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Positive Voices

Was ’80s New Wave a Casualty of AIDS?

Mario Wagner

Mark Simpson on the way AIDS changed the music we listened to

Illustration by Mario Wagner

The 1984 Grammys were a queerly British affair in a way that, more than 30 years on, is difficult to believe actually happened. You have to keep rubbing your eyes when watching the archive. Pretty Brit New Wave fops Duran Duran won Best Video with "Girls on Film/Hungry Like the Wolf." Eurythmics performed the S&M-themed pop song "Sweet Dreams," with Annie Lennox handsomely styled as Elvis, complete with ravishing sideburns.

And receiving the award for "Best New Artist," Culture Club's Boy George, blowing kisses via a clip shot in London, famously congratulated/taunted America on its great "taste" and "knowing a good drag queen when you see one" (though maybe he was referring to fellow British power ballad singer Bonnie Tyler, also performing that evening).

Really, it's a wonder the White House didn't burst into flames that night, as it had done 170 years earlier during a previous insolent British invasion -- albeit one led by Royal Marines rather than drag queens.

This was, however, to be a high-water mark for '80s British New Wave, that glorious culmination of the 1970s aesthetic revolts of glam and punk. It was pop music at its most fun, its most danceable, its most pretentious, its most gender-bending, and its most fashionable. Pop music at its most. The arrival of synthesizers had swept away guitar-led Ancien Regime ideas: Anything was possible and everything was permitted.

And because they had grown up watching David Bowie and Roxy Music on Top of the Pops, the Brit New Wave acts of the early '80s understood completely the entrancing power of image, sexual ambiguity, and above all video: Bowie's spooky, super-saturated 1973 "Life on Mars" vid was the template for New Wave pop promos.

RELATED | 1983: The Last Great Year of Pop

So when it was launched in the United States in 1981, MTV became a bridgehead for the swish, dandyish Brit invasion. The first-ever track played on MTV was "Video Killed the Radio Star" by Buggles, a British band fronted by Trevor Horn, who would produce many of the most successful British New Wave acts of the '80s.

United Kingdom acts like Depeche Mode, the Human League, New Order, Eurythmics, OMD, and Thompson Twins, and particularly Culture Club and Duran Duran, ended up with around-the-clock exposure in the U.S., even infiltrating Hollywood in the classic '80s angsty high school movies of John Hughes, such as Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, and The Breakfast Club. The Union Jack and the Cabaret Voltaire poster on the walls of the young Matthew Broderick's bedroom in Ferris Bueller's Day Off are a measure of just how much this movement had succeeded in corrupting America's youth.

But a backlash was brewing. Antibodies were being generated against this unmanly foreign body. The new Cold War, along with the triumph of the "traditional values" of Reagan and Thatcher, had already chilled the political atmosphere. But it was the eruption of the "gay plague" into the news headlines in the mid-'80s that was to decisively turn the tide on both sides of the Atlantic against the androgynous, gender-bending culture of New Wave.

Although it had been killing ever-larger numbers of gay men, along with IV drug users, hemophiliacs, and Haitians, since 1981, what was to become the human immunodeficiency virus was only isolated in 1983 -- snuffing out gay glam rock legend Jobriath and New Wave icon Klaus Nomi in the same year. In 1985, it claimed a big, all-American name in the by then shriveled shape of Rock Hudson.

As the panic began to spread, social attitudes towards homosexuality and anything that looked like it began to nose-dive. Being or seeming gay was "unclean" and "high risk."

Bruce Springsteen's album about the American dream, Born in the U.S.A., came to the red-blooded, uncontaminated rescue. It made some noise at the 1985 Grammys, nominated for three awards and winning one, and it topped the charts in both the U.S. and the U.K. Skittish, single-based New Wave was largely a thing of the past. Good old authentic, straight, reproductive, patriotic, album-based guitar rock was back.

Although Springsteen was making a very critical statement about U.S. imperialism and the Vietnam War, the sing-along chorus to the title track was taken at Reaganite fist-pumping face value by many.

A couple of years later, in 1987 -- the zenith year for homophobia, when social attitudes surveys showed that 75% of Americans thought same-sex relations were "always wrong" -- MTV abandoned New Wave and moved to a format based around heavy metal and rawwwk that had none of Springsteen's caveats. Nothing faggy here, buddy! In the same year in the U.K., Thatcher's government began drafting a law that would ban the "promotion of homosexuality" in schools -- the first anti-"gay propaganda" law.

Unlike disco, which America had killed off in 1979, dancey, arty New Wave was not blown up in a baseball stadium. It was demolished instead by stadium rock. Disco sucked again. And gave you AIDS.

There is, however, a bittersweet irony to savor. The cover art for Born in the U.S.A. was a close-up of Springsteen's blue-denimed ass in front of the Stars and Stripes, with a red bandana in his right back pocket. The pre-AIDS gay hanky code for an interest in being fisted.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

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Mark Simpson