It’s difficult to conceive of the market niche for this two-disc, 30-song compilation of Top 40 hits from the decade that brought us such enduring rock luminaries as Huey Lewis and the News and Richard Marx. Clearly, it is not designed for people who actually care about music, or who like music. Such people wouldn’t be interested in a collection of their worst nightmares from the darkest age American popular music has ever known, a stretch of years that saw rock legends betraying their talents with massively embarrassing efforts (cf. Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work, Rod Stewart’s Tonight I’m Yours, anything recorded by Paul McCartney, et cetera) while drum machines and synthesizer programming more or less replaced musicianship once and for all. The advent of videos made a band’s image paramount, far more significant then how they sounded; hence an entirely mediocre ballad crooner like Boy George could become a instant sensation through sheer visual flamboyance, and the decade’s most significant performer, Madonna, could get by without having any specific talent at all besides a canny knack for anticipating fashion trends.
No, the purpose of collections like this are not to make listeners think, “Oh wow, that’s a really good song”, but to think, “Oh God, I remember that, I remember having to hear that on the ride to my grandmother’s house for Easter dinner when I was eight”, or “I remember dancing a slow dance at the Prom to that”, or “I remember that from the roller-skating rink.” In short, it has nothing to do with music at all, except insofar as to show how powerful a memory trigger music can be, regardless of whether or not it’s any good. The point of a CD like this is to remind you of yourself when you were younger and presumably happier, or least other than how you are now. In short, it’s escapist music, like all pop music, but in a slightly different way than contemporary pop—rather than invite you to pretend vicariously that you are someone else, it offers you a chance to pretend to be yourself, circa 1985. If you’d prefer to be lost in the inchoate memories of yourself 20 years ago, you might find some solace in this. But if you were born after 1978 or so, I can’t see what you’d get out of this other than some kitschy laughs at how clueless popular culture seemed to have been then.
Sometimes good songs that weren’t actually popular get thrown on to collections like this, which give you the chance to discover something new but which falsifies the impression you get of what was really happening in the time allegedly documented. For better or for worse, there is little revisionist history here (though I question how big Greg Kihn’s “Jeopardy” was); the compilers have gathered gruesomely representative hits from the decade, songs that should send chills down anybody’s spine who was culturally aware then, including “Higher Love” by Steve Winwood, “I Want to Know What Love Is” by Foreigner, “Wild Wild West” by Escape Club, and an unholy trilogy of uncalled for covers: David Lee Roth’s schmaltzy take on “California Girls”, Billy Idol’s frat-house favorite, “Mony Mony”, and Bananarama’s dance-club decimation of the Shocking Blue’s “Venus”. Some of the songs on these discs aren’t awful: “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” is a pretty flexible anthem that’s not foiled by dated production, Blondie’s “Call Me” is seductively sleazy, and the Pretenders’ elegaic “Back on the Chain Gang” is more genuinely moving than any pop song has a right to be. “New Sensation” is the best of INXS’ hits; “The Look” by Roxette seems less ridiculous now then it did then; and Kim Carnes death-bed croak on “Bette Davis Eyes” is still as creepy and unsettling as anything in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
But if compilations like this one reveal anything, its that people who don’t care all that much about music are actually much more open-minded and flexible about it, and may be more responsive to musical innovations when they come. After all these are the people who aren’t thrown by Devo and the Doobie Brothers coexisting on the same disc; these are people who can get into Yes and the Stray Cats equally, on the same level of utter detachment from where these bands are coming from, where they’ve been, and what their posturing consists of. Such an audience is just not interesting in discriminating, and they are able to take their pleasure where they can find it. They are genuinely flattered that this enormous music industry exists to keep cranking out new flavors for them to try. It must be extremely reassuring to believe the entertainment industry is on your side instead of waging an unending war to obliterate your sensibilities, to be able to flick on the radio and never be spent into a tailspin of despair at what is being played. I have to admit I envy such people.