The Museum of the City of New York’s latest exhibit, New York, New Music: 1980–1986—which examines music in 1980s NYC—begins in a long hallway. Visitors, flanked by photos of punk, hip-hop, salsa, and avant-garde classical artists, can be forgiven for missing a small screen, shaped like an antenna television, that plays interviews on a loop. In one 30-second snippet, trumpeter Steven Bernstein explains, “until Madonna … nobody knew about what was going on in New York.” Even the hippest residents often “wouldn’t know where to go” each night.
Now, 1980s music has become anything but underground. Perhaps spurred by the cost of once artistically vibrant downtown neighborhoods like the East Village and SoHo, nostalgia for the decade has reached new heights. Fab 5 Freddy, Charlie Ahearn, and Larry Levan have their own archival collections housed in world-renowned universities and libraries. Tim Lawrence’s Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor, 1980–1983—which brilliantly chronicles the eclecticism of the era—can be found in nearly every bookstore. Indeed, New York, New Music: 1980–1986 is just one of many local exhibits devoted to 1980s culture. Over the past few years, MoMA recreated much of Club 57 and a Williamsburg loft hosted the world’s largest graffiti exhibit. This year, old-school legends like Grandmaster Flash and Grandmaster Caz recently broke ground on the Universal Hip Hop Museum, slated to open in the Bronx in 2024.
No exhibit better captures the decade’s musical mélange than New York, New Music: 1980–1986, though the show itself tells the story incompletely, indicative of the challenge of exhibiting musical culture from this, or any, era. Posters, concert flyers, ticket stubs, and newspaper articles adorn the walls, as visitors watch music videos and live concert footage projected onto three big screens. Past the hallway entrance, they reach the main attraction—a large gallery room to the left. There, they read about seminal concerts that helped shape distinctive scenes. A 1980 CBGB’s show by Jean-Michel Basquait’s group Gray, sheds light on how No Wave bands, with their discordant, improvisatory sound, infiltrated punk meccas. The Talking Heads’s performance in Central Park that same year shows how downtown darlings sonically expanded punk and New Wave traditions by incorporating funk, jazz, and West African Afrobeat into their repertoire. A pivotal 1985 performance by the Fort Apache Band shows how uptown Latinx performers excitedly melded salsa and jazz traditions.
While the exhibit ambitiously examines no fewer than nine musical subcultures, the viewer may mistakenly assume that these scenes were disconnected. Although the opening gallery text promises to explore “a dynamic period in New York music and nightlife” characterized by “cross-pollination of ideas across disparate communities,” the latter point is sometimes lost. The wall text discusses just two instances in which artists from different racial and class backgrounds partied in person. In 1981, Blondie’s Debbie Harry 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 nonwhite hip-hoppers and white punks. According to the exhibit, “Eventually, the ‘uptown’ of hip-hop met the ‘downtown’ of new wave and they inspired each other.” This is something of an understatement. As the Funky 4’s MC Sha-Rock explains in a taped interview, “We were received in a way that made us feel good. … We sort of like mingled with punk rockers.” Although the exhibit notes how, by the early 1980s, downtown clubs began hosting weekly hip-hop shows, it does not mention how these and disco and salsa concerts attracted mixed-race crowds from across the city.
Unfortunately, New York, New Music: 1980–1986 often obscures the true impact of this wildly creative era. In the 1980s, diverse musicians helped integrate the downtown arts scene and briefly connected a city separated by race and class. Clubgoers and artists certainly appreciated this: Mike Diamond of the Beastie Boys once proclaimed that “you had a totally integrated club scene, which has never been the case anywhere in America and isn’t the case in New York now. And it was wide open musically.” One disco devotee remembered how Levan brought “many different people from all walks of life together. We grew up together, as a family.”
Unfortunately, patrons do not hear these stories. Without gallery text to guide them, they must draw their own conclusions as they pass photos of Talking Heads’s bassist Tina Weymouth posing giddily with Grandmaster Flash, and watch multi-racial revelers dance on the Paradise Garage dance floor. We see the pulsating joy of 1980s scenes, but are told little about the mixed-race interactions that made this period unique.
Of course, the Museum of the City of New York is hardly alone in struggling to articulate the unifying power of music. As a scholar of post-World War II New York music, I am keenly aware of how racially stratified studies of popular culture can be. We lack a coherent vocabulary to discuss musicians who sought to combat sonic and social segregation. Terms like “cross-pollination,” “cross-cultural interaction,” and “cross-cultural exchange” are jargony and confusing. “Miscegenation” carries the baggage of 20th-century outrage at interracial marriage and sex. Sadly, segregation within the record industry and American society, as a whole, has hampered studies of integrated musical scenes.
Yet in the 1980s Black, brown, Latinx, and white New Yorkers did meet at mixed-race clubs. Dancing allowed them to momentarily escape their segregated lives and interact with people from different backgrounds. The best historical works—whether they are popular articles, scholarly books, or museum exhibits—encourage us to emulate those who fought for more equitable societies. Given our current racial reckoning, we should look to musicians, who in the 1980s briefly integrated New York’s downtown arts scene. Despite the exhibition’s many successes, it missed an opportunity to give these trailblazers their full due. Here’s hoping that future works seize upon music’s ability to transgress racialized boundaries.