June 18, 2012 at 12:35 AM ET
If you believe the movie “Rock of Ages,” the 1980s were all about big hair, trashy pop metal, and rock’n’roll excess. It wasn’t all like that, of course. Some of the most socially-conscious music came out of that time period -- as anyone who saw a U2 or Bruce Springsteen concert can tell you.
But what we remember the Reagan Decade for was its excesses and it’s this era that “Rock of Ages” sought to capture in both its current movie form and its original Broadway “jukebox musical” presentation.
But enough time has passed for those of us who came of age then that we can now say: Enough with trying to pretend all we liked were the “quality” artists. Enough with the posing, to use an old ’80s word. Enough with pretending all that we slapped on the old turntable were platters by critically-approved artists like Billy Bragg, Husker Du, and the Replacements. Yeah, I liked them too, but that’s not all I liked. And my guess is that if you were a pop fan then, that’s not all you liked either.
Maybe you harbored a secret crush on the ballad stylings of Phil Collins or Lionel Ritchie. Or maybe when no one was looking you popped cassettes of Poison and Warrant into the tape deck that your friends assumed only took Smiths and Cure tapes. Or did you secretly lip-sync along to New Kids on the Block a la Tom Cruise in “Risky Business”?
Back in the 1980s, niche marketing was only in its infancy, so we pretty much all heard the same songs and saw the same videos. And no matter how jaded or sophisticated you were, chances are you grew to love a few of them as they oozed out of the radio and MTV. Maybe you hated them at first, but then they earwormed their way into your brain and now you get all teary-eyed and nostalgic when you catch snippets of Bon Jovi or Thompson Twins songs in the supermarket.
As for me, I’ll admit that when it came to cranking up the old car radio and listening to the commercial stuff, there was one and only one artist to whose music I could totally relate: Debbie Gibson. Yes, the former teen pop star who sang “Shake Your Love,” “Lost in Your Eyes” and other prom favorites. She was the one rock star I imagined I could be, but for reasons that went beyond that obvious assumption about gender and sexual orientation everyone is probably making right now.
Why did I love Debbie Gibson? Let me count the reasons. First, she was young and suburban, so seemed approachable, not like some icon from another galaxy. Second, she put out squeaky-clean pop that I felt followed the tradition of the oldies artists I liked (ones that sang songs like “Be True to Your School”).
Finally, Gibson eschewed the gloom and doom, dressed-in-black, life-is-bleak worldview of so many other artists back then. The video for her almost-hit “We Could Be Together” came off like the ultimate fun-for-all field trip, with her and her band piling into a school bus and setting off for a world of (G-Rated) adventure.
Gibson appears in “Rock of Ages” along with Sebastian Bach of Skid Row and the lead singers of Xtreme and REO Speedwagon. To anyone who despised this stuff back in the day, the movie will probably seem like slow torture. But to anyone who wasn’t above sitting around and watching MTV, the movie will be like a homecoming of sorts (and enough people like it that the soundtrack just made its debut at the top of the Billboard soundtrack charts).
So now, dear reader, it’s your turn to ’fess up. I’ll fully admit that Debbie Gibson is my idea of a fab pop artist and I’ve even been known to defend her commercial flop of a third album, “Anything is Possible,” as High Art. So what was it for you? Hair bands? Easy listening groups like Air Supply? Madonna? Please don’t say Kenny Rogers -- even I have to draw the line somewhere.
Feel free to move it on over to our Facebook page and tell us which Reagan Era rocker you wanted to be.
Tony Sclafani is an arts and culture writer whose first book is due out next year. His writing can be seen at www.tonysclafani.com.