Are We Not New Wave?

Today I finished reading Are We Not New Wave?: Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s by Theo Cateforis.

I began the book to solidify my knowledge of earlier 1980s pop. My dissertation focuses on the DX7 which wasn’t released until late 1983. The genre of new wave, by comparison, grew out of punk and thus really begins around 1976 or so. Although new wave gets conflated with ’80s pop more generally, it’s really a “turn of the 1980s” phenomenon, as the title explains.


I’m investigating how the ’80s sound was understood in the ’80s as well as today. Cateforis also engaged with modern perception and nostalgia for the 1980s in his epilogue, where he quotes music critic Simon Reynolds’s 2002 piece for the NY Times. Reynolds declares that we are (were? 2002 was fourteen years ago!) officially in a period of 1980s revival in music, specifically with regards to a fascination with vintage synthesizers and an accompanying sense of retro-futurism. While vintage synths have fallen to the wayside somewhat in today’s pop, synthesizers generally are a permanent fixture. This opens up greater acceptance and maybe a better identification with the sounds of the ’80s.

Augmenting these musical connections to the past are ideological connections. As Cateforis situates new wave music within ’80s culture more broadly, the significance of irony as a central feature of new wave music recurs throughout the book: new wave artists tended to ironically appropriate or parody other preexisting icons and styles–a description that resonates with generalizations of today’s millennials, particularly a more hipster millennial. (That article, interestingly, seems to think the ’80s were very unironic–maybe this betrays the author’s more ’90s aesthetic.)

Surprisingly the irony of ’80s music such as the B-52s, of “Rock Lobster” and “Love Shack” fame, is lost on some people of my generation. I watched an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race this season, “New Wave Queens,” where everyone dressed up in ’80s costumes and wrote songs in various new wave styles. The group doing a B-52s style were accused of overacting and being too earnest, doing a more Broadway show kind of vibe than a new wave vibe. Bob the Drag Queen complained, “that’s what they do! That’s how I thought of them,” or something to that effect. Bob totally misses the ironic aspect of the B-52s performance. While they are definitely dressing up in costumes and singing in an affected tone, it’s all with the subtext of irony. As Cateforis keenly observes in chapter 4, new wave often took the materialistic culture of the 1980s and turned it on its head by transforming cultural trash into fashion and art. (I’m not sure how pervasive or conscious this was in the ’80s, nor how it compares to today’s ironic hipster millennials.) I was screaming this at the TV during Bob’s comments (the judges didn’t correct her either!) so it was nice to read this somewhere else.

I also see resonances in the way that whiteness fits into new wave when comparing it to hipsters/millennials. Cateforis argues in chapter 3, focusing on the Talking Heads, that new wave allowed for a new kind of whiteness, or specifically an alternative white masculinity, in pop music, where the pop star could be nervous, geeky, smart, neuro-diverse, and quirky. This reflected the masculinity of many white in America as they broke away from a homogenized suburban commercialized culture. Many of these same features identify the millennial, always seeking out their weird coffees and honeys and going to therapy and whatnot.

I characterize millennials with my tongue in my cheek—that is, um, ironically. I self-identify as a millennial, and, at times, a hipster. (At other times, just a regular snob.) I see myself, in other words, in the target demographic of new wave music of the 1980s. Sometimes people assume I’m studying the ’80s because my advisor (a Gen Xer himself) told me to. Well, he did point me in this direction. But I’ve always had a soft spot for the ’80s, and I usually attribute it to my being a keyboard player, and keyboards featuring so prominently in ’80s music. But after reading Cateforis’s account of ’80s new wave culture, I realize now that there are deeper cultural affinities that help me identify with this culture I’ve never really lived through (another millennial-hipsterism!)… which brings me back to the question, “Are We Not New Wave?”

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