25 April 2016

why timbuk 3's "the future's so bright i gotta wear shades" is the ultimate '80s song

Much of my all-time favorite music was made in the 1980s. The pop culture of that era somehow managed to simultaneously celebrate avant-garde, gaudy self-expression and calculated, geometric sleekness. The New Wave movement, for example, gave us tracks with carefully programmed synths and drum machines being wailed over by singers that were expressive but not (necessarily) technically impressive.

In determining what track truly is the Ultimate '80s Song™, I came up with the following criteria: It had to represent the aforementioned discord in a very clear way. It should reference, either lyrically or sonically, the Reaganite excesses of the era. It should also reference, though, the unbridled optimism of the era's youth, either in the face of or because of the aforementioned excesses.

Piecing together this criteria was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, and once it was complete, the picture was clear: Timbuk 3's "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades" is the ultimate '80s song.

At face value, the lyrics are a shimmering ray of hope: "The future's so bright I gotta wear shades!" Awesome dude! "I got a job waitin' on my graduation - 50-thou a year'll buy a lotta beer!" Damn right it will! It captures that magical feeling when you've successfully set up the next big step in your life, and you know it's going to solve a lot of problems for you. You feel like a champion.

Diving even slightly deeper beyond the surface, though, reveals the song's not-so-hidden undercurrent of (what felt like the inevitability of) nuclear war and total annihilation. The singer's "x-ray" vision probably didn't happen on purpose -- and that crazy teacher knew why he needed those dark glasses.

Yet still, even though the bleak message couldn't possibly be more obvious, this song is still played at graduations everywhere. I can't think of a better metaphor for the Reaganite era.

Sonically, it hits on a handful of genres that defined the era. It has the synthpop drum machines, the new wave vocals, and the cowpunk melody and instrumentation, and a wind-instrument solo.

This song is the 1980s in 3 1/2 minutes.