Dancing to Sadness
As an adolescent growing up in the suburbs of Boston in the 1980s I had a lot to be cynical about. Ronald Reagan. Nancy Reagan. Conspicuous consumption. The war on drugs. The public self-satisfaction of well-heeled Wellesley, Massachusetts, overlaying scenes like my sister’s boyfriend’s alcoholic mother walking into her son’s bedroom, seeing a mound of coke on his desk, and asking indifferently if he’d be staying for dinner. This jaundiced view of mine was fueled by grief over my father’s suicide. He killed himself when I was fourteen, just as I was beginning to realize I liked boys. I didn’t have much music of my own, at the time. I’d never collected any, largely because my older brother, Timothy, collected and played so much that I took my lead and my cassettes from him. And above all others, what he gave me was New Order.
A few years earlier, my family had been living in Britain. This was just after Thatcher’s rise to power. I was too young to track the specifics, but even a kid can pick out the basic plot: conservative business interests supported by Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers were preparing to gut the miners and working people. New Order was formed in this period, following the suicide of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of their first incarnation — Joy Division. Reflecting the cynicism of the times, the title of their second album, released in ’83, was Power, Corruption, and Lies.
The album’s incredibly tight opening track, “Age of Consent,” contained all the threads that would make them one of the most influential bands of the decade — for other musicians in particular: The tune carried on the bass rather than the guitar, giving the song a dark, driven sound; a fast, irresistible drum beat; Bernard Sumner’s cryptic, slightly vengeful lyrics; and floating above it all, interludes of lush, soaring synth. “Do you find this happens all the time?” Sumner asks. “Crucial point one day becomes the crime.” You’re swaying your head, you’re bobbing your knee, you’re rocking fast, back and forth, as he chants the last lines, “I’ve lost you, I’ve lost you, I’ve lost you, I’ve lost you, I’ve lost you….”
What wasn’t there to love and pine for and listen to hundreds of times on my Walkman? Here was emotional woundedness and social disaffection made into kick-ass dance music, all wrapped up in Peter Saville’s gorgeous jacket design, another heady mix of the florid and the minimal. And because of my brother’s avidity, I was listening to it before anyone else in town, lending it that final note of perfect coolness.
The albums that followed — Low-Life, Brotherhood, Technique — refined the band’s marriage of post-punk, dour English affect with the electronics of disco and European industrial music. It was a ravishingly dark vision and for me quite nearly salvific. Listening to the 12” single “Temptation,” I could hear in the lyrics the longing I felt to kiss one of my best friends and the ineffable sadness of my father being gone, all the while dancing out of myself the fear and anger that had nowhere to go.
I’ve never stopped listening to New Order. Months can pass, but I always come back to it. Lately, as an older, happier person, I’ve begun to realize just how powerfully the music reinforced my bleak outlook. It told me, with the all authority of beauty, that the world was a sad and damaged place. Which, of course, it is. And yet what brings me back to their songs isn’t just nostalgia for gloom. Because that same beauty was also the means of transcendence — the chance to dance — an escape as fleeting as the length of an album track, but a permission I still take each time I listen. Transcendence playable over and over.
Adam Haslett is the author of the novel Union Atlantic and the short story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here. He won the Berlin Prize last year and spent the fall of 2011 in Germany as a fellow at the American Academy working on a new novel, entitled Kindness. He was recently bowled over by Grant Gee’s documentary Joy Division and highly recommends it.
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