Second-guessing the future is a fool’s game, epidemic and especially so when one leaves the realm of broad extrapolations and tries to anticipate the aesthetics of tomorrow’s techno-cultural window dressing.
When we speak of “the future, asthma ” very rarely do we mean the abstract causal tapestry resulting from countless unseen premises, rx always pending but — by definition — never arriving. Instead we speak of a blank (or rather, “tinted”) canvas upon which present-day hopes and fears might manifest as shining technotopias or irradiated wastelands, with aesthetic trappings such as art deco rocketships or mohicaned neo-barbarians rooted firmly in the momentary “now.”
Present-day realities rarely match up with yesterday’s fanciful predictions, apart from cherry-picked examples reflecting either Stopped Clock Syndrome or no-brainer statements of the obvious. Pop culture is littered with examples of obsolete futures, discarded husks of imagined worlds that never come to happen, tagged with the label of “retrofuturism.”
I bring this up because I was recently struck by a statement by Kevin Church that “‘This used to be the future’ is the platonic ideal of what a synthpop song should sound like.” It’s a perfect summation, right down the use of past tense, of my own irresistible fascination for the futurist aspects of early 1980s pop culture. I was eight years old in 1980, just old enough to grasp a broader zeitgeist outside the sheltered bubble of kiddie culture (which does not exist out of time, but out of the viewers’ ability to place in any historic context).
The repudiation of the Me Decade’s prefab naturalism and forced self-awareness. The rise of the computing age and all its attendant diversions. The fascination and hesitation regarding Japan’s ascension as a global economic power. The reclamation — but not rehabilitation — of the city as a spiritual core. A new wave of nuclear anxieties born of a more militaristic foreign policy. The rise of synthesizers over strings, not only in “new wave” music, but also in the guttering wick of the disco scene.
All of these factors came together to present an image of a forthcoming world as colorful as it was minimalist, dark, and sterile…or that’s how it seemed to me from the backseat of my parents’ car, driving through the towers of Boston’s financial district while the throbbing synth lines of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” pulsed from the speakers. Or being swept up the the wash of harsh electronic noise and flickering lights of a dimly lit arcade. Or catching a starkly creepy music video during one of the intermissions between HBO movies.
It was all a matter of chance, a unique alignment of circumstances depending on such things as the contemporary limitations of video game hardware to MTV’s early reliance on new wave music promos. Taken together, however, the whole was much greater than the sum of its parts even if the actual reach barely extended to a couple of very influential films and a singularly influential novel before the mood shifted in a more superficially upbeat direction.
My curious affection for this anachronistic strain of futurism has not diminished with the passing of years, so great was its impact upon young Andrew’s impressionable psyche. All it takes is a certain fragment of song or visual stimuli to conjure up synesthetic flashes of pink neon and billowing mushroom clouds set against a backdrop of absolute darkness.
Recommended listening: Peter Godwin – Images of Heaven (from a 1982 single; collected on Just Can’t Get Enough: New Wave Hits of the ’80s, Vol. 12, 1995)
A moment in time, flawlessly captured within a five minute pop song.