Blame George Bush. No, not him. The other one.
Thirty years ago, the ’80s were ending, and not just according to the calendar. Gone now were so many elements that pop historians had used as cultural shorthand for the decade—the Reagan Administration and the Cold War, Miami Vice and Dynasty. We entered an era the critic Alfred Soto calls “the Poppy Bush Interzone,” a moment where mass culture frantically raided its closet, trying on a bunch of outfits before deciding to dress either grunge or gangsta on its big date with Bill Clinton.
As if on cue, the rock stars of the ’60s and ’70s attempted to reassert themselves as interpreters and architects of culture, often in a far less clueless fashion than they’d demonstrated themselves capable of for the past decade. With Public Enemy and NWA reminding aging rebels of punk rock and even pop stars like Janet Jackson making album-length statements with Rhythm Nation 1814, there was a
general sense that once more it was time to Say Stuff.
No rocker typified this resurgence quite like 44-year-old Neil Young, rousing himself from a scattered decade that famously triggered a lawsuit from label owner David Geffen for releasing albums “musically uncharacteristic of [his] previous recordings,” some of which have aged well (Trans is a brilliant, heartfelt oddity) and some that have not (a little rockabilly ditty about “Ronnie and Nancy”). Like a patient rising from the operating table after he’d flatlined to shout “And another thing...” and continue complaining about what he’d read in the newspaper that morning, Young’s Freedom parodied Bush’s feel-good rhetoric and ranted about crack and homelessness with a bracing orneriness.
Broadly speaking, 1989 was a year of Statement Rock. Lou Reed called an album New York because he thought he could capture the whole city in one masterwork, some kind of discordant fusion of Ulysses and the Daily News. Like Young, Reed touched on drugs and poverty, but also took on ecological catastrophe and called out Jesse Jackson and the Pope for anti-Semitism. (Google “Kurt Waldheim.”) If today New York sound less like a classic album than a time capsule of what people complained about in 1989, maybe that was the idea all along.
Not all of these statements felt quite as necessary or coherent. Billy Joel tried to sum up the past 45 years in the chart-topping listicle “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” And on The End of the Innocence, Don Henley assumed an air of unearned gravitas, shaking his head at the state of the world with solemn malaise. It went as well as you’d expect from a guy whose previous political stances were that TV news is bad (“Dirty Laundry”) and chicks don’t get geopolitics (“All She Wants to Do Is Dance”). Henley alluded vaguely to divorce and warmongering and white-collar crime while confusing his nostalgia for childhood with a mistaken belief in a glorious
Many of the year’s “comebacks” were just middle-aged rockers deciding to quit chasing pop relevance and instead become uncanny simulacra of their former selves. After the messy but intriguing Dirty Work, the Rolling Stones launched their second career as the world’s greatest Rolling Stones cover band with Steel Wheels. Eric Clapton bid farewell to Phil Collins and hit singles with Journeyman. And on the somber Oh Mercy, Bob Dylan impersonated his dullest fan’s one-dimensional idea of who he was.
“We live in a political world,” Dylan sang, and, well, you can’t argue with a statement that doesn’t mean anything. And on the worst song of his career, “Disease of Conceit,” he rhymes its title with “nothing about it that’s neat” and “they bury you from your head to your feet.” It’s as though he’d written “Dogs Run Free” as a heartfelt protest against leash laws. Thanks to the assistance of smoke-and-mirrors man Daniel Lanois, who’d produced U2’s The Joshua Tree, Oh Mercy sounded somewhat modern yet laced with mysterious significance.
This trend was not exclusive to white guys. Lanois also produced the Neville Brothers’ hefty Yellow Moon, which let you know how serious it was by including two Dylan covers. (And it still sounds pretty good.) Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time made a long-respected musician a star, bringing the necessary perspective of a middle-aged woman to rock, even if it jettisoned some of the bluesy grit that had made her name.
Little of this registered on the charts, where the big news was hair metal holding its own against Guns N’ Roses and rap-spawned beats underpinning not just the newly aggressive and funky R&B from the likes of Bobby Brown but even anodyne teenpop. And the moment barely lasted. A year later, on “Right Here Right Now,” the young jerks in Jesus Jones would recall watching the Berlin Wall fall and insist “Bob Dylan didn’t have this to sing about.”
Well sure he did—it’s not like Bob was dead. But he’d retreated from his wise sage post. These aging rockers didn’t go away, nor were they wholly eclipsed by succeeding generations—history is never that neat. But they were less likely to presume themselves cultural weathervanes beyond this point. Their careers were increasingly about celebrating their legacy, and their great albums would be autumnal reflections from outside the contemporary fray.
The big exception, of course, was ol’ Neil Young, who’d acclimate quite comfortably to the ’90s. But though “Rockin’ in the Free World” was embraced as an anthem by younger rockers, what resonated about Freedom wasn’t its political stance. It wasn’t even those unruly guitar blasts—it’s worth noting that open-eared David Bowie, who tried to get noisy and weird with Tin Machine after listening to the Pixies, came up short because he failed to recognize that he was grappling with a new sensibility as much as a new sound. Neil was simpatico with a new mode of rebellion, a cranky, wise-cracking dissatisfaction that valued refusal to compromise above all else. You might call that style “alternative.”