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02/20/2007 @ 03:01 AM: The following is a piece I wrote and posted to an internet forum I visit regularly. It was written as a general response to a question comparing music from the 80s and 90s. I was half asleep and not even thinking too deeply about what I was writing at the time, but it received some positive replies and, after re-reading it just now, I realized I might want to archive what I wrote here.

Posted 02.19.07, 01:50 AM

I'll attempt to throw in some info about the 80s, 90s, and 00s without getting too involved in the bickering.

First, I became a teenager later in the 80s, thus I was at that all-impressionable age with regard to pop culture. I heard Tom Petty once describe how he was 13 when the Beatles came to America and that he "couldn't have been a more perfect age" to absorb the phenomenon.

Did anyone else own a handful of albums/tapes/CDs as a kid that got played so much to this day you still know every lick and lyric? I had about a dozen albums like that, Van Halen occupying a few of those spots. I also was given a radio for Christmas 1978 (age 3) by my grandparents. I kept it tuned to the local Twin Cities staple rock station (recommended by my older brother), and I can honestly say I remember just about every song that was a hit from 1979 on.

The 80s represented a new of era of music marketing that paralleled the new model of "big business." Disco in the late-70s was one of the first heavily exploited fads, and it offered a new idea to making money off popular music--saturate the market. Also, more than ever record companies and radio stations were in the same bed together. The "rogue" music source of the very early 80s was MTV. Yes! The network started and billed itself as an alternative to radio and played videos by artists who actually had them. It took a couple of years for record companies to understand, embrace, and use the music video for marketing. Once they did, though, it completely re-shaped music and popular culture. So what we got from that point on was the heavily saturated market of a couple of genres, mainly metal and LA rock (the sunset strip scene) and "new wave" pop (courtesy of all the British videos MTV played early on).

80s music influenced me a lot as a kid, and around about 5th grade I decided I wanted nothing more than to be a "rock star." I kept that mentality all the way up until... well, what time is it now? The rock thing spent a few years in dismal condition in the late-80s/early-90s. Once the groups that mimicked the other groups came around, it was a dead horse. With that said, just by the rule of the pendulum swing a change was inevitable, but no one knew what it was or when it would happen.

I started high school in '89 and graduated in '93. When I began, Poison and Def Leppard were multi-platinum bands and everyone wore tight pants and had bangs (and mullets!). When I graduated, Pearl Jam and Nirvana were multi-platinum bands, and the trends were baggy pants, short hair, and flannel. It was an amazing metamorphosis that occurred overnight, or so it seemed. At the time I hated it; I was a rock kid and thought that was the end all, be all of music. I hated that--it seemed--players didn't want to be "rock gods" anymore and that lyrics were about depressing topics and not girls and parties.

Again, as with the 80s, the new change in popular music was exploited by the corporate machine; the machine, however, had become much more organized and efficient. So we got a lot of grunge, in a lot of places, a lot of the time. And remember the Latin (Ricky Martin) craze of '98/'99? Think of the relatively brief disco era of the late-70s in comparison.

We all have our reasons for affixing ourselves to music. Most commonly it's for emotional reasons (and nostalgia works into that quite significantly). So when debating what is or was the best era of popular music, always consider what your own attachment is to that era. (I use the term "popular music" because we're taking mostly about mainstream, major label music in this context. There has, for many years, consistently been an underground stream of independent music.)

I'm now in my 30s. I've played, written, produced and engineered, and taught lots of music over lots of years. Having some fairly decent hindsight on music of the 80s and 90s (and the wonderful power of cable TV and the internet for revisiting), I have to say I have more of an affection for what happened in the early 90s. The music was initially a revolt against the corporate mediocrity that had absorbed pop culture. Ironic, however, that the exact same thing would happen in short order to the music of the 90s. But a whole new era of stellar musicians came to the fore, and there was a forward-thinking mentality about songwriting and lyricwriting. The quality of the recordings even improved significantly, having finally rid popular music of the dowsing of artificial reverbs in favor of actual room ambiance and/or "dry" mixes. So I'll take a Soundgarden record over Poison any day; for me it just stands the test of time better.

Regarding popular music of today, it is an unmitigated shit-fest. There are of course a handful of decent bands and musicians, but the majority of talent lies in the burgeoning independent market. With the return and ease of grassroots promotion, mostly brought on by way of the internet, there are now loads of independent labels and distribution companies. It's no longer important for an artist to crack the impossible shell of the gigantor major labels to find success in music. I love this new still-uncharted phase of the music business, because the rock star "dream" I had as a kid, I discovered, wasn't actually real. In this era I can find and explore any type of music from any part of the world without having to turn to a major third party to do so (though MySpace is an amazing phenomenon). I can also produce, write, or do anything with original music I choose and put it out there instantaneously. In this sense, music as a whole is in a very cool place, but it requires one to exercise patience and appreciation for different styles.

thumbnail 001thumbnail 002thumbnail 003thumbnail 004Photo Chronology: 1996 to Today
thumbnail 005thumbnail 006thumbnail 007thumbnail 008Please feel free to peruse these memories from the AT photo archives.

Andrew Thomas