We Did Not, In Fact, Build This City on Rock and Roll

Aging, death and the lies of 1980s bubblegum music.

Ted Anthony
13 min readJun 30, 2020

“Welcome to your life. There’s no turning back.”
Tears for Fears, 1985

For Chris Wenzler (1967–2020).


Me, right now: standing in the front bathroom of the split-level house passed to me by my parents a decade ago. I glance in the mirror where, each weekday morning between 1982 and 1986, I swabbed my still-sharp jawline with a Stridex Medicated Pad, deployed mousse and Polo aftershave and ventured out to survive another day at Hampton High School.

Gazing back at me on this day in June of 2020 is a man with eyes crinkling at the corners and — no way around it — the beginning of jowls. My reflection wears the face of a worried man. But the worries are different.

No longer do I lie awake fretting about whether Laura A. or Donna V. or Steph M. will notice me or whether I’ll make JV or whether my chin will clear up before the dance. This angst is more insidious. It traverses the terrain of checking-account balances and car-repair invoices and window replacements and ticking clocks and roads not taken. It worries of viruses and anger and polarization and injustice. Though still preposterously privileged beyond its eyes’ ability to see, the face in this mirror now has friends dead of cancer and drug overdoses and heart attacks and suicide. This face wonders where the other face went. There’s a war outside still ragin’, you say it ain’t ours anymore to win.

I glare at the man in the mirror. I find him repellent in his age and his compromises. So I spit a few silent insults in his direction. It being a mirror, they bounce back and whack me in the face.

That bowl cut: The author at 16, 1984.

Who the hell are you? You could not possibly be me. I am a Breakfast Club boy. I wear Op shorts and Union Bay pants. I have a standing appointment to Wang Chung tonight. How did I slouch into you? I followed the rules. I listened to all the lyrics of the songs that played on the radio. They were my received wisdom. They were supposed to deliver me.

But the lyrics lied.

Cassette-encased lies of wishful thinking and willful ignorance. Bubblegum lies for a bubblegum decade that masked an increasingly chaotic and horrifying world.

Cheerful, happy, optimistic, romantic lies. And yet: Lies nevertheless. And we listened.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about false promises. About the narratives of adolescence that delivered, to boys in white, middle-class suburbs, messages about what would be ahead — what had to be ahead, what we deserved to have. About the absurd and unnoticed privilege to believe that things will not only turn out for the best, but that somehow, for us, they are predestined to do so. The promises our teachers gave, if we worked hard, if we behaved. It is a storyline that engulfed me growing up, even as it eluded so many Americans for so long.

Storylines of youth and possibility, I think, are often constructed upon foundations of untruth — not bald-faced lies, exactly, but convenient fabrications and confabulations designed to make sure we have our shit together by the time we come of age. Carrots first, so that maybe the sticks won’t be as necessary later on.

Yesterday, I sat in a Jesuit church outside Cleveland and said goodbye to one of my oldest and dearest friends. I’d known him since we were barely 15, both of us on the edges of high-school existence, and thanks to him our friendship was rekindled as adults to become one of the most significant relationships of my life. He died of cancer last week at 52 after decades of touching many thousands of people with mentorship, determination and care.

The day before the funeral, because of the coronavirus, the wake was replaced by a drive-by “car parade,” where legions of friends and admirers could honk, wave to the family and show support.

One friend of his built a Spotify playlist for the passing cars to play during this interlude — a quixotic attempt to create a shared storyline so people separated by a virus could experience a mournful event together, to a fashion.

The playlist, naturally, was laden with the notes of our 1980s youth. U2. New Order. Modern English. Simple Minds. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. As my hyperactive mind careened across the collage of my life — a 52-pickup jumble of moments experienced and remembered and remembered again, this time more hazily — I realized how misleading the soundtrack of our suburban American youth was.

In a dark era streaked with unprecedented uncertainty — at least, that was how we felt — the soundtrack was optimistic and fanciful and poppy. It was the love child of the doo-wop 1950s and the British Invasion 1960s who’d grown up in the 1970s and outgrown disco and funk. By the 1980s, this soundtrack thought itself sophisticated and street smart. But it was really all Pop Rock triumphs and Bubble Yum melancholy, built to walk across mall floors sticky with Orange Julius to get to the darker back part of Spencer Gifts.

Records, after all, needed to be sold. Friday night dances needed to be soundtracked. Roller rinks needed to rock. And Gen-Z high-school marching bands, filled with our not-yet-born children, patiently stood on suburban football fields 35 years in the future, waiting for their poppy Friday night arrangements to arrive.

But oh, yes. False promises. Let’s visit some of those.

The music was everywhere. In the car, coming from the jury-rigged tape deck of the old Ford Pinto one friend drove. At the dance, from vinyl spun by a local DJ called Earthbound Sound. In hallways between classes, pulsating from the flat grey foam of our Walkman headphones.

For those of us who came of age in the American suburbs during the 1980s, our songs fibbed to our faces, then smiled Aqua-Fresh smiles as we cheerfully followed them off the cliffs of adolescent self-delusion.

When I say “the 1980s,” I’m defining them completely arbitrarily— as we all do for the eras when we come of age. I’m talking about from 1980 to the end of 1986, before R.E.M. and The Cure and Morrissey commandeered the center of musical gravity in my college years. I’m talking post-disco, New Wave-inflected exuberance with a backstory of angst, not angst with a backstory of, well, angst (talkin’ to you, “Girlfriend in a Coma”). I’m talking that musical microdecade that was a middle-class kid’s Reagan-era Tin Pan Alley. When we needed aphorisms to help us navigate teenage life, these lyrics offered prefab solutions. I absorbed them. We all did.

Yet embedded in this soundtrack — tucked between the backachingly saccarine (Air Supply), the consciously quirky (Devo) and the thoughtfully hip (Talking Heads) were insidious messages that, for teenagers, were fundamentally counterproductive.

I’m sure this sounds hopelessly naive and cranky as I raise my sons in a Spotified world where explicit lyrics can be pumped into their AirPodded ears from dawn to dusk. But we listened to these songs and they told us, in the loveliest and liveliest of ways, how the world was and how it should be.

And guess what? They pretty much got it wrong. Either that, or we did.

Here are some of the counterproductive lessons that our radios and cassettes drummed into our heads — or, just as likely, that we misinterpreted by hearing only what we chose to hear.

1980s album covers. Reproduced alongside commentary under fair-use doctrine.
  • Hold onto 16 as long as you can. Change is comin’ around real soon, make us women and men.(John Cougar Mellencamp, “Jack & Diane,” 1982) The obsession with not letting go of triumphal high-school years is one of America’s most potent storylines. But look harder at the context of what Mellencamp was singing and something different surfaces. “Oh yeah, life goes on/long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.”
  • Girls just wanna have fun.” (Cyndi Lauper, 1983) “That’s all they really want.” I remember thinking at age 15 that this was a message of female empowerment. I see it differently now — as a crappy message for girls, and a toxic road map to nowhere for boys just learning how to interact with the opposite sex. It’s OK, they’re just playthings. The only muscular lyric in the song is lost in the middle (I had to look it up to paste it here): “Some boys take a beautiful girl/and hide her away from the rest of the world/I want to be the one to walk in the sun …”
  • My angel is the centerfold.” (J. Geils Band, 1984) Surely the most uncomfortable, porny love song about a classmate. The parallel between the fantasy girl in our homeroom (“Does she walk? Does she talk? Does she come complete?”) and the one in the magazine who produced different kinds of fantasies was — no way around it — full-on objectification.
  • Just once in his life, a man has his time.(John Parr, “St. Elmo’s Fire/Man in Motion,” 1985) Focus on the big and the epic, this stirring song instructs us. I still play it today; it still stirs me. It’s also a morass of false expectations. It’s clear to me now: The small moments, together, over time, power the engine of life. But how do you tell that to a kid living an urgent teenage life and convinced that everything is either the highest peak or the lowest, most painful valley?
  • Those were the best days of my life.(Bryan Adams, “Summer of ‘69,” 1984). Another song I can’t think of high school without. Trouble is, as with “Jack & Diane,” the guys in the song thought of high school as the crowning moment of their lives (“… and if I had the choice, yeah, I’d always wanna be there”)— and it crippled them. That illusion is perhaps the greatest lie of 1980s pop music.
  • Wouldn’t it be good to be in your shoes?(Nik Kershaw, 1984) A song about the notion that while you’re walking around in pain, everyone else is popular and breezy and having fun. They weren’t. Even the most popular among us were struggling. I learned this years later, and in the most difficult of ways. That popular boy and girl? They didn’t have things figured out any more than I did.
  • Today’s music ain’t got the same soul.” (Bob Seger, “Old Time Rock and Roll,” 1983). This trope belongs to every generation that thinks its music was best. But more good music has come out since the 1980s than ever emerged during it. My sons and their playlists prove that every day.

Looking over my shoulder toward the past, I see that these songs steered me wrong. Maybe it was me; maybe my decision to take them to heart was the problem. Whatever the case, their melodies are now a part of me, interstitched with my memories and my emotions. But the lyrics? Not so much.

This I will grant you: Some lyrics proved prescient. Video, it turned out, actually did kill the radio star. Most of us did end up working 9 to 5, or taking the morning train and taking another home again. And as the internet, the collapse of communism and the rise of terrorism (and, eventually, this damn virus) loomed just beyond our field of vision, it was, in fact, the end of the world as we knew it, albeit in a very different way than we thought.

So for your handy reference, I’m going to offer you, instead, a few actually useful life lessons, straight from the 1980s Top 40 vault:

  • Who’s gonna drive you home tonight?” (The Cars, “Drive,” 1984)
  • “I can’t be late, ‘cause then I guess I just won’t get paid.” (The Bangles, “Manic Monday,” 1986)
  • “We’ve gotta hold on to what we’ve got. It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not. We’ve got each other, and that’s a lot.” (Bon Jovi, “Livin’ on a Prayer,” 1986
  • “Why do we scream at each other?” (Prince, “When Doves Cry,” 1984)
  • “While there is time, let’s go out and feel everything.” (Steve Winwood, “The Finer Things,” 1986)
  • “We share the same biology, regardless of ideology.” (Sting, “Russians,” 1985)
  • “But just like everything else those old crazy dreams just kinda came and went.” (John Cougar Mellencamp, “Pink Houses,” 1983)

“It used to seem to me that my life ran on too fast,
and I had to take it slowly just to make the good parts last.”
— Steve Winwood, “Back in the High Life Again” (1986)

Yesterday, driving back from my friend’s funeral along the generally featureless Ohio Turnpike, a strange and distant lyric made its way through my head, from — of all people — Howard Jones, an Englishman whose music I haven’t thought of in years. “Things,” he sang in 1985, “can only get better.

When I got home, I looked up the lyrics and found this, astonishingly appropriate for the moment, a line that bubbles up from the mists of our senior year of high school.

Treating today as though it was the last, the final show
Get to sixty and feel no regret
It may take a little time — a lonely path, an uphill climb —
Success or failure will not alter it.
And do you feel scared? I do.
But I won’t stop and falter.

Last night, the funeral still echoing in my heart, I went back to that mirror and looked at myself for a few moments — that mirror that is no longer really mine, at least not in the way it used to be. Today, it is my teenage sons’ bathroom; now it is they who gaze into the mirror each morning and wonder what might be ahead for the boy who stares back.

The mirror, of course, never changes. It is only the contents that shift. Within it, I am not quite an old man. Not yet. I have been fortunate to travel the world, meet thousands of people, bear witness to triumph and misery, find lasting love. But in that mirror, too, somehow I am the same uncertain teenager — child, really — who had no idea of his privilege and wallowed in his angst. And for now, all these years later, I am still here. That is something, a gift simple but so, so profound. I wish I could give it to my friend.

And the music. The crappy, glorious, indispensable, disposable music of the mid-1980s. It plays forever in my head, even as far better material supplants it. I suspect the music will play as long as my brain goes on, sending me dumbed-down messages from my past that are either sweet-talking lies or hard truths coated in treacle. And it will always force me to decide which.

Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone. Seems so long I’ve been waiting; still don’t know what for. We’ve always had time on our side, but now it’s fading fast.

Help me make the most of freedom and of pleasure; nothing ever lasts forever. It’s getting harder just keeping life and soul together. I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

But I can make it — I know I can. You broke the boy in me, but you won’t break the man.

Me and my friend Chris on graduation night, 1986.

Ted Anthony, a writer based in Pittsburgh and New York, is a Baby Boomer by generation and a Gen-Xer by age. He has been dissecting and musing about American culture since Guns N’ Roses was on the charts and “Rain Man” was in the theaters. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects his writing here.

©2020 | Ted Anthony

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Ted Anthony

Exploring and understanding storytelling and how it shapes our lives. My tools: Words, images, thoughts, memories, connections, history ... and, maybe, wisdom.