Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Toto, I Think We're Not in the 1980s Anymore

Toto’s “Rosanna” has been following me around town lately.

Toto IVEver since I used Toto to epitomize flash-in-the-pan culture in a recent blog post, the 1982 arena standard has cropped up everywhere. I can hardly run to the grocery store, spin the dial on the way to work, or sit on hold without David Paich’s plaintive chords hitting me from somewhere. This one song has become a soundtrack for these weeks in my life.

This is hardly the first song to take on unusual proportions in my life. Before this, I couldn’t shake U2’s “Mysterious Ways.” At other times, “Ticket to Ride” and “Whiter Shade of Pale” have redefined ubiquity.

But somehow, this feels different. This almost feels like a deliberate rebuke, a reminder that, despite my flip words, Toto has demonstrated remarkable staying power. After all, though Toto’s popularity in America dwindled after 1984, they remained a powerhouse touring act in Europe and Asia through 2008, and a recent reunion tour set sales records.

Compared to other music from the time, “Rosanna” endures remarkably well. No one would doubt, with its synth licks and rack of guitarists, that this is a period piece; this song could not get recorded today, at least not in this arrangement. But compare Toto to Madonna. She has enjoyed greater public staying power, but her earliest singles, sung in a strange piping soprano, are almost unlistenable.

American culture focuses markedly on the past. “Classic Rock,” a euphemism for what we once called oldies, is one of our most common radio formats. Cable TV is lined wall to wall with channels dedicated to rerunning nostalgic shows from my parents’ childhood. Though I Love Lucy is less common than a few years ago, I can hardly change channels without running into The Andy Griffith Show.

That seems strange for a country that proclaims its national youth and vigor. We tell ourselves that, unlike wheezy old aristocratic Europe, with its centuries of history and baggage, we’re still young, hip, and with-it. Yet somehow, we keep looking backward, like a retiree retreading the glory days.

Are You Experienced [+video]Back in the 1990s, Chevrolet ran ads touting that only a country as young and vibrant as America could devise something as revolutionary as Chevy’s then-new model year. But Chevy ballyhooed their supposed adolescence to the backing of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire.” They shouted their youth with the support of a musician who died before I was born.

The decade before Toto’s “Rosanna” was littered with faux nostalgia. Aerosmith’s 1973 “Dream On,” recorded when singer Steven Tyler was only 25, repeats its fatalistic lyrics about how “the past is gone” and “maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will take you away,” with drum-like constancy. Even Bruce Springsteen’s energetic “Born to Run” came from an artist who, at the time, consciously made himself up like a fifties greaser.

Despite its heartbreak themes, “Rosanna” seems almost opposite to that. Like the Beatles, Toto hit the stage with smiles and a set list. They may have had long hair, but they seemed clean-cut and forward-looking. Except, notice the video’s subtheme of the feud between the Jets and Sharks. West Side Story debuted twenty-five years before this video was recorded. Nostalgia lives!

Ignoring the “classic” radio and TV channels that protect people from encountering anything new, even current culture appears past-addled. Tim McGraw’s recent annoying C&W hit “Back When” features the repeated hook “I miss back when.” Unfortunately, the past he describes substantially occurred before his birth. He pines for his parents’ youth.

Cheap ThrillsI cannot exempt myself from this criticism. I own the complete Beatles catalog on CD, can sing “Piece of My Heart” from memory, and watch DVDs of Doctor Who episodes first broadcast while I was learning to walk. The past has a way of keeping a firm hold on anyone.

Nor should we abandon the past. A culture without history or tradition must reinvent the wheel every generation. We shouldn’t desire that. Isaac Newton famously said: “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

I only fear it can become tempting to live in the past. A song stalking me can beckon, like a siren, to rest on yesterday’s successes. Consider all the rah-rah patriotism reminding Americans of the Moon race, World War II, or the Oregon Trail. There’s a fine line between revering the past, and nesting in it.

I miss you, Rosanna. But I have to balance my past against making sure I have a future.

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