Monday, January 23, 2023

Songs of '83: "Billie Jean" (Also: Michael Jackson, MTV, and the Year some Comparatively Cosmopolitan Brits Urbanized American Pop Radio)

Forty years ago yesterday, Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," the second single off his early-80s-defining album Thriller, entered the Billboard chart. By March it hit #1, and it stayed there for nearly two months. We all remember the song, and the video, and deservedly so; it was a game-changing song, at least insofar as mainstream American pop music consumption was concerned--and that consumption can tell us something important about 1983, I think. So listen and watch it again, but stick around afterwards for the commentary.

Thriller--and, most particularly, the enormous demand which "Billie Jean" generated--was a crucial player in MTV finally putting music by Black artists into regular rotation, which 18 months into its existence mostly conceived itself as serving a national FM-radio-style audience for White rock 'n' roll, pop, and heavy metal acts, and not much else. That story has been often told, but I want to look at another angle--one that was made explicit when (again, forty years ago this month), David Bowie, promoting his soon-to-be-released album Let's Dance, asked some pointed questions of the new network:

You can read a transcript of the key, concluding part of the interview here. Mark Goodman's flailing effort to make sense of his employer's decisions by way of regional distinctions ("we have to try and do what we think not only New York and Los Angles will appreciate, but also Poughkeepsie or [the] Midwest--pick some town in the Midwest--that would be scared to death by Prince") is easy to mock, given that Prince Rogers Nelson was himself a Midwesterner from Minneapolis, Minnesota. But it does make me wonder what more could be said about the nation-wide infatuation with Jackson's brilliant song and video, a song and video rooted a large variety of music and technological trends...but most of which, I think, really could be associated with cities (and urban activities and an urban imaginary tied to places ) like "New York" and "Los Angeles" in particular way. What was changing by 1983 was, among other things, perhaps that "London" needed to be added that list, and perhaps that helped to make the difference.

Ten years ago, I wrote a 4-part series on my memories of listening to pop radio as a young person and young adult, focusing on 1978, 1983, 1988, and 1993. And just about exactly five years ago, I kicked off a year-long series reminiscing about my favorite of those four years, musically speaking: 1978. My opinions haven't fundamentally changed; from an even greater distance today, I still think the swampy, often campy, often ridiculous mix of rock and country, blues and metal, folk and disco, which characterized that year made for some of the greatest popular music of my entire life. But as the 40th anniversary of 1983 arrives, some different ideas dominate my thinking, and I feel like I'm seeing something cosmopolitan, something comparatively multicultural and, lacking any better word, something genuinely (if however vaguely) "urban" as the best descriptor of how musical sensibilities, significantly due to MTV (even against some of its own founders' wishes), were changed that year.

1983 is usually seen--thanks to mainstream coverage it received--as the high-watermark of the Second British Invasion, of what was called in the sort of limited pop-music conversations I was able to access as a 14-year-old "synth-pop" or just "New Wave." Any attempt to confine a multifaceted musical movement(s) to a single calendar period is ridiculous, of course, but still, it's not wrong to see 1983 as a culmination of sorts. If punk music meant anything, it meant that rejecting a rock 'n' roll style which had become ponderous and loud and Americanized in a particular post-WWII way (as the English guitarist Martin Simpson put it in the liner notes to his blues album, Smoke and Mirrors, growing up in England in the 1950s and 1960s essentially meant living on a giant U.S. aircraft carrier) had been embraced by thousands of English, Scottish, and Irish English-speaking musicians in the 1970s. (This was true, by the way, even if the ideological content implicitly conveyed by that style was harshly attacked; think of the righteous anger at, yet also the total dependency upon invoking, various America-shaped economic, sexual, racial, and historical memories and norms in Pink Floyd's The Wall.) By 1983, as punk had given way, as the racial diversity of the cities of the United Kingdom brought reggae and glam and dance music into post-punk acts, and as these musicians began to do more with the drum machines and synthesizers that had begun to appear throughout Western Europe in the late 1970s, they had done it; they'd conquered American radio (throughout the year, there were regularly more British acts on any given week's Billboard top ten than American). The music of these artists was often technologically unique, and their sexual and aesthetic style--magnified by the visual element to making pop music which was by then well-established in Britain but still new to the U.S.--left the (White) pop music bad boys of the previous two decades far behind. I'm not sure how you can see all this and not see an urban, multicultural, polyglot, sexually experimental perspective at work.

Maybe it didn't have to happen in the UK; there was still the racially charged craziness of New York City and Los Angeles which MTV programmers were worried about, after all. But think about that, and about the way the larger pop radio establishment in America initially resisted it--the anti-Black, anti-LGBTQ, anti-urban undercurrents of Disco Demolition Night were real, after all. Something David Byrne wrote about those mid-to-late 1970s days in the liner notes to the first disc in the 1992 Talking Heads collection Popular Favorites, 1976-1992: Sand in the Vaseline might provide some perspective here:

I wanted my guitar to sound thin, clean and clanky. Not chunky, distorted and macho, like a lot of what was around. My philosophy at the time being that this puny sound was in the true nature of this instrument....the first truly modern instrument. The first scientific industrial instrument...clean, metallic, precise, yet funky and African...the first instrument to embody our young culture...."American" cool-African-futuristic-trash-aesthetic....[T]he beauty of this "American" aesthetic is that it belongs to anyone who claims it...who grooves on it...who sees the deep zen poetry in James Brown's lyrics, in a juke box, a suburban split-level, a wild hairdo, who sees the hope for the future implicit in the shape of an electric guitar (a hope that was becoming a nostalgic joke). So here it was, waiting...do it yourself art/poetry/sex/life/bullshit that anyone could make possibly reach a sizeable audience without compromise. God, everything we were hearing on the radio was either nostalgic or mired in compromise...at least on "Rock" radio. Disco culture was a radical alternative, as much a cool hip subculture with integrity as the little alternative (punk) rock world we inhabited. We liked it...The Jackson Five Get it Together L.P. rates with Sgt. Pepper in my mind.

It's all there: a discontent with an American rock 'n' roll style seen as nostalgic and utterly unwilling to embrace the irreducible plurality and wildness of the musical/technological/urban frontier, which is "American" only in the sense that it is revolutionary and weird, not in the sense of that it carries the presumptions of a superpower. (I love his description of the guitar as simultaneously "metallic" and "African.") What Black and LGBTQ and other populations were bringing into the discos of New York (and London, and Paris, and Berlin, etc.) is part of what I see the whole Second British Invasion as bringing to American radio, building upon and making nationally dominant what earlier post-punk bands and emerging house and dance beats in Black and multi-racial communities had done in dense urban corners of America. Michael Jackson probably didn't need an invasion to get MTV to change its mind, but it certainly didn't hurt that videos from various racially and sexually mixed musicians and bands from the UK and Western Europe had been piling up on their desks for a year and a half before Thriller hit.

The subsequent popularity of many of these dance-music-inspired artists in thoroughly White college campus cultures--the "college radio" of the 1980s--has given some New Wave music a bad reputation, I think; musicians more proximate to the post-punk moment of the mid- to late-1970s--the Talking Heads or Blondie in the United States, the Police, the Pretenders, Joe Jackson, or Elvis Costello and the Attractions in the UK--are more likely to be respected today than the supposedly frivolous and superficial New Wave acts from England that came later. But I don't think that's fair. I would argue that the racially mixed make-up of many of these bands, and the way Black (including Afro-Caribbean), disco-oriented and other international musical styles were electronically interpreted by many of them, speaks against their subsequent, mostly undeserved, American reputation. And frankly, the fact that these artists brought into the mainstream of American pop music consumption--brought into my radio as a teen-age listener in Spokane, WA--the sort of sexual, racial, and material associations which disco had always flirted with arguably helps put the weirdness of much of American popular culture in the 1970s into perspective. Maybe that weirdness (Cher with Greg Allman! Cillia Black with Marc Bolan!) was partly a side-effect of the American media establishment trying to make sense of--and thus contain--all the urban unpredictability which Byrne made mention of above. And maybe, just maybe, in some very indirect, deeply structural way, the manner which the White rock 'n' roll and metal acts which had been MTV's bread and butter responded to the rise of Michael Jackson and the New Wave can be put into the same story as well.

Years ago, the critic Stephen Metcalf, while writing about Morrissey and the Smiths (a band that might best be described as a 1960s-style rock 'n' roll band that skipped punk, went post-punk, and never evolved further), wrote something that has stayed with me ever since:

1983, the year of “This Charming Man,” is the year the ‘80s became the ‘80s. Up until that point, Thatcherism in England and Reaganism in the United States had been little more than hollow promises. Then interest rates fell, the two economies thawed, and spandex was everywhere. It was the year of Flashdance at the box office, of “Every Breath You Take” and Thriller on the Billboard 100; the year of Risky Business and The Big Chill. If this list doesn’t make you want to crawl into your bolt hole--well, you are probably not a Smiths fan. I think the word that best captures the times is heartless, as evident in the stupid rictus of Sting’s face, circa 1983, as it was in Margaret Thatcher’s budget cuts. No wonder Morrissey’s voice sounded so fresh, so slyly subversive. As much as he publicly avowed a hatred of Thatcher, culminating in “Margaret at the Guillotine,” it was Thatcherism that made Morrissey. The Iron Lady represented a hardness of purpose, a pitilessness that would allow England once again to produce winners. But also, inevitably, losers.

I think about this passage today, in light of a deeper awareness of the racial history of the Western world than I had even as recently as five years ago, when I wrote my tribute to the songs of 1978, and I wonder if one might not also see 1983 as being a year when a certain kind of determined backlash to the multi-racial and androgynous dance mixes and synthesized beats that had spread so deeply in Western cities (though possibly not, at least according to MTV, to Poughkeepsie) took root. Can you imagine someone turning on Friday Night Videos (which premiered in 1983 and was my gateway drug, by the way; we didn't have cable) or just the radio, listening to or watching Culture Club or Lionel Richie and realizing "Good grief, we didn't stop disco: it's everywhere!"? I don't know what kind of "response" such a hypothetical realization could have given rise to; it's not like you can separate musical trends from those of other media, to say nothing of the politics of Reagan's America and the final decade of the Cold War in general. All this stuff comes together, after all, with cross-influences going every which way. But still--the fact that 1983 was the year KISS took off their make-up, the year that Metallica and Mötley Crüe released their first albums, the year Def Leppard went head-to-head with with Black and New Wave and similarly influenced pop artists for Billboard dominance...well, it makes me wonder. Not that you can code New Wave and dance music as liberal and heavy metal and hard rock as conservative (if anything, I'd have to think about what was happening to country music in the 1980s to make any of this actually plausible). Still, to see 1983 as a watershed year, with the divides over winners and losers becoming more culturally explicit, such that the majority of White, straight, suburban radio-listeners like myself became aware of them for the first time? There may besome sense to that, I think.

This year, I'm going to do a "Songs of '83" series, like I did five years ago. None of them will be as long as this one, I think. But I see something in the history of pop music that perhaps I didn't before, and as the Billboard chart of 1983 brings songs to my attention, maybe I'll point them out, for whomever is interested. I kind of am, if no one else. For now, though, thanks Mr. Jackson; thanks for making MTV cave into the popularity of an urban-centric, technologically changing, post-American Century musical reality which they'd been surrounded by since they'd begun (MTV's very first video was the New Wave band the Buggles with "Video Killed the Radio Star," after all), but hadn't accepted the racial consequences of yet, perhaps. My youthful radio-listening and tv-watching habits are in your debt.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yay!