Despite its bad press these days, through a perspective that binds it so closely to the ravages of neoliberalism, at the time I could feel the appeal of postmodernism. With youth and receptive innocence being so important to how we respond to pop music, the records below may represent the best examples of its overtly self-conscious, postmodern 80s variety. High-concept po-mo pop (including short-lived sensations like Frankie Goes To Hollywood, but mainly miserable failures like Sigue Sigue Sputnik) reached saturation point around mid-decade, with a plethora of acts borrowing their template for marketing gimmickry from Malcolm McLaren. The British music press between 1983-87 was full of talentless chancers armed with nothing more than a slogan, a haircut and gaudy graphic design. McLaren's role in the great punk swindle has been over-documented to death elsewhere (not least by himself), so perhaps it's time to view his entire career for what it actually was: a risky celebration of play for its own sake; the basic lesson any clever art school kid learns. It was all a game to McLaren and it was obvious that, unlike more famous contemporaries, he thoroughly enjoyed playing the overgrown child. The staged battles over his little pranks, the cod-situationist aphorisms, his many daft interviews, and his somewhat unsavory fixations (namely, a recurring focus on pubescent girls' sexuality) didn't take away from his cunning pop smarts. He acted as role model to all kinds of of zeitgeist-chasing wannabes, the vast majority of whom fell flat on their faces trying to emulate him. Maybe it was because they lacked enough conviction in their silliness.
Although already familiar with rap, watching the video for 'Buffalo Gals' on kid's TV or Top of the Pops brought home the (then) disconcertingly alien aspects of hiphop as a subculture. For everyone who saw it as a particularly annoying novelty hit, there just as many who saw it as heralding an important cultural shift. It paid more attention to hiphop's more avant-garde aspects than earlier attempts at appropriation by trad-bands like Blondie or The Clash, who couldn't escape obedience to the 'rock band' superego. With so many different voices moving in and out of his solo records, McLaren didn't feel as much need to constantly claim centre stage. He presented himself as just another character, leading the dance. True to the historical mix-n-match of late capitalism, the rhythmic juxtapositions and lyrics of 'Buffalo Gals' placed it in a continuum of earlier American folk-forms - pop culture as rest and recreation from matters of manifest destiny (the inherent violence of which played as much a role in hiphop's later development as it did in country and western decades earlier). To UK audiences at least, it briefly 'made strange' American popular culture; something that's rarely happened in the charts since the 80s. To many a young ear, it piqued our curiosity. It's still as oddly compelling as it was three decades ago.
Of course, a true postmodernist like McLaren didn't just use history for his box of Lego. He did similar with geography too. 'Double Dutch' brought together strands of the Black Atlantic diaspora, from the urban playgrounds of New York to the brutally oppressed townships of Soweto (the colonial allusions to both places are in the title). It used South African styles with less morose vanity than Paul Simon's more celebrated Gracelands, and with arguably more sensitivity to the political struggles at stake. Unlike more pompous 80s performers (some of whom are sadly still with us), it didn't wave these struggles around as flags of convenience. That would have been too redolent of grown-ups too self-important or pretentious to be 'in' on his big punk prank (I liked to imagine him using a hand-buzzer to shake hands with Richard Branson). He simply acknowledged that those struggles took place in a world we all shared. Despite the horrors of this world, there was still fun to be had in the most unlikely of locations. After all, kids can be skipping in South Africa as much they can in North America. In contrast to the 80s, we're now less likely to accept what po-mo sometimes justified its own existence with: The (perhaps vain) attempt to s(t)imulate empathy via the use of play between divergent cultures and time periods, that may otherwise have seemed distant from - or opposed to - each other. However limited this approach may have ultimately been, it was certainly less offensive than stadium pop turning clear and present political emergencies into promotional pieties, and much less pseudo-aristocratic as a creative space. Not so much we are the world as you are the world. It was a respite from cultural and historical context into something less antagonistic, stratified or burdensome.
This was the stated purpose of McLaren's concept album Fans. It attempted that most po-mo of tricks; dated in the obviousness of its concept, yet an approach now commonplace beyond all novelty: Harmonizing the highbrow and lowbrow, by applying pop R'n'B production to opera classics. A gimmicky move, sure, and perhaps distasteful to more devoted fans of either. However, it managed to serve up one of the most sublimely ridiculous, memorable and weirdly touching confections to grace the 80s pop charts; while doing it on the safe side of embarrassment or pretension. It granted opera more dignity than FIFA ever did, anyway. When I hear 'Nessun Dorma' nowadays, images of a drunken Paul Gasgoine wearing plastic tits to entertain the lads are sadly unavoidable. McLaren's 'Madame Butterfly' conjured up something altogether more beguiling and evocative; fusing high'n'low with more panache than so many other 80s attempts. The knowing world-weariness of the lyrics worked well, emerging as they do from the cheeky innocence of its conceit. For all of McLaren's unashamedly gauche childishness, moving on from the confrontational aspects of his earlier projects was his way of growing up in public. He learned the basic lesson that so many of us do past a certain age: Pop music should be fun, it should be inclusive, and all the rest is propaganda. It's not there to feed the world, but it shouldn't heave-ho its partners either. What the listener takes from it is what matters. McLaren just wanted to play, and anyone was invited to join in if they so wished. You'd have to be a pretty sour old punk to object to that, really.