As we approach the end of the 2000s, the youth-focused mainstream media's narrowing definition of '80s music cracks me up more and more. The term '80s music has become a neat and nifty cliché. Its implication is off the mark. The best rock and pop music of the 1980s took shape under the radar. Much of it littered college radio across the country and hardly any of it cracked the charts.
What people generally mean by '80s music is music from the biggest-selling, most ridiculously-dressed, highest-funded pop acts, whether it's diva dance stuff like Madonna, long-haired pop-metal like Bon Jovi or Def Leppard, post-disco funk-pop like Prince and Michael Jackson, or light post-New Wave pop like Duran Duran and Culture Club.
And that's fine and dandy. When a tipsy college kid hollers for "something '80s" at a local bar band, what she or he means is "play some cheesy hit my uncle danced to at the prom." Imagine, though, if that same band responded with an '80s song from the vast underground ... something by the likes of Sonic Youth, The Jam, the Butthole Surfers, or Black Flag. There'd be a mini-riot.
Compared to the hirsute guitar-rock of commercial rock radio and TV's Solid Gold variety show, the antics of the Talking Heads, Devo, Madness, and Motörhead seemed downright revolutionary.
Farther away from the glam-pop and synthesized scenes, serious guitar-based bands like The Smiths, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Jesus & Mary Chain, and XTC provided terrifically melodic and atmospheric alternatives to the mainstrean as well.
While not exactly punk rock, R.E.M. is a great example of punk's DIY-styled independence. Unlike the majority of flashy acts in the biz, the quartet from Athens, Ga., didn't make a splash on the national scene with a fancy, high-budget debut. It took a number of years for the world-famous band to even hit the charts and heavy rotation on MTV, but college radio adored and supported them.
Student-run college radio stations across the U.S. played an important role in the indie underground. In conjunction, MTV's vintage The Cutting Edge program spotlighted the college radio underground and post-punk music scene in Britain. It was one of the only shows that played the likes of The Alarm, Meat Puppets, Steve Earle, Tom Waits, Jonathan Richman ... and R.E.M.
College radio was really the only outlet for hardcore, death metal, ska-punk, electronica, and early alt-country as well; for most of the decade, no commercial rock or pop radio station would dare play anything by the likes of the Dead Kennedys, Fugazi, Slayer, Fishbone, Nitzer Ebb, or Jason & The Scorchers.
Old-school hip-hop could only be heard on college radio back in the day — at least around here. Early rap releases and what evolved into old-school hip-hop increasingly influenced the pop/rock underground and many of the most successful, chart-topping artists of the '90s. It took MTV a few years to catch on.
Music writer Michael Azerrad released an impressive chronicle of '80s indie rock in 2002 titled Our Band Could Be Your Life. The book tells the remarkable stories of 12 influential American bands, including the Minutemen (from whom the book title was derived). It also describes the network of underground bands during that decade, along with some of the most influential indie labels, fanzines, and wild tales from the road.
"The indie movement was a reclamation of what rock was always about," Azerrad wrote in the book's introduction. "Corporate rock was about living large; indie was about living realistically and being proud of it."
It's not difficult to trace the styles and attitudes from these independent, non-cheesy '80s artists through the 1990s to many of the most acclaimed acts of today. The influence of these cannot be overstated, and their stories and songs should not be ignored — even by the cheesiest fans of the cheesiest '80s cover bands out there today.