When I Need a Good Soundtrack for the Resistance, I Turn to '80s Music
A screenshot from the video for World Party's "Ship of Fools," one of many great '80s pop songs with strong political themes
I spent a January weekend wrapped in anger and guilt. The anger hit hard on Friday, when Donald Trump took the presidential oath of office. The guilt crept in on Saturday afternoon, when I realized that I should have been out with a protest sign but wasn't.
I was pissed about a lot of things, too many to list here. Mostly, though, I was upset about a #blessed culture that worships wealth and celebrity so deeply that an unqualified, uncouth and unlearned man could run for president on what was essentially a "trust me, I'm rich" platform — and win.
On Sunday night, at a loss for any word other than "fuck," I squeezed behind the DJ gear in the small, front room of the downtown bar where I play once a month and let the music do the talking. That's an easy thing to do in a goth and industrial flashback set. I dropped "Welcome to Paradise," a Front 242 jam from 1988 with fat, mechanical beats and a glut of sampled preacher wails invoking Jesus and promising prosperity. It's more relevant now in a country where the religious right and the 1 percent have joined forces to jeopardize the rights of everyone else. As I played it, the song felt cathartic.
In times of political strife, the obvious musical point of reference is the 1960s, with its songs protesting the Vietnam War and calling for civil rights. While I listen to those songs too, my go-to decade is the ’80s. You may think of it as an era of materialism and debauchery, but I hear the decade as the unsung sound of resistance.
The 1980s gets a bad rap for a lot of good reasons. Greed was masked as "trickle-down economics." The "War on Drugs" continued its assault on Latin American governments abroad and poor people at home. The Cold War's constant threat of nuclear annihilation continued to loom. Thousands of people, mostly gay men, were dying from a new, mysterious disease. On television, we could watch Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, but out in the real world, neglected urban areas suffered and homelessness rose. And this was just in the United States. No doubt the U.K. and other countries had their share of problems, too, and all of this was being documented in song.
On the radio, inside record stores and on that new channel MTV, there were cross-genre aural protests that spanned the decade. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five addressed urban poverty during hip-hop's infancy with "The Message." Paul Hardcastle brought an anti-war message to the dance floor via strategically placed samples in "19." The Specials — or Special A.K.A. as they were known at the time — lobbied against apartheid, urging the South African government to "Free Nelson Mandela." Bronski Beat looked at the effects of homophobia in songs like "Smalltown Boy" and "Why?"
This wasn't an underground phenomenon. U2, whose political songs are plentiful, were a regular sight on the charts with two No. 1 albums (The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum). Nena, from Germany, hit No. 2 on the U.S. charts with the anti-war song "99 Luftballons." At the end of the decade, Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back topped Billboard's "Top Black Albums" chart and went platinum. Metallica had a breakout hit with "One," another song reflecting the horrors of war, which was promoted with a video using footage from the film Johnny Got His Gun.
For some ’80s groups — U2, Midnight Oil, Dead Kennedys, The Clash and Public Enemy among them — socially conscious lyrics were part of their persona. But even for those who didn't have the "political band" tag attached to them, the turmoil of the ’80s often affected their lyrics.
I turned 13 in the final month of the 1980s, so in a way, some of these songs shaped my understanding of the world. I could sing along with "Enola Gay," a 1980 synth-pop dance tune from OMD, before I knew that the title was the name of the plane used to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. For the curious kid whose love for music was already intense, the songs of the era would prompt so many questions: What was Bloody Sunday? Who are the Sandinistas?
I never lost my love of ’80s songs, but the music became increasingly important to me years later. In the early 2000s, when America was waging war in Afghanistan and Iraq, I was DJing a lot and there wasn't much in the way of contemporary music that could communicate my feelings to the crowd on the dance floor. But when I combed through the shelves of used ’80s vinyl, I could find songs with messages I wanted to share.
The biggie for me was "Generals and Majors," from XTC's 1980 album Black Sea. This was a song that I had loved since I first heard it on KROQ years earlier, but now it made sense in a way that it didn't when I was a grade-school kid. It was peppy and worked with the indie dance, Britpop and ’80s alternative songs that filled my sets then. Plus, I liked the cynicism in the lyrics: "Generals and majors always seem so unhappy unless they got a war."
People always danced to the song. I never knew if it was because they liked the bouncy beat, connected with the lyrics or just really dug XTC. Maybe it was a bit of everything.
Music is more than a beat and a melody, more than a good voice and sick production. It's more than just entertainment. Sometimes, music exists as a time capsule; Nelson Mandela was eventually freed, but the tunes sung for his release remain as evidence of the struggle it took to get there. In other instances, the songs re-emerge, their meanings now applicable to some other situation. History repeats itself and music is a reminder of that.
In the ’80s, political sentiments were embedded into all kinds of music, from artists of varying levels of success. Music and politics used to go hand-in-hand — but by the 21st century, at least among more mainstream artists, overt political statements nearly disappeared. Maybe artists feared a Dixie Chicks fate. The result, though, was that politics often were left to those known for it (System of a Down) and those too big to suffer serious consequences (Madonna). Will things change now because of the Trump administration? I hope so, but it's still too soon to tell.
As the Trump era closed in on the 100-day mark, the anger and guilt didn't subside. At my desk, I repeatedly turned to another song. "Ship of Fools," by World Party, is a song with vividly detailed lyrics, yet the actual meaning is open to interpretation. Right now, it feels like a reaction to the morning stream of presidential tweets. "We're setting sail to the place on the map from which no one has ever returned/Drawn by the promise of the joker and the fool/By the light of the crosses that burned," Karl Wallinger sings at the start of the song, which made it to the Billboard Top 40 in 1987.
Sometimes I hum along to the melody. Other times, I simply bob my head to the beat. But when the chorus comes, I sit silently and motionless. "Save me, save me from tomorrow," Wallinger sings. "I don't want to sail with this ship of fools."
Maybe someday soon, I'll stumble across a new song that hits me in the same way. Maybe not. In the meantime, I'm content to mine the sounds of the ’80s resistance.
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