At the start of the pandemic, we watched all eight Harry Potter films over consecutive nights. The pandemic, unfortunately, outlasted the marathon. What next? When Deb and the children moved on to “Game of Thrones,” I watched a single episode and thought, “I can’t commit to this.” Terrible people doing terrible things in primitive conditions? If I wanted to see that, I could have gone shopping at the height of the toilet paper panic.
Instead, I tackled all seven seasons of “30 Rock,” which I followed with Bossypants, Tina Fey’s memoir, purchased months previously at Value Village for 50 cents. I then watched her one-hour Letterman interview on Netflix. Years from now, whenever someone says “Liz Lemon,” I will step back six feet and feel an urge to wash my hands.
There are things many of us intentionally set out to do over the last three months. “If I’m in isolation,” we told ourselves, “might as well do something practical.” Sourdough was big. People started planting gardens. Working out. Getting divorced.
But as in all times of life, some things just happen. Organically, as people say. (Those people should be pummeled.)
For me, this pandemic has become all about 80s music and, as a corollary, recognizing that, after a good run, I may be done with new music.
This is tough to admit. My forties coincided with the explosion in indie music and the vast availability of music. Whole musical worlds opened up for me. In 2011, I attended my first and only Osheaga festival in Montreal and had heard (or at least heard of) a good half of the acts slated to perform. Over the past nine years, the lists of acts have become, like my eyesight, increasingly fuzzy.
At the start of the pandemic, I feel like I was keeping on top of things. There was the new release by Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, which was weird and stunning and of this isolated moment. I dug right into it; it’s outstanding.
And then I stopped. I tried listening to someone named Charli XCX, but I discovered the first X stands for “Xtremely boring. The second X stands for “X was an excellent 80s punk band and they just released a new album!” (The C stands for “Charli Again,” boringly.)
Instead, what drew me back to the 80s was a series on the website Stereogum. They are reviewing in sequence every Billboard Number One. It’s glorious and insightful and includes the nicest music-loving commenters I’ve ever read online.
The lockdown began on March 13, the day Stereogum posted one of the first Number Ones of 1980, “Rock With You,” by Michael Jackson. It hit the top spot on January 19 and stayed there for four weeks. Stereogum gives it a 9/10. In January 1980, I was 14 years old. I was a 5/10.
This week we’re up to October 1982, and John Cougar is singing a little ditty about Jack and Diane (8/10). At the time, I was six weeks from turning 17 and oblivious to the bleak outlook of that chorus: “Oh yeah, life goes on / long after the thrill of living is gone.” I wasn’t paying attention to lyrics; I was probably thinking of girls.
I’m sure that’s partly the allure of this music, the nostalgia for those teenage yearnings, memories of unrequited crushes. “Hold Me Now” by Thompson Twins, for instance, makes me think of a girl I was sure I was in love with. (Spoiler: I was not.)
Nostalgia is the middle-age version of hormonal urges. It’s puppy love for old dogs. Given a taste via Stereogum’s dive into the mixed bag of 80s Number Ones (many jokes about wishing “Abracadabra” would disappear; 1/10), I wanted more of that old drug. But not Huey Lewis’s “New Drug,” thanks.
In fact, I’m not much interested in the usual 80s suspects—your Billy Idol, your Madonna, your Stray Cats. I prefer less-traveled alternative and new wave. The Stereogum commenters often point to forgotten songs that were released then or were “on the punk side of town” or big in Poland, setting off clicks of early music videos drenched in cheese. Do you remember “Crazy” by Icehouse? I completely forgot about Icehouse. And Icicle Works! Vanilla Ice I unfortunately remember.
After wading through hours of 80s alternative on YouTube, I stumbled on a Spotify playlist called “80s Deep Cuts” filled with obscurities and B-sides from this musically diverse decade. 83 hours worth! And I have discovered an important thing: a lot of 80s music was really, really bad. And yet I continue to listen.
Maybe I’ll be back to new music once this is all over, but for now I’m drawn to that awkward time in my youth when I didn’t know what was in store. Now I do know what was in store for me then, and it turned out okay. It’s comforting to look back when you have that kind of reassurance. That comfort is what we seek right now at a time when absolutely no one knows what’s in store. We can’t say, “Hold me now,” so we might as well sing it.