The 80s – Back to the Future

Towards the end of the 70s, there was a change in the air. For a decade now, rock music was becoming ever more progressive and experimental. The social emancipation and rise of recreational drug use as expressed in The Summer of Love had infiltrated music and mainstream culture in general.

In the latter half of the 60s, musicians had become dissatisfied with apparently stifling pop-song conventions, such as under-3-minute running time or the verse-bridge-chorus form. An interesting parallel took place in cinema – many film directors were also feeling their artistic expression was being hindered by moral censorship as expressed in the Motion Picture Production Code, and they eventually led to its demise.

So the 70s were full of progressive or psychedelic rock bands, concept albums, 20-minute guitar solos as well as pretentious subject matter. The silver screen reflected this zeitgeist of self-indulgence and artsy-fartsyness, with directors beginning to rival film stars in celebrity status. Back in the world of music, certain subcultures such as disco continued music production along more traditional lines unabated.

Not that this explosion of expressionism was all for the worse; the 70s produced a lot of great music and art, often because of – and not despite – their solipsism. The most important thing to consider, though, is that this period of excess had to happen before a synthesis of new and old ways could emerge. This synthesis was the 1980s New Wave. Having gone through the looking glass and reached aesthetic bankruptcy, the popular music world was looking for a way back home like a prodigal son…

Even though the synthesizer was gaining prominence at this time, the synthpop that emerged with its help has been called ”perhaps the single most significant event in melodic music since Mersey-beat”. So while reaching for a cutting edge, futuristic instrument, musicians were increasingly looking back to traditional, time-honored songwriting and melodies as if in counter-revolt to the iconoclastic bohemianism before them. This Hegelian perspective effectively makes the term “synthpop” a double entendre.

Of course, not all of the 80s was about synth pads and electro beats (although synthesizer and drum machines are no doubt iconic symbols of the decade). The prevailing feeling was of fun and flamboyance instead of the serious introspection and self-conscious intellectualism that had become so commonplace. Suddenly it was ok again to make 3-minute pop songs about love or dancing… with admittedly novel quirks such as sci-fi motifs and anaemic (almost robotic) performance styles. At the same time, the new wave often betrayed the geopolitical tension of the times; the spectre of nuclear war permeating a lot of professional creative activity.

So the return to good old, formulaic, crowd-pleasing songs and melodies after the cultural rebellion of the 60s and 70s was inevitable. It reinvigorated music and introduced the world to the sound of the future.

Jean Michel Jarre – Composer vs. Innovator

Jean Michel Jarre (1948-) is one of the most influential popular composers of the late 20th century, though he is mostly unknown in the United States and Canada. Son of the renowned French film composer Maurice Jarre (who scored classics such as David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”), he almost single-handedly inspired the electronic dance music that has spawned countless subgenres and is as ubiquitous now as sliced bread.

Of course, the general consensus with regards to the origins of synthpop (the proto-EDM) is that it was inspired by German synth outfits, with Kraftwerk at the helm. Yet these were avant-garde krautrockers, who didn’t really set out to do pop music. Jarre did, providing a more direct and logical precursor for 80s synthpop. This, even though his very popular music had no lyrics (which is uncommon particuarly in North America). Jarre’s music is still often described as experimental and artsy even though his appeal clearly stems from his uncanny ability to write timeless, catchy tunes.

And this appeal is massive even after over four decades in the music business. Starting with his 1976 debut “Oxygène”, his albums have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide and attendance at his spectacular open-air concerts has been record-breaking. His place in popular music is undisputed. Yet this place is often relegated to just his technical accomplishments as a synth pioneer. At times, one wonders whether Jarre things any differently - being that he is often more interested in talking about his equipment than melody-making.

Jarre also often credits his one-time mentor, Pierre Schaeffer, the developer of musique concrète (an experimental school of music where a variety of recorded sounds are sampled), with shaping his musical philosophy and prefers to talk about the textures he constructs with synthesizers instead of notes and chords. Indeed, Jarre is considered an exponent of musique concrète even though this background alone would not have propelled him far. His compositional wizardry did.

So whether perceived positively or negatively, Jarre’s music being ‘electronic’ and ‘experimental’ seems to obscure most discussion of its other qualities. The fact that synthesizers or sampling never really became mainstream doesn’t help either. For example, to this day the theremin isn’t taken seriously as an instrument but is associated with 1950s B-movies about alien invasions… and Jarre’s music has actually been referred to as ‘space music’.

Perhaps in response to this kind of disparagement, Jarre once remarked that what he has done with synthesizers in the 20th century is no different from what a Joseph Haydn was doing in the 18th. Namely, both musicians utilized the most advanced technologies of their day. Clinging to traditional instruments (orchestral or other) just as dismissing cutting edge instruments (such as synthesizers) as ‘spacey’ or ‘futuristic’ misses the point of music-making. This is the fault of our superficial cultural clime, which is content with letting personal or collective impressions trump reality. Projection, it seems, is the norm.

At the end of the day, Jarre has succeeded in being ‘descriptive without words’ – a musical ambition he has had since hearing jazz in his childhood. He is also living proof of the power of the melody to trump all other considerations in music, from technical to philosophical.

Some recommended listening:

“Happiness Is A Sad Song” – from Jarre’s musique concrete days

“Equinoxe 7″

“Magnetic Fields 2″

“Zoolookologie”

“Chronologie 4″ – live in Barcelona

“Oxygene 10″