Hello. My name is Johnny Caps, and if you're visiting this website, it's likely that you're a long-time fan of the pop culture of the 1980s. Maybe you love the music of the 80s, or maybe you love the movies. Whichever material you prefer from the decade, you may think you understand all the material it has to offer. I thought so, too, but as I've grown older, I've come to see that there's a lot of material from the 80s that I got wrong. I would like to discuss a few of those examples today.
We'll start off with The Beastie Boys and their breakthrough smash hit song "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)".
When my 80s fandom was blossoming during my teen years in the late 1990s, I purchased a copy of Licensed To Ill on CD, and this song stood out for me. I loved the lyrics. They had spoken to me about how important it was to have fun and go against anybody who was trying to prevent you from living your life on your own terms. My love of the song would carry over into my 20s when me and my friends, Justin and Chuck, would always bring down the house during karaoke nights at a local bar by singing this song.
Unfortunately, I wouldn't learn until well into my adulthood that "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)", and by extension, the entirety of Licensed To Ill, was intended to be a satire of the party-hard, F-bomb the world attitudes of young people who have yet to learn about sympathy and empathy. I was so ignorant of how The Beastie Boys were engaging in satire on Licensed To Ill that I was unaware that many of their 90s songs were repudiations of the attitudes and ideas presented on that album. I would say "rest in peace, Adam Yauch", during renditions of the song at karaoke after his passing, but if I had wanted to honestly honor his memory and his intentions, I wouldn't have performed the song at all.
The Beastie Boys aren't the only musical force in the 80s that I got wrong. Another talent who I made some major mistakes in understanding was Frank Zappa.
Growing up, I was a fan of "Weird" Al Yankovic, so when Frank Zappa first entered my field of view, I initially thought of his music as comedy in the style of Yankovic, not knowing that Zappa's humor was of a dryer, satirical and more cynical kind. It took me a long time to get that message, and one of the songs that screwed me up initially was Frank's collaboration with his daughter Moon on the song "Valley Girl".
I did have some idea that the song was intended to be comedic, but I thought it was of the affectionate kind like many of Yankovic's parodies and style spoofs were. I had no idea that Frank Zappa intended to the song to be a repudiation of the lifestyles and views discussed in it. A lot of the confusion came because, as my 80s fandom was progressing, I was viewing, reading and listening to a lot of material from the 80s that took the Valley Girl concept at face value.
For example, I purchased a bunch of issues of Muppet Magazine, the 80s kids magazine themed to the Muppets, off of eBay in the early 00s, and one of the articles was Moon Zappa supposedly being interviewed by Janice from The Electric Mayhem. Moon gave a youth-friendly interview with no indication of the satirical intent of "Valley Girl".
Getting mixed messages like that impacted my view of the song, and if I ever have the chance to interview Moon Zappa for Pop Geeks, where I do my interviews, I'll have to apologize to her for misinterpreting her and her father's words.
Jumping from music to movies, I now come to the classic 1984 comedy This Is Spinal Tap.
Speaking for myself, I watched this movie in the early 00s on DVD after a viewing on VHS in the mid-90s, and reviewed it for an 80s movie website I was writing for at the time. The difference was that, in the early 00s, I was watching this movie in the middle of the night, so I wasn't really paying attention to the plot. As a result, I misinterpreted the ending. Put briefly, after a brief split, Spinal Tap is informed of their success in Japan, and so they tour there to a massive positive reception that they don't have in the United States.
It may seem like a happy ending for the struggling band, but what I neglected to noticed was the lead-up to the end, where the split band are weighing their options and considering venturing off into new directions with their individual works. There's a sense of enthusiasm about these new directions that ends up getting pushed to the side when they hear of their international success, and while the twentysomething me saw this as a happy ending, the thirtysomething me, with a deeper knowledge of how splitting up can be a helpful thing, now sees the ending in a sadder light.
That wasn't the only 80s movie I totally got wrong. Another film was 1980's The Apple, which I also reviewed for that 80s movie website in a way that was so negative that one of the film's writers ended up commenting on my review for it, explaining what they were trying to say with the movie and taking me deservedly to task for my review.
I will admit that my review of the film was influenced by seeing other negative reviews of it on different websites. It took a review of The Apple by Nathan Rabin for his My Year Of Flops column, back when it was on the AV Club, to cause me to reevaluate my thoughts on the movie. About a decade after my venomous review of The Apple, I purchased a used DVD of the movie for a viewing through more mature eyes.
I could now understand what the screenwriters were to trying to say. The tale of aspiring singers Alphie (George Gilmour) and Bibi (Catherine Mary Stewart) being tempted by evil music impresario Mr. Boogalow (Vladek Sheybal) was actually a very wicked satire of how the music industry works against so many young talents. The negative effects of sex, drugs, compromising the art...All of that is present in The Apple, and sadly present in the actual music industry as well.
Perhaps the reason The Apple got a poor initial response was because of the look of the film. For quite a few people, it's hard to get past the visual aesthetics of the 80s to look at the story, the foundation, the words behind the images. It's something I've spent much of my life trying to get people to look past. The movie's unusual costumes, production design and settings caused many audiences who might have appreciated the satire to instead just see goofiness and nonsense. It's a disservice to the film's creative personnel, a disservice I sadly played a small part in putting out there.
The Apple deserved a better reception than it got, and it deserved a better initial review from me than I gave it. I would now highly recommend The Apple to anyone who wants to see a unique satire of the music industry.
We started with 80s songs you might have gotten wrong, so let's end up it that way as well with another song I got wrong in my younger years of 80s fandom. You probably got it wrong as well, especially if you heard it in any of the many 80s movies that used the song. The tune in question is "The Future's So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades)" by Timbuk 3.
When I first heard this song in the late 90s, it sounded bouncy and positive, with lyrics that I thought were about how better times were coming sooner than later, so I should think positive. I heard lyrics about devoting yourself to your studies, being well-off as a result of that knowledge, and looking ahead to a brighter day. It was a change of pace from the darkness of the lyrics that were popular in so much 90s rock music...Or so I thought.
Many years later, with my knowledge of the 80s having grown exponentially, I reviewed the lyrics and started paying attention to the mentions of "nuclear science" and "dark glasses". I now came to see that those lyrics were references to how the world was on the brink of nuclear war in the 80s. Hell, a little before I turned a year old in 1983, the world came close to ending in nuclear war when Russia had gotten a message that America was launching nuclear bombs, with the only thing preventing that war from happening being a Russian scientist who figured that America would launch everything they had if such a war were to occur, as opposed to the small amount of missiles that Russian radar was picking up.
As it turns out, the darkness of the lyrics in "The Future's So Bright" was actually a close analogue to the grimness of 90s lyrics than I thought. I, and many of you, got that song wrong, and got everything in this article wrong, because we were young. Youth may be said to be wasted on the young, but there are advantages to growing older, and one of those advantages is a deeper knowledge of the intents behind popular culture.
Thank you for reading this. Feel free to share your own stories of the 80s material you got wrong in the comments. I know there's a lot of ground I didn't cover, but as you'll see from upcoming articles on the site, there's so much entertainment from the 80s to cover that it can make your head spin.
Be well, and you'll be hearing again from me soon.