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Was It Really That Bad?

Yesterday, Monitor Mix teamed up with the NPR Music dream team (Bob Boilen, Robin Hilton and Stephen Thompson) to discuss the music of the 1980s. I wanted to fill you in on the discussion in the hopes you might have something to add.

The whole thing started when the All Songs Considered blog conducted a poll asking people to choose the best year for music. It turns out that hardly anyone chose a single year from the '80s. Sure, when compared to the musical juggernauts of 1969, 1977 or 1991, the '80s might not fare so well. But were they really that bad?

The first thing that comes to mind for me, when considering '80s music, is nostalgia. As Stephen pointed out yesterday, we were barely into the 1990s before people were ready to look back. From new-wave-themed dance nights to John Hughes retrospectives, the desire to recapture the look and sound of the '80s continues to this day. And despite a tacit agreement that the musical production values were cheesy — a veritable act of sonic sterilization — most of us can't help but want to dance when we hear Depeche Mode or Duran Duran, and Bon Jovi or Great White can be heard at any given karaoke bar seven nights a week. For those of a certain age, nostalgia for the '80s has overridden decency to such an extent that what might have started as an act of irony has shifted toward genuine affection. (For more on this, wait for Robin Hilton's contribution to next Tuesday's show.)

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Yet, nostalgia aside, when asked to think back on '80s music, I found plenty to love — maybe because what I appreciate about the '80s has very little to do with my own experiences. (Which, to be honest, consisted of ass-grabbing slow dances to Expose and El DeBarge songs in junior-high, and wanting to tear the shirt off Jordan Knight at a New Kids on the Block concert.)

Though I certainly credit the '80s with advancing my love of music via MTV and large doses of Casey Kasem, I don't think they did much to advance my taste in good music. After the decade ended, however, I discovered that those years were actually full of vital and incendiary underground music scenes. From The Replacements, Husker Du and Soul Asylum in Minneapolis to the hardcore scenes of Boston, DC and LA; from Olympia, Athens and Glasgow to the sparks of brilliance emanating from New Zealand via Flying Nun Records and from the UK on Cherry Red Records, many artists and communities waged tiny battles against the grandiosity and excesses taking up the radio waves. Even if the music wasn't meant as an intentional "f—- you" to the mainstream (though some of it was), these scenes managed to produce sounds — unlike a lot of Top 40 music from the '80s — that sonically and melodically stands the test of time.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that the best music from the '80s, despite a few exceptions, was not the popular music. In a decade that predates the Internet — that wonderfully democratizing technology that conflates underground and mainstream by making both obsolete — there were plenty of unknowns, or barely knowns. If you weren't in a big city or a major media center, your access to new music came in the form of fanzines, word of mouth or, if you were lucky, a college radio station. But a lot of the aforementioned scenes remained insular, an isolation that likely helped them avoid the pitfalls and influence of that horrendously plastic '80s sound.

So when I think of the '80s now, I think of the mainstream music as a giant neon sign that's alluring, obnoxious and certainly hard to ignore; it never seems to fade out completely. And those underground or punk bands — Felt, Orange Juice, The Chills, The Clean, The Verlaines, Tall Dwarfs, The Bats, Delta 5, Bush Tetras, Beat Happening, The Church, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Black Flag, X, Social Distortion, The Misfits, JFA and countless others — were small fires set in countless cities around the globe. Maybe they weren't big enough to join forces and overtake the status quo — the way bands did in '69, '77 and '91 — but they were certainly bright enough to keep a spark alive until some other artist came along who knew how to set the place on fire.

What do you think of when it comes to '80s music? Would you include a year or moment from the '80s as one of your all time musical favorites? Or, despite the presence of U2, REM, Prince, and the Talking Heads among others, have cheesy hair-metal and over-produced pop songs ruined music's reputation from that decade?

And make sure to check back to the NPR Music site to hear our discussion on All Songs Considered. It goes online Tuesday.

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