yes, yes. The '60s gave us the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and the '70s gave us Led Zeppelin. What could possibly compare to that?
But see, here's the thing — maybe it's time to step out from under the nostalgia of the Boomer generation and realize the '80s were actually a golden age for music.
Let's start with pop. The '80s are the era of MTV. To many, this heralds commercialized pop, but this is nonsense: Pop was always commercialized, even in the era of radio. But MTV ushered in a new art form, the music video, which gave us many great masterpieces. Who can forget tiny feature films like Madonna's "Like A Prayer", a-ha's "Take On Me" and, of course, Michael Jackson's "Thriller"?
The '80s were an era when pop was pop. It was the decade of Michael Jackson and Madonna. Music then was unabashed about making you want to get up on your feet and dance. Think of Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want To Have Fun," perhaps the most '80s song of all the '80s songs. Mock it all you want, and the singer's hair, but you can't deny that it's a very catchy song. The synthesizer had just made it into the mainstream and gave us these purified, fast beats.
Another aspect of the '80s that everyone mocks is big hair rock. And, again, this is another time where I just have to disassociate from those who prefer to roll their eyes at a safe ironic distance, and go with those who are just totally unabashed. Big hair '80s rock was shameless about being shameless, and that's what made it great. The '90s gave us some great bands too, but it's sad that rock seems to never have recovered from the grunge interruption, and never recovered that sense of shameless joy and boundless awesomeness. I mean, just look:
And no mention of '80s rock would be complete without a mention of the greatest song on the greatest movie of all time, Rocky IV.
The 1980s were also the time when two genres that would go on to profoundly change and reshape popular music finally started to get into the mainstream: hip-hop and electronica. It was the decade of Brian Eno's breakthrough and of Vangelis and his unforgettable theme songs. It was also the decade when the golden age of hip hop began, with Run DMC, KRS-One, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, and many others.
Okay, the '80s weren't great for hair or fashion. But don't let anyone tell you they weren't great for music.