So here’s the thing - there’s a point in your life when you decide who you’re going to be. When you stop listening to your parents’ music and start listening to albums that you picked out yourself, paid for with your own money that you want to devour, over and over again, like an entire pounder bag of Peanut M&Ms. And when you reach for the next album, you usually end up making a choice -- are you going to stay in the mainstream, or are you going to be indie? Play it safe, or take the more difficult road? If you were coming of age in 1983, when Thriller was continuing its two-year dominance of radio, a new chick named Madonna was being shoved down everyone’s throats, and Tom Cruise slid across the foyer in his tighty whiteys and a pair of sunglasses to the opening piano bars of Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll,” the choices could not be more stark. “Flashdance” or “Scarface?” Pick a side, bitches, or say hello to my little friend.
On the deeper, darker flip side of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “Karma Chameleon,” 1983 gave us some of the most influential bands of the nascent independent music scene. Wrapping your sweaty palms around the self-titled debut LPs from Violent Femmes or Suicidal Tendencies made you immune to pegged jeans, leg warmers, rip-and-tear sweatshirts, jelly shoes, and horrifying haircuts. You were free to sport black denim pegged jeans, rip-and-tear t-shirts, Doc Martens, and equally horrifying alternative haircuts, and you were listening to much better music while doing it.
U2 released War, which was dark, brutal, and brought the political and cultural conflicts of Belfast to American teenager consciousness, even if we couldn’t find Ireland on a map. “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” was certainly meatier, more difficult to digest than Madonna’s “Holiday,” and the almost embarrassing wealth of choices beyond the mainstream could color your life outside of your headphones as well. You could stand teary-eyed in the girls’ bathroom while that boy you liked danced with your best friend to Spandau Ballet’s “True,” or you could leave the damn dance, ditch that man-stealing wench of a friend, stop by the Walgreen’s for a value pack of black eyeliner and then go thrash with a bunch of new friends to Minor Threat’s brilliant Out of Step. You could observe Lionel Ritchie scrub himself clean of any residual coolness from his Commodores days with the 100% wussified Can’t Slow Down, with its inexplicably bad video for “Hello” and its equally inexplicable bust of Lionel Ritchie, or you could hang out in a coffee shop smoking cloves and lamenting the breakup of Bauhaus. The Talking Heads released Speaking in Tongues - and if anyone was still listening to Dexy’s Midnight Runners after listening to Speaking in Tongues, well, that just doesn’t make any sense.
All poor Lionel wants to do is BUST a move. WE'RE HERE ALL WEEK FOLKS!
No one is immune from choice, not even bands. The Police released Syncronicity to critical and mass-market acclaim in 1983, and morphed from the arcane Zenyatta Mondatta days to astronomical Top-40 success faster than Sting was fathering babies. Elvis Costello breached the gap with Punch the Clock, losing a lot of the punk edge of his 70’s work to reach mainstream success with “Every Day I Write the Book,” and David Bowie hit the charts with “Let’s Dance.” Sometimes choice is thrust upon you - R.E.M. released its note-perfect debut full-length Murmur, and though R.E.M. would never achieve the meteoric success of The Police, or Sting in particular, in future years they definitely moved from indie darlings to something much more financially lucrative, whether they wanted to or not.
Cory Hart was wearing sunglasses at night in 1983 - and you know he was wearing Ray Ban Wayfarers because that’s what you wore in the 80s (until Tom Cruise wore Aviators in Top Gun, and then everyone got all danger zone-y and started wearing those). New Wave artists like the Cure, Aztec Camera, and Oingo Boingo bobbed along in the middle, bolstering each side’s available song pile from time to time, but mainly coming up on the side of indie - not a lot of airplay for songs like the B-52’s “Whammy Kiss” when the stations were playing Billy Joel, Michael Bolton, and any crappy song from the “Flashdance” soundtrack non-stop.
And while our motto here may be “music and nothing but,” we can’t let 1983 slip past us without mentioning Princess Leia’s brass bikini from the year’s top movie, Return of the Jedi. That bikini, along with Tom Cruise’s underpants and Madonna’s laced corsets and trashy plastic jewelry, caused a spate of some of the worst-conceived Halloween costumes of all time, and since we’re talking about scary shit, Michael Jackson released the video to “Thriller” in November 1983.
Of course it’s okay if you occasionally have a dalliance with the mainstream. We know there’s a chance you may have one sparkly glove and a red leather zipper jacket hidden in the back of your closet. You hid your New Edition debut album in the sleeve for Violent Femmes, because you loved crazy-ass Bobby Brown before he got all crazy, but you also love your Gordon Gano. We love you anyway, but just don't let us catch you listening to Delilah. And keep in mind that at the end of 1983, somewhere in the bowels of New Jersey a young man named Bon Jovi and his drinking buddies picked up guitars…