The Songs of 1981 - day 1
I have a hard time narrowing down my favorite music: Genre? Artist? Album? Song? Decade? Anyone who’s been paying even the tiniest iota of attention knows this is impossible for me. In the six years I’ve been doing these countdowns, I’ve listed artists multiple times because I couldn’t possibly pick just one favorite. Right from my first countdown in 2015, I toiled with defining one song from Billy Joel, the Beatles, Donna Summer, Olivia Newton-John, Madonna… and I couldn’t do it.
But there is a period of time to which I always seem to come back. It was that time where time actually seemed to pause, and the days and weeks and months lasted forever. The memory of those moments, mostly strung into a cloud of fear and loneliness and extreme self-loathing, had two things that were the buoy keeping my head bobbing at the surface of the open sea… comic books and music. My two escapes were immersing myself in the far-flung future with the scantily clad teenagers from a thousand planets and the barrage of top-40 sounds on the radio, from pop to new wave to rock to ballads. Pretty much just like this countdown. And yes, there was also my dog, Cheri Amour, but sadly I didn’t know what I’d had with her until I lost her. That summer. The summer of 1981.
In these past six years’ worth of countdowns, only fifteen or sixteen of the songs featured were from 1981, including the song that marked my literal favorite of all time, Kiss On My List by none other than Hall & Oates. As I’m writing this, I put the song on for reference, and immediately went back there. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply, and there I was – back in that wood paneled bedroom with Cheri and a pile of Justice League and New Teen Titans and, of course, Legion of Super-Heroes comics on the floor.
So why would the sixth and final in a yearly countdown stop with a year of music from which only a handful of songs came? That’s a really good question. I suppose it would be fair to consider some songs from 1980 as well as some from ’82, all of which seem to blend into that cloud of mystique in my brain. And when filter to expand the search to include those bookend years, the count goes dramatically up.
But enough about math. Let’s zero in on what made this era of sound the one my heart’s memory seems to always find when it’s in need. We already covered the mood, so let’s explore the feelings a bit more. There was fear, the most insidious of them all. It was because of fear that I had the self-loathing and loneliness. Isn’t that human nature after all? What was fifteen-year-old Nicky so afraid of? And why wasn’t there someone I could trust to dump these feelings and emotions onto? Why was it just an old, blind poodle who wasn’t long for this earth? We all know I had friends during this time who would go on to become lifers, but let’s be serious here: the things of which I was terrified were best kept locked up in my noggin. Fear of snakes while living in the woods of the Poconos? That one I could be open about. Fear of anyone ever finding out I might not be normal? That I was one of those sick homos whom my father was known for saying should all be herded off onto an island to die? Irrational though this sounds now, in a time when coming out to parents is an almost expected ritual where they hand out happy little pronouns for your wounded little bird heart, those of us struggling with this terrible truth either prayed to God to make it go away or for him to just take us. Probably unfair to say “us” when I’m only talking about me, but there it was. Which is what explained the other feelings: loneliness and self-loathing.
My entire existence was spent in the shadows: cowering along the locker-lined hallways at high school, praying not to be noticed, and hiding in my bedroom the second I got home, memorizing the panels of the comic books strewn on the floor. But then I’d click on the radio, and the fear would go away because Debbi Harry would talk to me about the tide being high, and John Lennon’s voice from beyond would speak to me about his undying love for the villain who broke up the Beatles. Diana Ross would prance around upside down in my bedroom calling out to me about how beautiful it is after she came out, and Martin Fry of ABC crooned at me about the look of love. How could the world be so bad with all this magical chemistry in the air, up in that protective cloud of music?
Speaking less from the memory of the frightened teenager and more from POV of the man who grew out of those seeds, I have to say that those times weren’t really all bad. I created lifelong, everlasting friendships with the likes of Jan from back home, and Maria and Karen right there amidst the war-torn frontlines. I developed a vibrant fascination of story-telling and art that has lasted with me to this moment. And I have grown to love the songs from this period of pop culture like a lifeline to my past, a connection to those last days of living under my parents’ roof when I first knew what losing a devoted loved one could feel like.
Today there is no YouTube video to accompany the blog but I challenge you to go back to that moment of time in your own life that brings you all the emotions, the entire rainbow of them. But if you require some kind of frame of reference, here’s this beautiful mash-up of some classics from the year in question for which I cannot take credit but am very excited I have discovered:
It showcases all the genres in one spot and all the things I love about them mashing together into my cloud of memory from 1981.