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New Wave: Image is Everything traces the evolution of the often neglected pop music genre, new wave. Using artists from Elvis Costello to Cyndi Lauper as illustrations, the book argues that new wave was among the first flowerings of postmodern theory in popular culture.



1. An Introduction

In the opening moments of Stop Making Sense, the iconic 1984 concert film by the Talking Heads, David Byrne walks alone on to a bare, unadorned stage. He carries a boom box in his hand, an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder. Already we know this won’t be a typical rock concert: there are no enormous amplifiers, no complicated banks of lights, no garish sets. Byrne wears an outfit so nondescript and colorless he could be a confused member of the audience who has happened to wander up on stage. When he reaches center stage, he sets the boom box on the ground and says quietly, ‘Hi, I have a tape I want to play for you.’ He reaches down to press play, a prerecorded drum beat begins, and he launches into a version of the Heads’ hit, ‘Psycho Killer.’ Some in the audience that night must surely at that moment have been reconsidering the price of their tickets. You could pay far less to see far more in a coffee house, or see it for nothing at a karaoke bar.
M. King Adkins

2. New Wave’s Rise in the U.K.

Perhaps nothing better captures the spirit of British new wave music than the phrase, originating in 1984, ‘Frankie Say Relax.’ Emblazoned in tall black letters across oversized white t-shirts, it was a far cry from the Sex Pistols’ call for ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ just eight years earlier. The Pistols’ anthem, which advocated the wholesale destruction of cultural institutions from council tenancies to traffic lights, made a clear and urgent political statement: ‘Right! Now!’ Johnny Rotten sneers during the opening bars of ‘Anarchy.’ ‘Frankie Say Relax,’ on the other hand, borders on nonsensical (the ‘Say,’ though grammatically correct, seems wrong, helping to undermine the message), an empty set of words with no signification.
M. King Adkins

3. New Wave’s Rise in the U.S.

New wave developed somewhat differently in America, producing a somewhat different flavor of music and lyrics. Reeling from punk’s brief explosion, and defining itself against Thatcher’s new economic policies, early British new wave could sometimes be as pointed in its messages as punk, or at a minimum conflicted about its own success. American new wave, on the other hand, developed in an atmosphere much more receptive to the image as image. By the early 1970s, a century of film, television, and consumerism had created a culture that not only relied on images, but reveled in them. America was a land of fast food, muscle cars and superstardom: it swam in a sea of signs. As a result American new wave artists convey much less angst towards the postmodern world they inhabit, almost embracing that world.
M. King Adkins

4. Making the Image Everything

By 1981, new wave acts on both sides of the Atlantic (and their counterparts in art and postmodern theory) had spent half a decade interrogating the sign and playing with its instability. They weren’t always thinking about ‘sign’ in the same ways: some focused on word play and language games; others dealt with the musical sign — how, for example the synthesizer disconnected sound from the musician playing it; still others considered personality and what happens when the signs of personality float independently from an actual person. All of these approaches led to the same place, however. If the sign was disconnected from its referent, if signifiers — of every type — no longer pointed to concrete signifieds, reality itself was suddenly in question.
M. King Adkins

5. Pure Image

The Thompson Twins’ 1983 hit, ‘Hold Me Now, ‘opens with the lines, ‘I have a picture, pinned to my wall/ An image of you and of me and we’re laughing and loving it all.’ Its position in the first line of the song reveals the picture’s importance. The speaker’s relationship in the present is troubled,’ tattered and torn.’ The photograph he holds on to serves as a point of comparison, a reminder of better times. ‘Look at our life now,’ he says (emphasis mine).
M. King Adkins

6. The Return of Meaning

By the mid-1980s, MTV had begun to change its format and the result was a shift in emphasis away from new wave and towards other genres — first harder rock and heavy metal, then rap and hip-hop, and later grunge. At the same time, the network was slowly replacing music videos with more traditional television fare — news, game shows, and reality programming filled more and more of the schedule. Those early acts who had experimented with video’s possibilities had disappeared long ago. Their early advantage, when they were the only artists producing videos, was quickly erased, and bands like Devo found themselves shouldered aside for slicker work from more mainstream acts.
M. King Adkins


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