Tangent Sunset

The History of Conscious Music by Alex Cosper

Innovative Pop Music of the Late 1980s


In 1988 it looked as though INXS might be the next super rock band to make original music with compelling messages. Their album Kick sold incredibly well on the strength of a string of hit singles. But it was one of the few albums of its time to project a theme of world peace and unity with a little sex thrown in. "Need You Tonight" talked about living for the present while "Devil Inside" seemed to be a slam on fundamentalist hypocrites. "Guns In The Sky" called for the destruction of weapons and "Calling All Nations" was about world integration. An incredibly meaningful song that ended up getting buried in the cracks was the title track "Kick," which commented on the ups and downs of everyday life while slipping in peace and love imagery. Never again would the band convey so much enlightenment on an album.

Most of the pop music of the late eighties sounded ultra-formulaic. That's probably what led to the down cycle of the top 40 format. Part of what pulls people into a current-driven music format is its ever-changing nature, that something is happening and evolving. But when everything starts to sound the same, stagnation and boredom set in as the listener is forced to find an alternative that feels in motion. Pop radio in the late eighties was only able to cough up a small cluster of innovative songs. Tracy Chapman broke the mold with a compelling acoustic storyteller song in 1988 called "Fast Car," which dealt with poverty. "Luka" by Suzanne Vega was a sobering story about child abuse. "Should I See" by Frozen Ghost was an anti-censorship song. "What I Am" by Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians had a beatnik quality to it that spoke of the fragile state of religion and philosophy. Tom Petty came back strong with an outspoken non-conformist anthem called "I Won't Back Down," and the surreal "Runnin' Down A Dream."

Another decent hit in 1989 was the stream of sexual consciousness song "So Alive" by Love & Rockets. Actually, some of the most visionary songs ever written came out that year, only to be ignored by radio, which was too busy playing it safe with homogenized music to care about incredibly innovative and socially conscious music such as "Accidentally 4th Street" by Figures On A Beach or "So Many People" by Hubert Kah. Another electronic pop group that didn't sound like contrived studio tricks was Xymox with a string of songs like "Imagination" that easily put the mind in a trance.

Continue to "Enter the 90s"