High School Music: A Reunion From Hell
I just got back from my 30th high school reunion in Minot, North Dakota.
It was great to see so many of my lifelong friends and classmates. Most of us have spread out across the country, and we all commented on how comfortable and familiar it was to be back together in our ever-expanding (oil boom) hometown. Good nostalgia ran amok.
Too bad I can't say the same about my reunion with the era's pop music. Not a lot of favorable nostalgia in that area. The popular songs of my high school years (1979-83) were just as tough to listen to now as they were in high school.
Is it just me? Was it just my era? I've never thought of myself as an elitist, but maybe I am.
Facing the Musical Legacy of My Youth You may not know the answer to that question yet, but you'll find out eventually.
You see, as you age your way through the perpetual now, at some point you will have to look back and see if the music from your youth holds up.
Although I think about these sorts of things all the time, that point came to a head for me at my reunion.
It started while listening to the '80s band at the bar during the opening bash. It resurfaced after the dinner when the DJ fired up those "good old" tunes from our high school years.
For a music nut like me, there's no such thing as background music. The music might be in the background, but I'm constantly aware of what's playing. You think I'm joking, but it's always been that way for me. The music is a big part of my moment.
So throughout my conversations and reuniting moments . . . the following thought kept creeping into my head:
Man, this '80s pop music really sucks. If it wouldn't have been for all the great friends and conversation I was having, I may not have been able to suppress my urge to bucky (that's NoDak lingo for throw up, in the nostalgic spirit of the discussion).
Okay, it may not have induced me to bucky -- but, for sure, it added an unpleasant element to the otherwise excellent proceedings.
Easy on the '80s, Simon. Maybe you think I'm being too tough on the '80s?
As a lifelong record store geek, I completely understand and appreciate how hard it is to make music that still sounds good 30 years later. Music flows through different trends (as do artists), and some of them don't hold up. That's why legends don't grow on trees -- in any era.
I could write a huge list of albums that sounded great during their respective era that currently make me wonder what I was thinking. A lot of the albums on that list went bad in a much shorter time period than 30 years.
And it isn't like I suddenly expected myself to start liking Culture Club. Although I've had groups, albums, and songs that I didn't originally like grow on me, it doesn't happen often.
So I had predicted that a good bit of the "Class of '83" music that I'd hear at the reunion would not hold up.
But my mental preparation was not enough. It was worse than I remember.
Did I Really Want My MTV? I really think it was my era, not my elitism. The '80s produced a ton of bad shit.
I put the blame on MTV, which took the focus from the music itself to the visual sale of the music makers, and gave birth to about 900 cheese-dick bands.
Oh, those wacky fish heads (nothing illustrates my point like the video above).
Originally, MTV was a good thing. Mass communication wasn't the same in those days, so the options in our little red state were limited. We were dependent on Top 40 radio, so we didn't get punk sounds or deep album cuts in any genre, so initially we were thrilled when it showed up. My brother and I had it tuned into our TV from day one. To this day I'll say that -- to some degree -- MTV brought a lot of musical diversity into our lives and introduced us to some very cool artists.
Thirty years later, I realized it was a very small degree. For sure, it did way more damage than good.
How could I not realize it? The DJ was playing one annoying MTV-driven, cheese-factory hit after the other.
The disturbing common thread that runs throughout most of the era's hits is the keyboard. When I hear that sound, I get the mental image of some skinny dude in a colorful jumpsuit playing it (of should I say "faking it") in some goofy video.
Keyboard is the first thing my kids mock when they hear '80s music (usually while we are watching '80s movies, which can often be rendered nearly unwatchable by their soundtracks)
And, boy, was that keyboard filling the air in that hotel ballroom.
Did I Actually Have A Small Dose of Youthful Wisdom? I said to myself, "Boy, our 'class music' was pitiful." I shook my head and chastised us all.
Then through the strains of "Mony, Mony" (Billy Idol) and "Every Breath You Take" (The Police, who I still enjoy beyond that fuckin' song), I remembered something:
I hated all this music way back then! These may have been the songs of our time, of our class, but they were never my songs. I was, am, and always will be an album guy. I may not have made a ton of great decisions in high school, but I made the right call on the music.
That's one of the primary reasons that I didn't attend a lot of dances or go to certain bars (unless the drink special was really good). It's why I chose to hang at homes or apartments (or steal away to the occasional farmer's field) with smaller groups.
My gang and I preferred to avoid the pop music of my time (and authority figures, truth be told) even while it was happening, and by avoiding the mainstream there was a much better chance we'd get some great AOR (album-oriented rock) music.
In other words, we were listening to albums, not songs. We were branching out and finding great rock and roll that wasn't on Minot radio, at the school dance, or on MTV (although a lot of it was on the national album charts). Luckily, by doing so, we found some quality stuff that still holds up today.
As I said, I made a fair amount of questionable decisions and judgments in those days, but going beyond the mainstream music of the time wasn't one of them. While the pop music still makes me nuts, a good portion of the AOR stuff has become legendary.
Because the reunion is over -- and although I'll always fondly remember the Class of '83 -- I'd hate to have to hang my nostalgic hat on their music.
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