Salvation Songs, part 4: Waiting for a Star to Fall

2 Jan

Secular music, excepting oldies music with my dad (always in the car), was banned in my parents’ house when I was growing up. I listened to kids’ praise, Christian radio plays, Christian audio books, and Focus on the Family, a radio station that broadcast sermons and homilies from a variety of pastors, scholars, theologians and blowhards. No Bach, Handel, or Mendelssohn. No Stryper or Petra either, but I now count this as a good thing.

My older sister had Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith. I had nothing and no one. Only Psalty. And if you don’t know who Psalty is, you didn’t grow up in the Southern Baptist church. (He’s still around.)

This all changed when I was in sixth grade. For Christmas, my dad bought me a two-cassette boom box[1]. I had a handful of Bill Cosby tapes and a Ricky Nelson album. But the stereo brought me radio, and the world blossomed into something new and rich and strange[2].

I had to listen to the radio with headphones, else my mom would hear and I would be lectured. Or, worse, have the radio policed or even taken away.

Christmas morning, I put in the large batteries, jacked in the headphones, and then lied down on my single bed. I propped my feet up on the end of the wooden frame and, tired out from the late night anticipation from Christmas Eve, closed my eyes while turning on the stereo. And the first song I heard was “Waiting for a Star to Fall.”

There’s a strange revisionism to eighties music. Hugely popular bands, like U2 and the Police, are seen as precursors to progressive and underground music. They really weren’t. They filled arenas and scored number one hits. Some of the more underground stuff has, as Chuck Klosterman is always pointing out, remained viable because critics like it. (See early R.E.M.) Meanwhile, other enormous acts of the decade, such as Ratt, have been completely forgotten. Klosterman argues that the underground and the outside, over time, becomes in. Liking popular music from years ago, such as KISS, becomes the true underground. Every professes a love for The Pixies now. But who listens to Frankie Goes to Hollywood anymore?

The music of the eighties feels shimmery and ethereal. New Wave and Post-punk were great things—I still listen to the Talking Heads, XTC, James, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, Prince, (some) Tom Petty and The Pet Shop Boys, among others—and hair metal and 1980s R & B were pretty terrible. But there was a strand of pop music that was pure, light as air, and streaked with sugary life. The tone was airy, a kind of light-weight synth pop that worked as dance music for people who couldn’t really dance. As a genre, this 1980s pop music could manifest as a kind of lame pseudo rock—think of Roxette or David Essex and Eric Carmen (I admit a weak spot for the Dirty Dancing soundtrack)—or as a kind of precursor to the teen pop of today, such as Paula Abdul.

I speak of Dan Hartman, Crowded House, Taylor Dane, Timmie T., Duran Duran, Go West, and yes, Boy Meets Girl. Anthemic pop music that is catchy but forgettable. Unified less by a sound than a set of (vacuous) musical values. I’m immensely fond of this body of work; I find it to be aesthetically distasteful but sentimentally satisfying.

Back to my first day with the stereo. I fell asleep with the headphones on, and my mom awakened me some time later in the day. “What are you listening to?” she asked. The headphones were cheap, the music too loud. I was stone cold busted.

“Oh, nothing. You know. I was just fooling around.” I put on my best stupefied face. “I don’t really know how to use this thing yet.”

She gave me a disapproving shake of the head and then left the room. I dodged my first bullet. It wouldn’t be the last.

Here’s the song. It means nothing to me now, musically, but everything to me emotionally. Strange.


[1] I cringe to say it now, but at the time we called this type of setup “ghetto-blasters.”

[2] Up to this point I only had the rollerskating rink for my pop music fix.

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