The 1980s have to be one of the singularly most maligned decades in the history of not only music, but pop culture itself. While the era termed as “The Me Decade” didn’t produce music or trends with the most longevity, there is still a market for all that was the ‘80s, as evidenced by the current wave of nostalgia surrounding the decade.
Time Life capitalizes on this trend with a three-disc set that assembles songs encompassing nearly every sub-category of the music of the ‘80s, serving as a reminder of both the good and bad of the times. Fond memories stand side by side with not-so-fond ones, like all those junior high dances you never got asked to. Yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, “Back on the Chain Gang” by the Pretenders. That’s right. You too, J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold”, with your expounding upon the joys of seeing your high school crush spread (quite literally) across the pages of a nudie mag.
Starting with the good, in spite of its undue reputation for churning out disposable hits, there was some surprisingly innovative musicianship in the ‘80s. Emblematic of the signature sound of the decade and the band itself, the Cars’ “You Might Think” employs the technique of meshing synthesizers with electric guitar riffs. Forgoing the synth on “Rock This Town” by the Stray Cats, Brian Setzer’s guitar-work introduces rockabilly to the MTV Generation. Admittedly, these songs sound a bit dated when played over twenty years later. However, several well-chosen tracks like Pat Benetar’s “We Belong”, Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love”, and “Need You Tonight” by INXS manage to sound current with lyrics that range from poetic to memorably clever to a little of both, respectively.
For every good track, there is also a song that is a glaring artifact of everything that was bad about the music of the 1980s. Listening to “(Keep Feelin’) Fascination” by the Human League and “Jump (For My Love)” by the Pointer Sisters, it’s hard to fathom how people actually listened to some of this stuff. Yes, Virginia. There is such a thing as too much synthesizer.
Beyond irritating abuse of an instrument, Superstars of the ‘80s reminds us all of some of the terrible lyrics that managed to eke their way through the ether. Offering up such patently laughable lyrics as “Shootin’ at the walls of heartache / Bang, bang / I am The Warrior”, Patty Smyth with Scandal stands as a textbook example of the groan-worthy fare that came hurtling out of the speakers. Rivaling “The Warrior” in contention for the worst and least iconic choice on the anthology is ABC’s cheesy and monotonous “When Smokey Sings”. When I think of classic songs and Superstars of the ‘80s”, neither one instantly springs to mind. Other choices on the compilation range from the boringly uninspired “Broken Wings” of Mr. Mister, to the overrated and overplayed Latin rump-shaking of the Miami Sound Machine’s “Conga”.
While Superstars of the ‘80s” gives fair representation to female artists who had gone solo during the decade, like Tina Turner and Belinda Carlisle, in addition to some requisite one-hit-wonders, like the fun, yet thin-sounding novelty of the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian”, certain musical genres that burst onto the scene were conspicuous by their absence. The decade that brought metal and hip-hop to the forefront of the world’s musical landscape was denoted only by Billy Idol’s anthemic “White Wedding” and, to a lesser degree, David Lee Roth’s post-Van Halen cover of “California Girls”. With “White Wedding” standing in as perhaps the only song with teeth on the compilation, hip-hop and R&B fared much worse, with no artists besides the venerable Aretha Franklin on her comeback hit, “Freeway of Love”, stepping up to be showcased.
Much like the decade itself, Superstars of the ‘80s ignores the burgeoning undercurrent of change and controversy. However, forgoing any political or musical revolution, on the surface, the ‘80s were all about fun. Several songs amply cover that terrain on the collection. Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend” conjures images of Chris Farley’s Chippendale’s audition alongside Patrick Swayze on Saturday Night Live, while Wham! (yes, the exclamation point is mandatory) jitterbugs into the life choosin’ hearts of pop fans on both ends of the pond with “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”. For every bit of day-glo bravado, there was still an earnestly beating heart, as Howard Jones reminds us with “No One Is to Blame.” One of the sole singer-songwriters on the anthology, Jones’s heart-rending lyrics are an anthem to everyone who’s ever had a long spell of hard luck.
Overall, Time Life plays it safe with the collection. The bulk of the catalogue is possessed of the same non-threatening nature as the closing credits to a John Hughes film. There is no real rhyme or reason to the choice of songs on each of the discs. With the exception of a few ditties, not many of the songs chosen are incredibly iconic, yet the Time Life collection revisits old favorites and allows for a new appreciation for some songs you may have flicked the radio dial on a decade or two before.