July Write-O-Rama 8: The garbage music tsunami of 1986

(A note: since this is basically a writing exercise for Camp NaNoWriMo, no real editing has been done and most of this was written continuously in one sitting. Any mistakes or wrong facts are due to me just taking quick glances at Wikipedia and relying on my sometimes faulty memory.)

Today I take a break for exhausting details about my boring life in order to write four three songs that I believe (YMMV) killed 80’s music in the terrible year of transition between good 80’s music and terrible 80’s music, 1986.

Yes, if a version of American Pie was written to discuss what happened to 80’s music, 1986 would be known as the year the music died.

To be fair, there are a lot of bad songs in 1986 and the years that followed plus some good ones sprinkled in and you might choose other songs that accelerated the demise of 80’s music as we knew it but I think these four songs were the most highly visible of the bunch and because of them, the days of being able to listen to American Top 40 start to finish and only hear a handful of bad songs came to an end in 1986. The tide soon turned to songs that must have driven poor Casey Kasem insane. Think of how many times the poor man had to listen to The Fat Boys version of Wipeout. Horrible.

These four songs unknowingly brought in three genres of bad 80’s music. On their own, two are good songs so it’s not like they were bad and they reproduced their badness to ruin music. Two are horrible. They were horrible then and are still horrible now but even those two songs were better than the ilk they helped raise out of the landfill of obscurity to end up being played on top 40 stations across America and, in some cases, around the world.

Song number one opened the door to brainless bubble gum garbage that persisted into the early 1990’s. That song is True Blue by Madonna. This was a shocking development because the album True Blue contains the Madonna classics Papa Don’t Preach and Live to Tell and the song Open Your Heart which was ahead of its time and sounds to me like something more from the mid 90’s than the late 80’s. It was a sign of what was to come from Madonna.

True Blue, however, is truly horrible and it’s surprising to me that Madonna co-wrote it. Of course, it was a huge hit just like La Isla Bonita, also on the same album and while not a good song, not nearly as bad as True Blue.

True Blue kicked the door down for Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, two who were heavy players in 80’s bubble gum pop music but I must note here that the Debbie Gibson songs are the best of the genre. They are well-written, well-sung and complex and when I hear them today, they hold up. The problem was really the Debbie Gibson wannabe’s and how this also allowed other teenagers with no business in the music business to get recording contracts. A whole wave of bad music from young acts suddenly exploded on the charts and the gullible ate it all up, squeezing good music out, leaving it to collect dust in bins at Camelot Music and Sam the Record Man.

Songs two and three were almost equally responsible for bringing in a genre of dark music, music the oracle refers to as new wave or synth pop although most of the wannabe songs that followed were really neither. They were just moody, reflective, pointless trash. The shame here is that one of these songs was and still is a classic of the time while the other one is just cringe-worthy depressing crap, making it a perfect anthem for the Reagan years.

Speaking of cringe-worthy depressing crap, song two is Life in a Northern Town by The Dream Academy and it landed on the US charts in the late fall of 1985 and carried over right into the horrible year of 1986. It set the tone for the winter and I remember the winter being particularly brutal probably because they played this song over and over on the radio.

I blame this song for what happened next. Record producers started scouring the archives for songs to get into the US market that fit this same kind of dark, moody vibe that was suddenly popular. Thus enter song three, the champion of synth-pop, West End Girls by Pet Shop Boys. On its own, I think it is a great song and that’s why it spurred on years of attempted sound-a-likes and an invasion of Euromusic on the US pop charts.

West End Girls was originally released in 1984 and didn’t do much but it was perfect for 1986. We were ready for it thanks to The Dream Academy.

It was huge in 1986, going all the way up to #1. And more dusty records found their way back to the radio. UB40’s horrible Red Red Wine from 1983 reemerged in 1988 in the US. The band Breathe arrived in America in 1988 thanks to recordings made mostly in 1985. And let’s not forget the absolutely terrible Benny Mardones song Into the Night which was originally recorded in 1980 and then re-recorded and released in 1989.

So, between these three songs, the charts got flooded with a lot of terrible, terrible music but we still have one more song to go, a song that brought us so much garbage that it should be ashamed forever. The song responsible for Casey Kasem having to introduce The Fat Boys with The Beach Boys on AT40 plus numerous other terrible sound-a-likes. That song all released in the worst year for music in history, 1986, is Walk This Way by Run DMC and Aerosmith. 

Again, this is not a bad song. It’s a classic and Run DMC did not contribute to the bad music trend. They just opened the door to it. More like kicked the door open so hard it shattered and in came in so much bad music that most people my age ended up moving to country music in the early 90’s.

Young MC – Bust a Move? Anything by Tone Loc? The king of trash, Vanilla Ice? I could go on and on. Mainstream America embraced a lot of crap rap while the good stuff could not be played on the radio.

And thus the death knell rang out for great 80’s music. Bubble gum, synth pop and crap rap took over the airwaves. Former morning show radio stars moved on to oldies stations. My generation turned off the radio and installed cassette players and then CD players in their cars and patiently waited for the internet to revolutionize music forever. Robots and voice tracking took over radio for good in recent years. The industry never recovered from the garbage music tsunami that started in 1986 and neither did my ears.


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