It's much easier to be nostalgic about an era you missed than one that you lived through, especially as an adolescent. I can get as juiced as the next '70s freak about Sly Stone and jean jackets, but the '80s? What was to like? Everyone else was doing coke. I was doing New Coke. Other people had DeLoreans. I had acne.
But it's not only because I was a teen-ager that I can't remember the '80s with joy. Almost nobody else can either. The '70s revival has lasted longer than the '70s themselves, but except for a few burps by fashion designers, the '80s revival has scarcely happened. That '80s Show came and went faster than Quarterflash. Now comes Like, Omigod: The '80s Pop Culture Box, the seven-CD Rhino Records compilation of '80s pop hits, to remind us why the decade of Reagan and Wham! should languish.
I think you're an '80s guy, too, so I suspect you found Like, Omigod as disturbingly evocative as I did. I got teary listening to Night Ranger's " Sister Christian" in the car one evening, thinking about the girl I didn't kiss last time I heard that song. Simple Minds' "Don't You (Forget About Me)" took me back to opening night of The Breakfast Club, a movie that inexplicably gripped me when I was 14. I hadn't listened to Toto's "Africa" since I wore out a tape of it during a summer landscaping job. The Scorpions' " Rock You Like a Hurricane" was the soundtrack to freshman year of college. (I haven't heard music the same way since, probably because it partially deafened me.)
But evocativeness is not merit. Like, Omigod,track after track, recalls that the '80s were a decade when background music was in the foreground (culprits: Air Supply, Melissa Manchester, Joey "Greatest American Hero" Scarbury, etc.); when the synthesized keyboard outrocked the electric guitar; when the saxophone mattered. Twenty years on, '80s pop sounds like an evolutionary dead end, a chimera of man-machine-hair-gel that flourished briefly and mercifully died.
It is, of course, slightly unfair to judge '80s pop based on Like, Omigod.The set is missing, presumably for rights reasons, Prince, REM, the Police, Tina Turner, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Van Halen, Whitney Houston, Billy Joel, George Michael, Def Leppard, the Beastie Boys, and Madonna, among many others. It's really a collection of also-rans and one-hit wonders.
Even so, the missing persons ('80s pop pun!) matter less than you'd expect. Like, Omigod captures the Zeitgeist of '80s pop without them. The collection is overflowing with Bombastic Ballads, probably the defining kind of '80s pop song. Bonnie Tyler's lung-breaking " Total Eclipse of the Heart" is perhaps the supreme example, but it faces tough competition from such skull-kickers as "I Want To Know What Love Is" and "Missing You." One four-song stretch includes Mr. Mister's "Kyrie," Starship's "We Built This City," and John Parr's "St. Elmo's Fire." (The fourth song in the cycle is Paul Young's "Every Time You Go Away," an unexpected delight.)
Like, Omigod is also long on another '80s standard, the gimmick hit. Billy Crystal's "You Look Marvelous," Bob & Doug McKenzie's "Take Off," and Buckner & Garcia's "Pac Man Fever" all occupy Rhino real estate, as does Frank Zappa's seminal " Valley Girl." Don Johnson is lurking here, though Bruce "Bruno" Willis is mercifully absent. The synthesizer, that cursed instrument, haunts Like, Omigod: "She Blinded Me With Science," "Don't You Want Me," "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)"—to name a few—are tricked up (or rather, dulled down) with robotic keyboards. (I'm ambivalent about the synth: On the one hand, it's the backbone of such creepy '80s masterpieces as the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams." On the other, there's "Axel F.")
The '80s were a crack decade, and the pleasures of Like, Omigod are crack pleasures, glimpses of the sublime. Notably: Choruses in '80s pop soared and shimmered. I still can't listen to Nena's " 99 Luftballons" without a shiver. That same swoop transports songs like Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry," Peter Schilling's "Major Tom," the Dream Academy's "Life in a Northern Town," or even "Sister Christian." For a few seconds, those otherwise pedestrian songs escape. They are pauses that refresh.
It wasn't till I had listened to '80s hits for a few days straight that I began to have an inkling why the '80s revival has not occurred. Why are there no cocaine-fueled Members Only-themed '80s parties? The answer, I think, is the sense of orderliness to the whole venture. Much of the music of the '60s and '70s, from folk to punk to funk, had a kind of chaos to it. Like, Omigod has no chaos, no sense anything unexpected might happen. Nostalgia is fueled by innocence, but '80s pop lacks innocence: It all feels calculated. The synthesizer is synthetic.
This has been a kind of cranky introduction. I hope you have cheerier views. I promise to be less ornery tomorrow, when I'll talk about one kind of music on Like, Omigod that the '80s didn't ruin.