Friday, March 07, 2008

In the white room...

I have very few legitimate memories of my pre-adolescent years from the late 80s to the early 90s. I have a hazy recollection of my parents watching the closing ceremonies of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, a speech by President Reagan, and the intro to Cheers. That about sums it up for me and my eyewitness accounts of the 80s. The early 90s are a little better, that's when I first started getting into TV. The kids programing from that period are probably the most well preserved of my memories from that time. It's a shame however, that my family didn't have any cable and I hadn't really been exposed to any real music by then. In retrospect the roughly four year period from 1988 to 1992, in my opinion, seem to be the most diverse and interesting period in American pop music history.

There are really no set markers to conveniently bracket the period. Oddly enough, for me the period is about parallel to the original Bush administration. If I had to pick a starting point I'd go with the week of election day, November 12 when The Escape Club went to number one with "Wild, Wild West" to when Boyz II Men released their biggest hit "End of the Road" on August 15, 1992. For that wild four year period it seemed that music fans were just lost, wandering a diverse landscape of genres and styles. Definitive 80s music and style had all but ended and as the next decade approached everyone appeared to be confused as to what would be the signature 90s sound.

Just looking at the number one singles from the Hot 100 and you could see how exciting and tumultuous the timespan was. While some 80s stars still ruled the charts (Madonna, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins), it was a time when Chicago would be replaced by Poison and then by Bobby Brown all in a six week span. Boy bands (New Kids, Color Me Badd) dueled top honors with hair metal bands (Poison, Bad English, Guns N Roses) and pop princesses (Taylor Dane, Debbie Gibson, Amy Grant). Hip and hop and R&B were making their initial breaks into the pop mainstream (Paula Abdul, Mariah Carey, Kriss Kross, yes even Vanilla Ice). And song like "The Living Years" went to number one!

It was the American Dream incarnate, an open audition for the future of pop music and the country was ready to let anyone get a crack at it! Then everyone just decided to go with hip hop and R&B and aside from a few notable deviations (Candle in the Wind 97, Santana, American Idol winners) that has been more or less the norm for over 15 years now from Boyz II Men to Flo Rida.

Despite the seemingly label defying diversity of the era, there appears to be one common thread that links many of these diverse acts together: their over reliance on the bare single color background music video. The perfect example of this can be seen in C+C Music Factory's "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)." It's that simple, single color (usually white, sometimes black and white), minimalist background look that apparently defined all that was cool in music videos in the late 80s, early 90s. Some videos would have other shots, some even elaborate shots, and story lines, and cinematic elements, but then they'd always defer back to the artists singing and dancing in some empty parallel universe room. Dance videos were the biggest culprits: "Strike It Up", "Finally", "U Can't Touch This", "Straight Up". This was understandable since they probably wanted to shift the focus onto the dancing without any distracting visuals.

Bobby Brown and his fellow New Jack Swingers were repeat offenders: "Every Little Step", "Don't Be Cruel", "Do Me", "She Ain't Worth It". This also seemed in line with the music.

It was interesting when some metal bands eschewed the standard concert footage videos and picked up on it: "Cherry Pie", "Something to Believe In", "More Than Words"

And in some cases it was just strange and/or annoying: "She Drives Me Crazy", "I'm Too Sexy", "Love Will Never Do Without You", "The King of Wishful Thinking", "Nothing Compares 2 U" (one of my least favorite songs and music videos).

How, most set designers and background artists managed to keep their families fed during this dry period in music video history, I have no idea. I'm sure they were all jumping for joy when Hype Williams came along.

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