Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Be more constructive with your feedback

I hear the word "cheesy" used quite frequently to describe music, especially pop music of the '80s. I even hear this from the mouths of musicians, even though it is an inherently dismissive and uncritical way to describe music. This is not to be confused with another demographic, the younger (than me) group that loves the '80s ironically ("wow, this is SO eighties!"). This type of surface, non-musical enjoyment is not exclusive to 20-somethings in DayGlo t-shirts and ugly high-top sneakers, of course. The packaging of popular music is and always will be the thing that attracts "listeners."

For this essay, I'm making a proposal to a different group: people, especially musicians, that claim to be music lovers, yet are still inclined to dismiss huge chunks of music as "cheesy" without any explanation. I've compiled a list of what I think most people mean when they say "Oh, I can't stand the '80s...that music is so cheesy."

-"I do not like the sound of early digital recording technologies and techniques."
    -"Digital reverb is too cold and brittle for my taste."
    -"I prefer the warmer sound of analog guitar effects." ("Why does Andy Summers use that out-of-tune chorus sound all the time?")
    -"I don't like the way the drums were recorded, generally speaking. Gated reverb is not for me."
    -"I prefer the sound of analog monophonic synths to the thin-sounding digital synths of the '80s."

-"The singers are all so insincerely sincere and overly emotive."

-"I don't like the sound of electric bass with chorus. Or guitar with chorus. Or drums with flanger, for that matter."

Those are possibilities. More often it's the following:

-"I am distracted by the fashions and styles present in early music videos. So much, in fact, I am unable to take the music seriously."

-"I grew up in that era. I liked real New Wave. You know, not The Police. Madonna was always just pop junk to me. Dead Kennedys!"

That's what people mean by "cheesy." I just wish they would be more specific. "Cheesy" is meaningless in this context. It's not even correct, by definition. "Outmoded" or "unfashionable," perhaps. Either way, dismissing an entire decade of songs based on haircuts or production values is unfortunate. It's a bit like saying you don't like Buddy Holly because his glasses seem like an affectation, or because the kick drum really doesn't cut through the mix on those Bill Haley records. And don't get me started on all that Phil Spector, let's throw everyone in a room with a couple mics...what a cheesy...and don't get me started on The Supremes and their cheesy hairdos...and didn't Bach look stupid in that wig?

I do understand the charges against some of the "digital-ness" from that decade. Producers were embracing new gear that was sometimes more reliable and easier to use (or sometimes just for newness sake) at the expense of "tone," which is subjective at best...the analog revival is now well into its second decade. But to ignore great songcraft just because there's a synth patch or guitar tone that makes you cringe seems very unfortunate.


  1. I like it BECAUSE of "the sound of early digital recording technologies, effects and techniques"--("retro" happy-pop)--because of the "brittle" Digital reverb, the out-of-tune Andy Summers' chorus sound, gated reverb, the "thin-sounding" digital synths of the '80s, the melodramatic "insincerely sincere, emotive" singers, the sound of electric bass with chorus, guitar with chorus, AND drums with flanger....not to mention the ostentatious "fashions and styles" (costumes)--precisely because I didn't HAVE to take music so seriously (isn't it for fun, anyway?) and, yes--"I grew up in that era. I liked real New Wave..." AND the Police AND Madonna & Dead Kennedys....How's that for specific?

  2. Quite! Thanks for reading, Pam.