The Musical Question

A bit more on the subject of music…

The other day I was listening to the 80s station on Pandora when the song “867-5309/Jenny” came on. I remembered hearing years ago that every time that song was played on a radio station back in the day, the people who had that phone number got dozens of calls from people calling to see if 1) it was a real phone number (which it was in some area codes, but not in all), and 2) there was a “Jenny” who answered it (not sure the outcome of this one).

With the advent of internet radio, I’m guessing the people who had that number have long since abandoned it because now that song must come into rotation thousands of times a day. Personally I think it would be hilarious to get a cell phone and request that number, then leave it permanently on voice mail with a message that said, “Hi. This is Jenny. Sorry, I changed my number. No recommendations on who you should turn to. Maybe try your imagination? Good luck!”

I crack myself up.

But I started to really think about the music we listened to. And I had no major philosophical revelations whatsoever. Probably because, let’s face it, a lot of it was complete drivel of one sort or another. “Everybody cut footloose”? What the hell does that even mean? “Every breath you take. Every move you make. Every bond you break. Every step you take. I’ll be watching you.”? Um, hello? Stalker? “Relax, don’t do it, when you want to go to it, relax don’t do it, when you want to come”? Is there a person alive who thinks this song is about anything other than sex?  (Hint: It is not about anything other than sex.) And do I even need to bring up “We Built This City”? A song that has been voted the Worst Song Ever Written (maybe more than once)? Of course it came smack out of the 80s.

For fun I looked up a list of the Billboard #1 hits from the 80s. Some of the early ones are by artists that, in my mind, are more 70s than 80s. KC and the Sunshine Band, Diana Ross, Olivia Newton John, Chicago. In some cases they also had hits later in the 80s of course, but to my mind they were “70s music.” Maybe because I had a babysitter who adored Chicago, and she was a child of the 70s, just as I was a child of the 80s. Therefore, anything my babysitter liked—Chicago, the Eagles, the Bee Gees—got tucked in the 70s file in my mind, along with the enormously wide ties belonging to my dad, the patchwork evening dress my mom had, and the fire hydrants painted like little men from the colonial era that my city did for the bicentennial celebration in 1976. It is not an original thought that decades “bleed,” and the first two or so years of any decade are really culturally more in step with the decade immediately preceding them.

It also seemed like there were an awful lot of hits that came from movie soundtracks. An Officer and a Gentleman, Purple Rain, Flashdance, Footloose, Ghostbusters, a couple of James Bond movies, St Elmo’s Fire, Dirty Dancing, Cocktail. And we should remember that any song featured in a John Hughes movie was an automatic hit. It’s possible the 90s had just as many movie-song hits, but the 80s just appears to have been overwhelmed with them. Or maybe I’m just more aware of them.

But in the oeuvre of 80s music, one band stands out to me as being the Most 80s of All. Not because they were really my favorite (I don’t think I even owned one of their albums until my husband bought a greatest hits CD in 1997), but because I think they best encapsulate what 80s music was all about. One of their videos was voted Best Music Video of All Time (or something). They were everything we loved about the 80s— neon colors, skinny leather ties, androgynous men that were prettier than most girls. I’m talking, of course, about Duran Duran. These guys were musical gold in the 80s. And somehow they managed to be musical gold, without ever writing a single coherent song.

I have listened to Duran Duran songs thousands of times over the years, and I have yet to hear one that makes a lick of sense. The lyrics sound like they wrote words on pieces of paper, threw them up in the air in a big empty room, and whatever landed face up got used in whatever song they were writing.

Let’s have a lookee at the lyrics from the #1 hit “The Reflex,” shall we? Here’s the first verse, plus the chorus:

"You've gone too far this time"
But I'm dancing on the valentine
I tell you somebody's fooling around
With my chances on the dangerline
I'll cross that bridge when I find it
Another day to make my stand
High time is no time for deciding
If I should find a helping hand

So why don't you use it?
Try not to bruise it
Buy time don't lose it
The reflex is an only child he's waiting in the park
The reflex is in charge of finding treasure in the dark
And watching over lucky clover isn't that bizarre
Every little thing the reflex does
Leaves you answered with a question mark
So, immediately three words come to mind. What. The. Fuck. What the fuck does any of this mean? I have an English literature degree—I spent eight years (yes, I was slow, what’s your point) combing through the works of people like Charles Dickens, T.S. Eliot, Chaucer, and Edith Wharton looking for contextual references, satiric characters, and random symbolism and I can’t make heads or tails of this. Perhaps I’m not drunk enough (or something). I’m sure with enough stimulant, I would read this and think, “Of COURSE. It all makes sense now!” But even then I’m not so sure. Dancing on the valentine? Try not to bruise it? I say again, what the fuck? And yet, we bought the shit out of their music, and I listen to it to this day.
Where am I going with this? Nowhere.  Weren’t you paying attention earlier? I said that I hadn’t come up with a single major philosophical revelation because we listened to what was essentially techno junk food with guitar accompaniment and a drum solo. But I love 80s music and having The Pet Shop Boys and the Outfield come up on Pandora back to back (“West End Girls” and “Your Love,” respectively) can make my whole day. My kids aren’t as charmed by it, but they don’t have the context for it, either. The horrible school dances, the party that a certain song reminds me of, the movie song that reminds me of That One Time at That Theater When That Boy Noticed  Me. My kids will have context for Pharrell Williams' “Happy” and Robin Thicke singing “Blurred Lines” (God help them, because I suspect that the memories those conjure up will be of their mother doing an embarrassing butt-seat dance in the car). But that’s just how it goes, I guess.
At the end of the day it’s still rock ‘n’ roll to me.


Unknown said...

Love: "So, immediately three words come to mind. What. The. Fuck. What the fuck does any of this mean?" Also, "I have an English literature degree—I spent eight years (yes, I was slow, what’s your point)." I have an English Degree & I was slow too.

Tracy said...

Kindred! As I always say, English majors untie! Goes with my other favorite--procrastinators: the leaders of tomorrow!