Saturday, May 16, 2015
Track of the Week: Genesis "Misunderstanding"
The 80s were a very, very strange time. Every now and again I try to explore the true heart of that decade by looking at YouTube videos compiling TV commercials, that era's truest cultural artifacts. That time contained a reaction against the social and cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s, but at the same time was motivated by such a destructive neo-liberal ideology that pervaded (and changed) everything. A lot of popular musicians from the 60s and 70s suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of the line. Neil Young spent the decade in the wilderness, jumping from rockabilly to country to electronica, never really finding his feet until "Keep On Rocking In The Free World." Paul McCartney started things off with Tug of War, but soon devolved into the likes of "No More Lonely Nights." The Rolling Stones began their now seemingly permanent reign as the supreme oldies act. Bob Dylan put out a wave of dreck. None of these acts maintained their old levels of popularity and artistic credibility.
Not all artists from the past failed to prosper in the spandex decade, however. Prog-rock band Genesis dropped the art and added some hooks, putting several songs in the charts. Member Phil Collins became the unlikeliest of pop idols, a short stocky middle-aged balding drummer with a penchant for wearing patterned shirts and matching white sneakers with suits. He would have innumerable hits, both solo and with Genesis, having mastered the formula for 80s chart success.
Genesis' first 80s hit, 1980's "Misunderstanding", fit the Zeitgeist well. The song's "rocking chair" rhythm was reminiscence of 1950s R&B, rather than the pumped up beats heard in the discos of the era. After all, the conservative revolution led by Reagan promised a return to old values, and the 1950s had come to symbolize a certain kind of utopia in some people's minds. The guitar and piano shine brightly, and subtle synths gently amp up the wattage. Although this is a melancholy song about getting stood up, the sour gets subsumed by the sweet, making it a kind of pop music lemon tart. If 80s culture was about anything, it was the pervasive attempt to drown out the crushed dreams of the time with escapism and a kind of creepy inability to face reality.
Like lemon tarts, I like this song. Genesis' musicians really knew how to play, the hooks are delightfully catchy, and I do certainly dig that R&B rhythm. Collins and co. would get less subtle and less interesting later in the decade ("Invisible Touch" anyone?) and a lot more bombastic. Judge all you want, but since the neoliberal onslaught continues unabated, I need a little escapist entertainment to get myself through.