The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
"Number One With a Bullet"
In the Fascist Bathroom: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-1992
Greil Marcus (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993)

With the election long gone, all the rap records featuring all the Ronald Reagan soundalikes are just so many Mondale buttons. All but one -- the one the man made himself.

Everybody heard about it, but not too many people heard the thing itself: "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." Hearing it is indescribably more chilling than reading it on the page. My first chance came a few days after the fact, on KALX-FM, the Berkeley college station. Certain it was a fake, I pulled over at the first phone booth, called, asked what it was. "The real McCoy," said the DJ. I couldn't believe it, and I didn't want to believe it. But they played it straight through the next fifteen minutes, over and over, adding echo and reverb here and there, and by the end I had the Mondale spot designed.

Blank screen; hold. Voice-over and white letters on screen: Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States. Reagan on, voice and white letters: "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." Reagan off. Black screen; long hold. tag, white letters, no voice: Ronald Reagan Thinks Nuclear War Is a Joke. Do You? No such ad ever ran, of course; it would have been unseemly. It might have lost votes.

A few weeks before November 6, Bootsy Collins of Parliament-Funkadelic and Jerry Harrison of Talking Heads released "Five Minutes" under the name Bonzo Goes to Washington. The credit was the only cheap shot -- the only note that linked this twelve-inch to the other Rappin' Ronnie discs, all of which were merely funny or not funny, which were made out of liberal condescension, from the idea that the president is not a serious man, and which in any case had only one effect: they made Ronald Reagan seem likeable, even hip. Here, in a spirit of horror and glee, Collins and Harrison let the man speak for himself.

They ran a few scratch cutups over the lines to keep them pumping. And they isolated the words to force you to catch the nuances, to become aware of the phrasing, to feel the rhythms....The whole point was to make sure you listened until you believed he'd really said it.

Reagan starts out slowly, but then his voice changes, blurs a little. He rushes the ending. He rushes it because while this really is a joke -- you can hear people laughing in the background -- it is also unmistakably sexual. The lust in the passage is what makes it so terrifying....Again and again, shifted, speeded up, slowed down. It's viva la muerte turned into la muerte, l'amor. It's sickening.

I have a fantasy that, by some kind of luck, this record will last, if only because enough people will buy it to transform it into an artifact. Not a historical artifact -- just the sort of thing that ends up in attics or basements, packed away in trunks. I imagine that last surviving copy will be found...[and] our inheritors, those many who built their society on the abolition of total destruction, or those few who burrowed out from underneath it, laughing, one way or another. "That's it," they say. "It was such a joke, nobody took it seriously."

-- Village Voice, 18 December 1984


The late Lester Bangs on the 1976 Second Annual Rock Music Awards telecast, hosted by Alice Cooper and Diana Ross:

The highlight of the evening was the Public Service Award. Alice Cooper complained that "rock music personalities are foremost and basically people -- contrary to rumor. People with the same dreams, desires and feelings as everyone else. They're ambitious but they're not selfish or self involved -- but caring!...and I can't read this card. Their careers are time-consuming, but they still invest whatever time they have in- --" Diana: " -- what we in the industry are most proud of -- the Public Service Award." They have Public Service Awards to Harry Chapin for contributing to World Hunger Year, and to Dylan for helping get Rubin "Hurricane" Carter out of jail....Then Diana administered the coup de grace: "But seriously, folks, there's an incredible movement growing in the United States; concerned citizens who believe that whales have the right to life. And through words and through music the team of David Crosby and Graham Nash express their own concern, by giving a special concert so that the whales are still alive. I think that is absolutely incredible and we honor them with our fifth Public Service Award...."

Alice made a crack about Flo and Eddie being there, speaking of whales, and Diana continued: "No, seriously, I do know that a lot of my friends are concerned about this area and it's something that I personally would like very much to be interested in."

Things haven't changed much since then. Rock stars still invest whatever time they have in what they are most proud of. The only difference is that the Rock Music Awards have been replaced by the American Music Awards, and whales have been exchanged for Ethiopians.

Following the AMA telecast in January [1985], more than forty performers gathered to make a record to raise funds for Ethiopian famine relief. AMA host and big winner Lionel Richie had already written the song with Michael Jackson; Quincy Jones produced, Diana Ross, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Willie Nelson, Steve Perry, James Ingram, Kenny Rogers, Paul Simon and the rest "checked their egos at the door" and, under the name of USA for Africa, cut "We Are The World." as Oscar Wilde might have said, it takes a strong man to listen without laughing. Or throwing up.

As I was cleaning the floor, I had to admit that as a tune "We Are The World" isn't at all bad -- but a more vague composition about specific suffering could not be imagined. Small print on the sleeve claims "United Support of Artists for Africa...has pledged to use...all profits realized by CBS Records from the sale of 'We Are The World' address immediate emergency needs in the USA and Africa, including food and medicine," but there isn't a word in the song about how or why this might be necessary. In the first verse one is told that "There are people dying" (STOP PRESS); in the last verse, that "When you're down and out" (the Ethiopians are down and out"?) "...if you just believe there's no way we can fall." Literally, that means if Ethiopians believe in USA for Africa the stars will realize their own hopes. That's it for Ethiopia.

While grammar is no help, contextualization comes to the rescue: certainly the superstars of USA for Africa knew their efforts would receive such overwhelming media coverage that their proximate inspiration would be clear to all. Thus once past "There are people dying" the rest of the song can fairly be about not the question but the answer -- a celebration of the rock music personalities who are singing.

"There's a choice we're making / We're saving out own lives" -- those are the key lines of "We Are The World," repeated again and again. Dylan sings them, Cyndi Lauper sings them, Springsteen sings them, Ray Charles sings them, Stevie Wonder sings them....The point is voracious aggrandizement in the face of starvation -- a collective aggrandizement, what those in the industry are most proud of....Forget the showbiz heaven of "We are the world, we are the children / We are the ones who make a brighter day"; listen to the way that, projecting themselves on the world, the USA for Africa singers eat it. Ethiopians may not have anything to eat, but at least these people get to eat Ethiopians.

Obviously, I think the subliminal message of "We Are The World" is destructive. The message is, ye have the poor always with you; that there is a "We," you and I, who should help "Them," who are not like us; that as we help them we gain points for admission to heaven ("We're saving our own lives"); that hunger, whether in the U.S.A. or in Africa, is a natural disaster, in God's hands, His testing -- His testing, perhaps, of those Americans who are homeless and starving "by choice," and if they aren't, how in God's name did they reach such a fate? And if they are, aren't the Ethiopians? For that matter, small print and small USA for Africa contributions to American hunger relief (ten percent) aside, doesn't the spectacularization of Ethiopian suffering trivialize American suffering and hide its political causes in a blaze of good will?....Such carping is as vague as "We Are The World" -- but there is a message hidden in the song that is more specific than anyone could have intended.

As with Michael Jackson in 1984, the highlight of the 1985 Grammy telecast was the unveiling of the new Pepsi commercial. Lionel Richie, earning $8.5 million as a Pepsi spokesman, strolled through a three-minute spot, advertised as the longest network TV advertisement in the history of the medium. The theme was pressed hard. "You know, we're all a new generation," Richie said, "and we've made our choice" -- most notably, he was saying without saying it, the choice of Pepsi over Coke.

Pepsi first tried this theme in the sixties, when it pushed "The Pepsi Generation" as a slogan. In the time of the generation gap, of seemingly autonomous youth, the line didn't work. As based in abundance as the sixties were, the ideology of the era was antimaterialist; the corporate cooptation rubbed raw. But the new generation of Richie's commercial really was new -- the post-sixties generation, which is all-inclusive, which indeed has room for anyone from that passed time; a generation whose members, according to media wisdom, have traded utopianism for self-realization, but nevertheless look hard for quality time to spend on family, friends, and areas they personally would like very much to be interested in, so long as those areas are sufficiently distant, say, eight thousand miles distant.

Actually, the 1985 Pepsi commercial was a lousy commercial: a stiff combination of a Lionel Richie video and an insurance-company ad. Compared to the 1984 Mountain Dew breakdancing commercial it was merely long. But "We Are The World" is a great commercial. It sounds like a Pepsi jingle -- and the constant repetition of "There's a choice we're making" conflates with Pepsi's trademarked "The Choice of a New Generation" in a way that, on the part of Pepsi-contracted songwriters Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, is certainly not intentional, and even more certainly beyond serendipity. As pop music, "We Are The World" says less about Ethiopia than it does about Pepsi -- and the true result will likely be less that certain Ethiopian individuals will live, or anyway live a bit longer than they otherwise would have, than that Pepsi will get the catchprase of its advertising camapaign sung for free by Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and all the rest. But that is only the short-term, subliminal way of looking at it. In the long-view, real-life way of looking at it, in terms of pop geopolitical economics, those Ethiopians who survive may end up not merely alive, but drinking Pepsi instead of Coke.

As American singers came together for the USA for Africa sessions, Canadian performers gathered to make their own Ethiopia record. Among the contributors was Neil Young. "You can't always support the weak," he had said in october 1984. "You have to make the weak stand up on one leg, or half a leg, whatever they've got." But the Ethiopia benefit session? Hey, it was something he personally very much wanted to be interested in.

-- Artforum, May 1985


For every new art form there's someone to come along and pronounce it dead, but rarely has an art form been born dead -- as is the case with rock video, and its major outlet, MTV. MTV is the pornography of semiotics. Available around the clock, a closed system where nothing outside its frame of reference is ever allowed to intrude, it most closely resembles the lowest porn commodity, the loop: a continuous, circular repetition of signs whose meanings have been frozen long in advance. Promising pleasure through immersion in a seamless collage of visual and aural surprises, delivering instead the stupor of reification, the contradiction running twenty-four hours a day on MTV is so ugly, so directly productive of aesthetic and moral shame, as to be fundamentally obscene....Like pornography, MTV can glue you to the screen -- at least until the split between what ought to be fun and what is in fact oppressive becomes intolerable. Glued to the screen, you can start to feel like Lot's wife.

Shame is an interesting emotion; as semiotic pornography, MTV lets you decipher your responses. Turn it on: along with the medley of Whitney Houston's greatest hits, which glamorizes insincerity to the point where no other emotion seems real (the look on Houston's face when she hugs her mother at the end of "The Greatest Love Of All" -- self-love -- would scare Machiavelli), along with the interchangeable female models gliding through male singers' videos, their makeup so pristine they dissolve the reality of whatever situations they are gliding through -- along with everything else MTV has to offer, you see, perhaps, Big Country's "One Great Thing."

This is an elaborate, ambitious piece of work. The key lines of the song are, "If there's one great thing to happen in my life / Let it be a time for peace"; to dramatize the idea, the video presents dozens of ordinary-looking people, grouped by gender, class, and vocation (nuns, grocers, bankers, bodybuilders, doctors, etc.), posed as if for school club photos in a yearbook. They mouth the words to the song as, on the soundtrack, Big Country -- a male U.K. rock combo known for rousing tunes pushed by a guitar that sounds like a bagpipe -- performs it. The premise is simple: all people want peace. The subpremise is patent: all people wanting the same thing, are basically the same. We live in one world. But it's a queer exercise, and the queerness isn't simple.

The people in this video aren't lip-synching -- pretending to sing. They're not like the contestants on the TV show Puttin' on the Hits, or Mickey Rourke miming Bob Seger's "Feel Like A Number" in Body Heat. When you lip-synch you take over the song, or vice versa; you actively respond to someone else's creation and, if only for a moment, you change yourself. The process is fun, and the result is something new.

What goes on in "One Great Thing" is so far from fun it's morbid. You see separated, segregated groups of people stolidly, blankly forming their lips around the word "peace" as you hear the word coming out of Big Country's mouths. The feeling is creepy. Halfway through the video, you're watching not an intended dramatization of the truism that everyone wants peace, but an unintended dramatization of alienation -- which feels like the shame, the obscenity, the pornography of everyday life. What you see is that these people...who are presumably told to look serious (peace is a serious matter), are not, as they mouth words that signify a good thing, having a good time. Why not?....[M]aybe because what they are portraying, or what they're living out, is not freedom, pleasure, or even advocacy, but the stupor of reification. What's more intensely dramatized -- the social fact that overwhelms the notion of "peace" -- is not, finally, the idea that all of these putatively separated groups of people want the same thing, but separation itself. Watching, you anticipate a finale where the nuns mingle with bodybuilders..., but it doesn't happen....

[T]he band helplessly orchestrates its absolute statement of right thought as if it were a song about anything else, performed by anyone else. Very quickly, the performance is not about peace; it's about MTV....Everything you see is second-hand, third-hand -- received and reified. To highlight a solo, the singer leans on the guitar player's shoulders as the guitarist thrashes out the notes. Within all-male rock bands, this is a gesture so tired, so stereotyped, as to be no longer capable of signifying what it's supposed to signify: camaraderie, fraternity, solidarity, or simply the delight of making physical contact. All the gesture signifies here is that the guys in Big Country know what male rock stars are supposed to do onstage. They're not touching because they want to, because the music drove them together, or because a gesture of solidarity symbolizes peace, but because it's in the male-rock-performer script, and that's signification enough: the movement just says that these people are, in fact, rock stars. It walks like a duck, it talks like a duck, it must be a duck. The semiology is circular, but that's all there is to MTV semiology: the only course it can describe is a loop.

Just as all people want peace, and male rock musicians lean on each other's shoulders, most male rock singers on MTV are now supposed to wear shoulder pads....It's useful: watching MTV, you can automatically tell the stars from the other people....The Big Country singer fidgets behind his rock-star poses; he seems uncomfortable, as if his clothes don't fit him, because they don't. As fashion, the shoulder-pad style was designed to make one look larger than life, powerful, aggressive, invulnerable. But when everybody has to wear shoulder pads, all they can signify is best, one is in fashion, and can afford to be so. But fashion is a dictatorship -- and the Big Country singer is performing as a citizen of that dictatorship far more than as a member of the community of people who want peace....The singer isn't wearing shoulder pads; they're wearing him. Invented to signify power, they now signify that whoever wears them has none -- not even the power to choose his own clothes.

Or, anyway, they signify that he's a rock star on MTV. That's something, even if they make him squirm. He'll get used to it, or he'll be off the air. Such are the pleasures of an art form born dead.

-- Artforum, January 1987