Fashion-wise, the early 1980s belonged to the New Romantics. Theirs was the polar opposite of the previous decade’s grungy punk look. With its air of decadent, cosmopolitan luxuriance, foppish frills and elaborate, boldly-styled makeup, New Romanticism was all about fantasies of the high life. But it was, nevertheless, a fantasy — New Romantics dressed up with such overstated elegance on a Friday night to escape the same humdrum daily realities as the punks, five years earlier.
The same could be said of the 1980s itself. It was a decade indulging in wild dreams of escape — of success and excess — against a background of often bleak reality: high-powered finance-dealing yuppies on the one hand, 10% unemployment on the other.
It was true of the decade’s pop music, too. New Romantic artists like Duran Duran peddled dreams of an exotic, glamorous, and often sun-drenched high life in songs like “Rio” and “Girls on Film”. Sade wove elegant fantasies of suave night-life and old-fashioned romance. Dire Straits sang about pop stars having “money for nothing, and their kicks for free”. In early 80s Britain, any reference to another country seemed glamorous and aspirational, whether it was the romantic despair of a song like “Vienna” by Ultravox, or Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America”. (And something was surely wrong if just being a teenager in America seemed like an aspirational leap for a pop star in the UK.)
There were darker fantasies, too, with songs about isolation, angst, twisted love and obsession, like Gary Numan’s “Cars” or “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”, “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics, or “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell. Even standard pop fare seemed to gain a bleaker edge thanks to the era’s new synth sounds, as in “Only You” and “Nobody’s Diary” from Yazoo, or “Don’t You Want Me” from The Human League (itself a fantasy story of being whisked from the low life to the high life of pop stardom).
Other artists presented glimpses of something more like real life, such as the cold, early-morning feeling of Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy”, or Madness’s down-to-earth comic takes on school- and home-life, “Baggy Trousers” and “Our House”.
Perhaps the ultimate symbol of 80s high-life/bleak reality contrast can be found in the video for the 1984 charity single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, juxtaposing, as it does, images of glamorous pop stars and starving children.
The 1980s was also the decade of the Sony Walkman. For the first time it was possible to walk around armoured entirely with your own personal, private, portable sound barrier, tinting the world you moved through with the filter of your own favourite sounds, leaking a vaguely annoying tinny jangle as you went.
Until the batteries ran out, anyway.