Defining the Poppy Bush Interzone

Congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, envoy to China, RNC chair, and CIA director, George Herbert Walker Bush became the first vice president since Martin Van Buren to win the presidency without his predecessor dying on him and so far the last president in forty years to lose reelection. His term could not have gone further.

Hitching himself to Ronald Reagan because ambition left him with few options, Bush proved himself a loyal handservant to the New Right; it’s what he was trained to do. The most cynical incarnation of the corporate man (“He’s a man you appoint to things,” one-time mentor Richard Nixon growled), Bush left no ideological imprint on a party that had rejected the quiet malevolence of the country club set; from now on, Republican were openly, gleefully malevolent, rewiring a generation of Alex P. Keatons. And these Republicans distrusted Bush for eight years and were disgusted by him for raising taxes. Not even the nomination of Clarence Thomas, a prize that has never stopped rebounding to the credit of conservatism, assuaged these misgivings. Now he exists as a soiled promissory note for a version of conservatism he himself was willing to quash on January 1981. The “moderate” Republican wing for which Bush became a symbol as his loss in 1992 receded from memory extirpated itself as soon as Nixon and Reagan became the party’s nominees.

In a similar way, the Poppy Bush Interzone (PBI) comprised a period in American pop music a product of and detached from history. It encompasses the fall of 1988 until the fall of 1993, a period just before and just after Bush’s term in office. Decades aren’t walls of mortar. The increasing visibility on MTV of British acts borne of punk and post-punk resulted in greater crossover radio play. This was the era when The Cure, Depeche Mode, Morrissey, New Order, and Siouxsie and the Banshees enjoyed their dominance; so did Psychedelic Furs (in many ways this era’s John the Baptizer), Echo & the Bunnymen, XTC, and members of Bauhaus, among others. Chris Molanphy has written well about this era.  I should note too that my nomenclature owes a debt to critic Ned Raggett, who on the ILX message board years ago first used “interzone” as descriptor.

By contrast, the pop chart reflected the dominance of the decade’s biggest marquee draws. Taking advantage of Michael Jackson and Bruce Springteen’s silence after the last singles from Bad and Tunnel of Love, respectively, had peaked, Madonna and Janet Jackson entered a new chart and critical ascendancy. Prince hung in there. Lionel Richie chose silence. In their wake rushed a slew of imitators: Karyn White, Paula Abdul, Milli Vanilli. Although boomer rock acts had adapted to Contemporary Hits Radio during the High Reagan Years, the sudden importance of VH-1 gave the Doobie Brothers, Paul McCartney, the Traveling Wilburys axis, and especially the Rolling Stones another medium on which to preen for viability. Thus, you had the phenomenon of “Mixed Emotions” and “Miss You Much” played within minutes of each other, or “Free Fallin'” beside Michael Penn’s “No Myth.” Fine Young Cannibals landing a #1 album and two #1 singles? Purest PBI. Listeners over the age of thirty-five may remember the PBI as the years when the Beatles catalog in its American compact disc pressings finally saw the sequencing — hence integrity and gestalt — of the original albums restored. World Party, Matthew Sweet, Jellyfish, and less remembered imitators profited.

If these listeners hold their bare feet against the comforting fires of PBI singles, blame the homogeneity of subsequent years of radio programming, for which hip-hop and a hip-hop-invigorated R&B provided necessary disruptions. These years boasted appalling music too, thanks to acts whose notions of play were like wearing jeans in a swimming pool.  After months of Goo Goo Dolls, Jann Arden, and Hootie, the glitzy Dexedrin-accelerated evangelism of Amy Grant and the subtlety with which Londonbeat wove high life guitars into a #1 single sounded like a spirited death rattle of 1983-1984 New Pop. In a way it was. Just like 1981’s American pop chart was more 1975 than 1975, the PBI saw a final coalescing of the anything-goes dynamism fueled by music video channels’ devotion to flash — flashier than anything George H.W. Bush ever wore or said at any rate.

 

2 thoughts on “Defining the Poppy Bush Interzone

  1. This is generalization of course, but better art comes from harder times. I love especially 91-92 the most. But hip.hop and hard rock (via Axl) had a revival to rival the hair metal larvas:)) Even though I’m not fond of him, I recognize a change shift there. House music made its presence felt in the charts. Of course, there was Michael Bolton and crap as in every era. But, to me, the moment that most defined that era in Mainstream terms is when Nevermind bumped off Dangerous fron number one. The Brits would say Stone Roses. Whatever.
    It seems like I have something against Michael but in reality I saw him at the time like as an awkward adult behaving 15 years younger than his age and making more statements towards everything and everyone (the We Are the World Syndrome) but HIMself. So, naturally, Janet filled his niche and overblew it.
    “Leave Me Alone” might be the most honest thing he did in that period. I was just not interested anymore. So you may find something in Dangerous I missed (I’ll get there, eventually) Nevermind, the kids were elsewhere. I was.

    The only TRULY criminal thing I see in hindsight is the total lack of popular interest in the Pet Shop Boys most heart wenching singles after “It’s a Sin”. Their most political, also, without the “statement” complex: “Left to My Own Devices” and “Being Boring”. They dissapeared from radio here after “Domino Dancing”, which may explain why. That song was a curse. It’s no good. By the time “Go West” was a global hit, they made a brief comeback of sorts.

    “better art comes from harder times”
    At least in Mainstream terms, I hear crickets now. Where’s the galvanazing pop music force to get us out of this apathy? In Twitter, perhaps? Everything seems so atomized now.

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