There was a rock backlash going on in the charts in 1989 which was sphincter tightening in its awfulness then and now. A slew of artists so wholesome I imagine that if I had touched their skin it would have squeaked like a plate coming out of a sink full of suds.
By 1989 I had been getting my fortnightly copy of Australian Smash Hits for four or five years, but my rising interest in rock combined with that magazine’s obsession with Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan was proving a trying time for a long-term subscriber. I am a broad church musically. I welcome most people. But I could not stand Kylie and Jason.
Thankfully we were pretty much spared Debbie’s music in New Zealand. Our ears were tormented instead by Especially For You. Kylie herself first bounced into view as a pop sensation with a cover of Loco-Motion in 1987 followed by I Should Be So Lucky and Got To Be Certain in 1988. All top ten hits in New Zealand. I have a friend who loves Especially For You. It almost ruined our relationship. It still has left a bright, shiny mark like toothpaste on your favourite shirt front between us. She’s younger than me though, so perhaps Especially For You is what Wired for Sound is to me: pure, naive love before irony and cynicism and self-consciousness takes hold.
Where Debbie failed in New Zealand Tiffany succeeded, although by 1989 her star had faded. The dark shame for me regarding Tiffany was that I fancied her, and was secretly thrilled when I Think We’re Alone Now reached number one here. At the time I believed that she had come of age and shown her true depth and range only to discover – about two decades later – that this song was also a cover version. It was as deflating as finding out that Soft Cell’s Tainted Love was a cover. People who only really have one thing to their name, who can use it as a token against total pop derision, well – for them to have their one song taken off them – it’s diminishing. In the world of one hit wonders Flock of Seagulls can hold their heads high(ish) but Soft Cell? It takes the shine off a little bit that they didn’t write the song. Another blow to my secret desire for Tiffany was re-watching Full House with my daughters and seeing her popularity used as a plot device: “Can we stay up and see the Tiffany show on TV?” Seeing your femme fatale celebrated by 8 year old girls really puts a dampener on things.
Strangely, Full House also featured Stacey Q: Two of Hearts. (Another song I loved but would not likely admit.) D.J. goes to the mall to get Ms Q’s autograph. Tiffany “made it” on the mall scene. Unlike most New Zealanders in 1989 I actually lived near a mall: Coastlands. There was no Tiffany at Coastlands. No Stacey or Debbie. There was a record store though. Platinum Records. I went there and spent all my pocket money which I earned by (a) existing, and (b) mowing the lawns: lethargically. Sometimes.
There was always a difficult choice knowing what to buy when funds were limited, music scarce and the judgement of your peers brutal. There were a series of equations to be balanced in your head. There were albums that were slick, and poppy, and bright. Someone like Paula Abdul whose Straight Up is still alright, but whose other hits – with a few decades to date them – are painful. Opposites Attract being a particularly awful song with shit rap, and a stupid animated dog in the video. Somewhere in my bogan gut I knew not to buy Paula.
Lies by Guns and Roses was a safe choice. If I had bought that my choice would have been unassailable. Cool people would approve. Bogans would approve. Other people would be too classroom savvy to comment negatively. The problem there was that I was already feeling uneasy about Guns and Roses.
I once went into a beautiful old church that had been deconsecrated. People were preparing for a wedding. As they discussed who would be sitting where and setting up the flowers I Used to Love Her was playing over the PA. That song about killing your ex because she “bitched” too much. Better than One In a Million though:
Immigrants and faggots
They make no sense to me
They come to our country
And think they’ll do as they please
Like start some mini-Iran
Or spread some fucking disease
And they talk so many God damn ways
It’s all Greek to me
Guns and Roses was my Kanye West. I once asked a bunch of highly intelligent female feminist students I taught why they liked Yeezus. They looked slightly discomfited and said: “It sounds soooo good.” Guns and Roses was like that for me. The first song on Lies is Reckless Life. It sounds great and there’s nothing really to say about the lyrics; they’re just big, dumb rock lyrics. But then there’s One In A Million.
I guess I have a rule: I don’t hang out with people who have done and said horrible shit and the rule is the same for music. If the musicians have done or said horrible shit I don’t hang out with them anymore. Which is why Anchorage by Michelle Shocked is not on my mixtape because, you know: homophobe.
What I did buy at this time was Vivid by Living Color. I played it a lot but didn’t ever fully love it. It was an album that was almost good but some of the politics was a bit too front on, and clunky, and some of the songs sort of dumb (Funny Vibe). The cover of Memories Can’t Wait is great, as is Which Way to America? Even though I’m giving it a tepid review here (I guess a six out of ten*) I still listened to it about 100 times. In a time where albums cost a lot, and the radio was busy with Kylie and Jason, Toni Childs and Paula Abdul, you damn well got your money’s worth out of every purchase.
Except Andy Taylor’s debut album. That really was shit.
*I use the system where you can’t give a seven or a three because it forces you to make a call between really good and ok, or really bad and ok.
- Living Color – Memories Can’t Wait
- Inner City – Good Life
- Tracy Chapman – Fast Car
- Edie Brickell and New Bohemians – Circle
- Cowboy Junkies – Sweet Jane
- Tone Lōc – On Fire
- Fine Young Cannibals – Good Thing
- Tinita Tikaram – Twist In My Sobriety
- Tracy Chapman – Behind the Wall
- Living Color – Which Way to America?