Pop Philosophy

The '80s Are Back; Vacation Music

Keep feeling fascinationDriving from San Diego to Mexico for New Year's, I made an interesting discovery: The '80s are back. OK, so it's not like the decade ever really went away. In fact, with the cultural nostalgia cycle set on super spin, the '80s revival seemed to begin around 1991. Maybe it was a reaction against the dress-down, flannel-and-jeans grunge look; suddenly clubgoers were sporting skinny ties, pegged pants, and enough hair gel to style a kangaroo. Tired of the mopey lyrics of Nirvana and other, equally depressing early '90s brethren, people danced to wonderfully disposable fluff at Big Heart City and tuned into KITS-FM (Live 105) for "modern rock" classics by New Order, the Cure, and Oingo Boingo. Soon bands rediscovered the joys of synthesizers, concocting delirious drones and robotic dance rhythms.

Here's where it gets weird. In San Diego, a town most famous for issuing such cultural landmarks as McDonald's and the John Birch Society, '80s music is everywhere, even on the Spanish-language stations. Meanwhile, up here we have to make do with the nightly Attic show on Alice (97.3 FM) and the two -- soon to be one -- full-time '80s stations, Star 101.3 and Channel 104.9.

Patterned after an all-'80s station in Portland, Star 101.3 plays anything recorded during the '80s. For Star the era isn't a sound; it is a series of moldy Top 40 charts. By trying to be everything for everyone -- playing the cheesy schmaltz of Bryan Adams alongside the cheesy electronics of Gary Numan -- Star's programmers have concocted an oldies station as bland as a reused tea bag. Star has garnered such minimal interest amongst advertisers that its owner, Clear Channel, is replacing its format with Channel 104.9's slightly hipper playlist and changing 104.9 to an alternative rock station like Live 105.

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Sample of Stars' "This Charming Man," from the CD A Lot of Little Lies for the Sake of One Big Truth. Click the "play" icon in the control console below.

<p align="center"> If your browser doesn't display a control console, <a href="http://www.sfweekly.com/media/2001-01-10/stars.mp3"> download the MP3 file</a> to be played by a separate application. </p>

Find more information at www.joannou.net/stars.

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Would it really be such a nerve-jangling business decision to program a station that played solely "modern rock"? Or, better yet, one that mixed old synth standards such as Haircut 100's "Love Plus One" with new new wave like My Favorite's "Absolute Beginners Again"? These days you could devote an entire show (albeit not an entire station) to covers of '80s songs by current artists -- start with Stars' version of the Smiths' "This Charming Man," a remake so dazzling it surpasses the already outstanding original. I can see the listeners (with their disposable incomes) lining up from here.

The beach is alive with the sound of musicWhen I was 6 years old, I lived in a tent for a year, using leaves for toilet paper and a flashlight for a bed lamp. I've done very little camping since. So it was a big deal when I agreed to rough it over New Year's -- of course, it helped that we'd chosen a beach in Baja and brought novelty mustaches, a disco ball, and, most important, a boombox. Over the course of the weekend, as I drank margaritas while people slingshotted oranges into the ocean, I found myself looking at music from a different angle. For instance, I was struck by how situational songs can be: While some records are perfect just about anywhere, others have specific limits. Cat Stevens, for instance, usually sounds distasteful to me, mainly because his exhortations to "come on the peace train" began to ring hollow after he joined in fundamentalist Islam's call for novelist Salman Rushdie's death. There on the beach, however, Stevens' jaunty melodies and hippie charm seemed the ideal background for lazy days of sunshine and badminton.

I also noticed how traveling upsets my natural pattern of listening. Usually, all daily activities have their own particular musics. When I cook dinner, I need to hear a familiar album, something song-based that I can sing along with. The Lucksmiths' Happy Secret works well. In the mornings I have to put on something mellow but upbeat -- Chris Montez's lounge records, perhaps -- something that doesn't necessitate thought. When I go to sleep, I don't like to listen to anything at all -- once, I broke up with a woman because she insisted on hearing Peter Gabriel's Passion every night.

On this camping trip not only did I have to curb my action-specific tendencies, but I was also forced to listen to what other people played. Which is good. Every once in a while one should be wrestled face first into the sand, CD-choosing fingers pinned behind one's back, and made to listen to an unfamiliar or underappreciated genre or artist. Like Stevens. Or Beck, whom I gave up on after Odelay. Without this trip, I would never have heard Etta Baker, an ancient, acoustic blues singer who sounded so intensely real that I kept looking up the beach to see where she was sitting.

Still, there's nothing so calming as that moment when you arrive home from a vacation, plop your bags on the floor, and head over to your own stereo. Let's see, what's the perfect record for unpacking?

 
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