Wednesday, November 29, 2017
November 29, 2017: 80s AlbumStudying: Building the Perfect Beast and Political Pop
[November 30th marks the 35th anniversary of the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, one of the most popular and influential 1980s albums. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of such albums, including Jackson’s and other greats from the decade. I’d love your AlbumStudying thoughts, on these or any others, in comments!]
On three different ways a classic pop album can also offer political statements.
At nearly the exact midpoint of Don Henley’s Building the Perfect Beast (1984), sixth and seventh out of the album’s eleven total tracks, are two songs that offer overt political and social critiques of 1980s America. Track six is the title song (seemingly not available on YouTube, sorry!), an epic, semi-allegorical commentary (not dissimilar to “Hotel California”) on the gap between America’s ideals and where the nation seems to have arrived in the mid-1980s. And track seven is “All She Wants to Do is Dance,” an irresistible dance track (duh) that doubles as a scathing depiction of ugly Americans (both individual and foreign-policy-related) behaving badly in Central America. Like the title track of Henley’s next album, The End of the Innocence (1989; also not on YouTube!), these are well-crafted pop songs that at the same time offer particularly overt and important criticisms of both the Reagan Administration specifically and American society and culture in the decade more broadly, and by themselves would be more than enough to make Building the Perfect Beast a strikingly political pop album.
They’re not by themselves, though, and Building features other, more subtle and perhaps more interesting political pop songs as well. One follows directly after “Dance” on the cassette and CD versions (although interestingly not on the LP, perhaps because it was recorded a bit later than the rest of the album): “A Month of Sundays” (also not on YouTube—Henley might be committed to keeping his music off the site), a quiet ballad narrated in the first-person by an aging farmer. Released a year before John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Rain on the Scarecrow” (1985), Henley’s song is thus more ground-breaking than it might seem, and at least has to be paired with Mellencamp’s song (and whole Scarecrow album) as part of these mid-1980s cultural engagements with farming communities and lives (a trend that would also produce 1985’s first Farm Aid concert, which featured both Henley and Mellencamp among many other artists). And I would argue that Henley’s first-person speaker is created with a bit more intimacy and subtlety than Mellencamp’s in “Scarecrow,” particularly in the song’s mysterious and moving closing lines: “And I sit here on the backporch in the twilight/And I hear the crickets hum/And I sit and watch the lighting in the distance/But the showers never come/And I sit here listen to the wind blow/And I sit here and rub my hands/And I sit here and listen to the clock strike/And I wonder when I'll see my companion again.”
The album’s other political pop songs don’t really seem political at all, but offer important social commentaries nonetheless. I wrote about one of them in this June 2016 post: the wonderful opening song “The Boys of Summer,” and its multi-layered and even contradictory visions of nostalgia’s dangers and appeals. “Boys” has a corollary in “The Sunset Grill,” a song that frames the album’s conclusion and offers an even more complicated image of the relationship between the past and the present in 1980s America. On the one hand, “Sunset” uses a semi-mythic (or at least idealized) vision of the past to critique the present, with lines like “These days a man makes you something/And you never see his face.” But at the same time, the song ends with playful lines that both imagine a possible future and embrace the flawed but wonderful present: “Maybe we’ll leave come springtime/Meanwhile, have another beer/What would we do without all these jerks anyway?/Besides, all our friends are here.” That closing, especially when coupled with the next and final song “Land of the Living” (chorus: “I wanna stay in the land of the living/I wanna stay here with you”), offers an optimistic counterpoint and coda to some of the album’s darker or more critical visions—and that’s a pretty important political purpose for pop music as well!
Next AlbumStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other ‘80s albums you’d highlight and analyze?