The latest exhibit from the Museum of the City of New York, New York, new music: 1980-1986– which examines music in 1980s New York – begins in a long hallway. Visitors, surrounded by photos of punk, hip-hop, salsa and classic avant-garde artists, can forgive themselves for missing a small screen, shaped like a television antenna, which broadcasts interviews in loop. In a 30-second clip, trumpeter Steven Bernstein explains, “until Madonna… no one knew what was going on in New York City.” Even the most hip residents often “didn’t know where to go” every night.
Today, 80s music has become anything but underground. Perhaps spurred by the cost of once artistically vibrant downtown neighborhoods like East Village and SoHo, the decade’s nostalgia has reached new heights. Fab 5 Freddy, Charlie Ahearn, and Larry Levan have their own archival collections housed in world-renowned universities and libraries. that of Tim Lawrence Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980-1983—Which brilliantly recounts the eclecticism of the time — can be found in almost every bookstore. Indeed, New York, new music: 1980-1986 is just one of many local exhibits dedicated to 1980s culture. In recent years, MoMA has recreated much of Club 57, and a Williamsburg loft has hosted the world’s largest graffiti exhibit. This year, old-school legends like Grandmaster Flash and Grandmaster Caz recently opened the Universal Hip Hop Museum, which is set to open in the Bronx in 2024.
No exhibition captures the musical mix of the decade better than New York, New Music: 1980-1986, although the show itself tells the story incompletely, indicating the challenge of exhibiting the musical culture of that era or any other. Posters, concert flyers, ticket stubs and newspaper articles adorn the walls, while visitors watch music videos and live concert footage projected on three large screens. After entering the hallway, they reach the main attraction – a large gallery room to the left. There they read founding concerts that helped shape distinctive scenes. A 1980 CBGB show by Jean-Michel Basquait’s group Gray, highlights how No Wave groups, with their jarring and improvised sound, infiltrated punk hotspots. The Talking Heads performance in Central Park the same year shows how downtown darlings expanded punk and New Wave traditions by incorporating West African funk, jazz and Afrobeat into their repertoire. A pivotal performance by the Fort Apache Band in 1985 shows how artists of upscale Latinx have enthusiastically merged the traditions of salsa and jazz.
While the exhibition ambitiously examines no less than nine musical subcultures, the viewer may mistakenly assume that these scenes were disconnected. While the gallery’s opening text promises to explore “a dynamic period of New York music and nightlife” characterized by “cross-pollination of ideas across disparate communities,” the latter point is sometimes lost. The wall text deals only with two instances in which performers from different races and social classes partied in person. In 1981, Debbie Harry of Blondie introduced the rap group, the Funky 4 + 1, on Saturday Night Live and, later that year, the Mudd Club jointly showcased art and music created by non-white hip-hoppers and white punks. According to the exhibit, “Eventually, hip-hop ‘uptown’ met new wave ‘downtown’ and they were inspired by each other.” This is an understatement. As Funky 4’s MC Sha-Rock explains in a recorded interview, “We were received in a way that made us feel good. … We mingled a bit with punk rockers. While the exhibit shows how in the early 1980s downtown clubs began hosting weekly hip-hop shows, it does not mention how these concerts and the disco and salsa concerts drew audiences. mixed crowds from all over the city.
Unfortunately, New York, new music: 1980-1986 often obscures the true impact of this wildly creative era. In the 1980s, various musicians helped integrate the inner city art scene and briefly connected a city separated by race and class. Club goers and performers certainly appreciated this: Mike Diamond of the Beastie Boys once proclaimed that “you have a totally integrated club scene, which has never been the case anywhere in America and it is. not the case in New York now. And it was wide open musically. One disco enthusiast recalled how Levan brought together “a lot of different people from all walks of life. We grew up together, as a family.
Unfortunately, customers don’t hear these stories. With no gallery text to guide them, they must draw their own conclusions as they pass photos of Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth posing dizzy with Grandmaster Flash, and watch multiracial revelers dance the dance floor at Paradise Garage. We see the thrilling joy of scenes from the 1980s, but little is told about the Métis interactions that made this period unique.
Of course, the Museum of the City of New York is not alone in struggling to express the unifying power of music. As a scholar of post-war New York music, I am well aware of what racially stratified studies of popular culture can be like. We lack a coherent vocabulary to talk about musicians who sought to fight against sound and social segregation. Terms like “cross-pollination”, “cross-cultural interaction” and “cross-cultural exchange” are jargon and are confusing. The “miscegenation” carries the baggage of the outrage of the 20th century against marriage and interracial sex. Unfortunately, segregation within the recording industry and American society as a whole has hampered studies of integrated music scenes.
Yet in the 1980s, black, brown, Latino and white New Yorkers met in Métis clubs. The dance allowed them to momentarily escape their segregated life and to interact with people from different backgrounds. The best historical works, whether popular articles, scholarly books, or museum exhibits, encourage us to emulate those who fought for more equitable societies. Given our current racial calculation, we should look to the musicians who in the 1980s briefly entered the downtown New York art scene. Despite the many successes of the exhibition, she missed an opportunity to give full place to these pioneers. Hopefully, future works will capture the ability of music to cross racialized boundaries.