Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A Gift And a Curse

[First in a series on The History and Philosophy of Adult Contemporary Music]

Because the 10-year-olds of the early 1990's had neither taste nor the attention span to see through marketing trends, they purchased some of the most sonically objectionable, yet culturally fascinating, music ever sold to mass audiences. Looking back, we feel lucky to have been briefly waylaid by our limited horizons at the birthplace of a musical genre that will outlive us all.

Casually calculating and sometimes fun, Adult Contemporary Music was born in our backyard. Our first tape was white rapper Snow's "12 Inches of Snow," but by 1992 we also owned some Bobby McFerrin. Facts like these should be embarassing, but frankly we're more embarassed for our elders and wisers. At the time, it sure seemed like everyone was listening to the same cassettes we were. The radio played "Don't Worry Be Happy" and our grown-up uncles and babysitters knew all the words and whistling solos, too.

Thus, our wayward, infantile tastes, coupled with a couple bucks from our parents, led us to the tail end of a genre we shouldn't have tripped over, but did: it was the flamingo-hued slow motion of the ocean in Christopher Cross's "Sailing"; last night's half-remembered, breezy dreamscape of Madonna's "La Isla Bonita"; island-hopping with the Beach Boys in "Kokomo" (someone recently told us that there's no such island: Kokomo is a small town in Indiana); Tom Cruise brooding us down on the cover of the Cocktail soundtrack. These songs sold visions of Caribbean paradises to audiences all over the rugged United States, and for a while there, implanted in us a desire for upper-crust luxury that would usurp sex as the key to all happiness promised by popular music. Let's call this music Tropicaluxurism.

Tropicaluxurism is a unique vision of desire in pop music that could only have sprung from the 1980s, when yuppies were born and leisure became a staple of the responsible breadwinner's profile. Because in the 1980s sex was not longer taboo and drugs were only exciting if they were expensive, new and pathbreaking yuppie audiences required pop fantasies that differed from earlier staple subjects like dancing, hallucinating, twisting, discoing, protesting, and chasing spirituality. What aura would fill the fantasy void?

Or, What to get a world that has it all? In the 1980s people were having children later and making more money than ever. For their money and their eyes, VH1 was being born, but Tropicaluxurism wasn't hatched overnight.

A careful reckoning with the zeitgeist by a stable of starpushers and acts, hungry for a comeback (like the Beach Boys) or just catching fire (like Madonna, Snow, and UB40) had to boil before the bongos broke out. Adult contemporary music is nothing if not pre-calculated on the shallowest level of social subconscious desire.

So we all knew money was the sexiest girl in the world in the 1980s. But what symptom of money would hook the yuppies and the yup-struck masses?, adult contemporary spinsters asked their oracles, as pop music threatened to splinter into a million niche markets.

Then, like Columbus after months on the unforgiving Atlantic, they finally hit on something nice and green: What 1980s audiences needed was a music that sang about luxury vacations in the Caribbean the way Chuck Berry had sung about cars and everybody else had sung about girls. Like the American continent before it, the matter was settled.

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