On one leg of my delightful recent vacation (about which more soon) I was close enough to the northern border to be able to listen to CBC Radio One, where I heard an installment of a miniseries called “50 Tracks”. Proceeding one decade at a time, the show’s host Jian Ghomeshi and his guests are picking the fifty essential songs of the 20th century. Last week’s show covered the 1980s, which yielded:
1. “Billie Jean” [Michael Jackson]
2. “With or Without You” [U2]
3. “Message” [Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five]
4. “Fight the Power” [Public Enemy]
5. In a tie, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” [Joy Division] and “When Doves Cry” [Prince]
The runners-up were Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” and “Hungry Like the Wolf” by Duran Duran.
Now, I’m a child of the 80s, and it’s the popular music from this decade that stirs up the strongest raw feeling in me. The music I love from these years, and the music I hate, rings up equally high readings on the nostalgia meter. All of it, the good and the bad, sounds affectingly like my life once upon a time. Somebody, I can’t remember who, said “memory is the key to everything, but with it comes nostalgia, which is the key to nothing,” a dictum I sort of loathe but grudgingly credit–although, then again, I don’t think my own attachment to nostalgia is an illusion that it will unlock or illuminate anything. To flip-flop yet some more, maybe nostalgia is the key to lists like this. In other words, it’s the key to something–just not something meaningful.
It turns out that “essential” is a tricky criterion to pin down, though not a bad one if you take it, as I do, as connoting influence and quality in roughly equal parts, along with a soupçon of, you know, je ne sais quoi (this is where the nostalgia comes in). By these standards, there’s nothing on the Radio One’s 1980s list that absolutely begs to be lopped off, and yet it’s an oddly unsatisfying laundry list. Is it trying to be too representative? Is it too focused on including essential artists at the expense of great songs? Surely Michael Jackson and Prince need to be there, but the panelists’ cases for including these particular songs from their respective 1980s oeuvres carried a whiff of compromise and overthinking, as though the songs were bundles of abstract qualities that needed to be checked off.
And though it may be awfully lowest-common-denominator of me, I have to question how Joy Division ended up in the top 5 while Duran Duran, a single well-chosen chord of whose music elicits a positively Pavlovian response in everyone I know who hit 16 during the 80s, didn’t make the cut. A friend raised the similar question of Madonna (if she cracked our list, we agreed, it would be with “Material Girl”).
And so the CBC’s list does its proper work: starting some good snarling brawls. (OK, I’m not much of a snarler, but you get my drift.) Feel free to send some fighting words. I’ll also accept predictions for the top five from the 90s, a decade that sounds altogether fuzzier to my by-then-post-teenage ears. I’ll go ahead and shoot the fish in a barrel that is “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but beyond that I’m stumped.