If someone asked me what kind of music I listen to, I would struggle to give an answer. I’m not sure if there are any hard and fast definitions for music today. I listen to some pop music, but nothing that’s in the league of Britney and Justina. Is there really such a thing as alternative anymore? And when does something cross from alternative and become mainstream? Is it defined by sales? Airplay? Number of commercials it is featured in?
A lot of you would probably say that I’m into 80s music. While that’s true on some levels, it’s not entirely accurate. Do I appreciate the occasional Flock of Seagulls song? Absolutely. Do I blast “Don’t Lose My Number” by Phil Collins? Never. As the era has passed on, the music I listen to has been consolidated into the all-encompassing genre of New Wave. If you have the Music Choice channels, flip to the New Wave channel some night and take a listen. You’ll hear the original punk bands later releases and the bands that were spawned from them (Big Audio Dynamite, Public Image Ltd). You’ll hear the New Romantics. Some stuff we recognize as pure pop now but was ignored at the time (Marshall Crenshaw). Everything that was considered New Wave at the time is mixed in as well. It’s all good stuff, and I think it’s safe to say that the majority of the music I listen to is either of that period, or can be directly traced back to those artists.
In the days of the 80s trivia list, I used to argue that the 1980s ended when New Order’s “True Faith” was released. It was the last great song that was clearly of the New Wave movement. Like all great songs, it encompassed all that was great of the existing era, while at the same time looked forward to a new era. Although New Wave had been petering out for several years, “True Faith” was one last blast that reminded everyone how great the genre was when at its best.
I made that assessment just by placing the song in its proper chronological perspective. The remainder of the 80s were dominated by Def Leppard, Guns n’ Roses, and the hair bands. If any of the New Wave icons were left, their releases failed to have the impact they had in the first half of the decade. But now, when I sit down and really consider “True Faith”, I see that both literally and figuratively, the song sums up what the 80s were largely about. “True Faith” is a dark representation of all the worst of life in the 80s, and an uncertain look to the future.
At the most basic level, “True Faith” is a phenomenal dance song. One of the all-time great bass lines bumps throughout. The layered synthesizers propel the song forward. The very 80s electronic drums ring through like shots. Bernard Sumner’s voice rides across the music perfectly. The song is boisterous and celebratory. It was custom made for a party. I always thought of a club somewhere in New York, packed with people on the verge of dance-induced insanity. Then the DJ throws “True Faith” on and they tear the roof off of the place. I doubt whether any of the people in that club would be listening to the lyrics, though. It was still the go-go 80s, people were living it up, nuclear winter was just 20 minutes away, and there wasn’t time for people in America to sit down and contemplate what some thoughtful Brit might be saying over the best damn dance beat they’d ever heard. Luckily, I’m here to take care of that for them, 17 years later.
Let’s throw out the historical significance and examine the lyrics of “True Faith”. When I fit them into my “end of the 80s” prism, I see a stockbroker the night the market crashed in 1987. Still in his 20s, he made it big fast on the Street. Designer suits, willing women, and trendy drugs were his life. He never really knew how much money he had, he just knew he paid his AmEx balance each month his bank account always had money for his endless weekend nights. Then, the unthinkable. The bottom dropped out and the market fell further than at any point in its history. Just like he didn’t know how much money he had that morning, he has no idea how much money he lost that afternoon. He just knows it’s probably all gone. One last night at the disco. One last cocaine binge. One last night with a woman he’ll know for only a few hours. In the morning he can take stock of what’s left and try to figure out what comes next.
The lyrics do a great job painting this picture (Especially since they were written well before the market crash. No doubt, as with most songs, they’re about something very different. But historical context sometimes trumps the goal of the artist.). You sense the desperation of someone on the edge, not knowing what the next day can bring. You feel the rush of cocaine hitting the bloodstream, heart racing to the redline. You feel the abandon of letting everything go: troubles, fears, success, possessions. Everything is flung aside for one last night of pleasure.
Since I don’t want to get sued by the RIAA, here’s a link to lyrics:
Adding to this image is the cinematic context of “True Faith”. 1988’s Bright Lights, Big City featured the song prominently, as did 2000’s American Psycho. Both were about the big success, fast living, and emotionally bankrupt lifestyles so many people lived in the late 80s. The song is a perfect musical match for critiquing or satirizing that lifestyle and those times.
If I could go back in time, and have an End of the 80s party, New Order’s “True Faith” would be the song I played at 11:55 PM, just before the ball dropped. It brought to a close a fantastic era for pop music. It told the story of the end of an economic era as well. It spoke to the emptiness that many living in the 80s felt, and of how the dreamland they thought they lived in was letting them down. No longer could their curled, stained copies of The Preppie Handbook get them through the problems they faced on a daily basis. For the first time, they had to face the real world, and confront the problems in their lives.
One final, ironic note. One of the first big newsworthy events of the New Wave era came with the suicide of Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division, in 1980. Joy Division had just released the single “Love Will Tear Us Apart” that would later become a classic of the genre. A year later, members of Joy Division reconvened, began recording, and released an album under the name New Order. The band that helped open the book on the 1980s with a tragic death, helped to close the door with a fitting tribute to both the music and the times in which the music was made