Music Features

Obsessions and Lamentations #5 - Big Chill Edition

1)   What Hath The Big Chill Wrought?

I guess because it’s the 25th anniversary of the film’s release, the Today show had part of the cast of The Big Chill on for some fond reminiscences. Fine. I relish any opportunity I get to watch Jeff Goldblum riff. I even thought the movie was pretty good. At least I did back in 1983, before its insidious influence had fully infected the cultural bloodstream. But it’s worth reflecting that the phenomenon that surrounded the film led directly to such semi-popular travesties as “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “I Love the 80s”, which are two symptoms of the same disease. On the one hand, we started with a well-written ensemble film starring a troupe of gifted actors, and quickly degenerated into showpieces for handsome, marginally talented celebrities that the “Ocean” films have done little to atone for. Even worse, the “10 wacky people in a house” routine has been picked up and beaten to death by reality tv. On the other hand, The Big Chill almost singlehandedly made nostalgia a permanent industry, turning our attention ever backwards, pummeling living art in the process. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but can you name any enduring artistic advance or lasting achievement made in the wake of the film’s release to the present day? I’m talking about seismic events that change or shape the way people think. Don’t worry, you can get back to me. 
Actually, Lawrence Kasdan can’t be blamed, because he was just reflecting what he saw when he looked around. The society with not much to look forward to inevitably looks back to the halcyon days, when paradigm shifts and thought revolutions were commonplace. And since his breakthrough film debuted, we’ve been stuck in a collective rut; what Chuck Klosterman called the “profound nostalgia for the recent past”. I don’t care if it’s “I Love 1985” or “I Love 2008” (which is probably being produced as I write), it’s all the same meaningless junk. 
In music, 1983 was also the year that, with the explosion of Thriller, marked the death blow for any kind of challenging statement trying to break through to the mainstream. Bubblegum and corn has always had a place in popular music, but after Michael Jackson it triumphed. Now the charts are filled with cold, safe, bloodless product. Ironic, because Thriller at its core was anything but bloodless and cold, but the sound was a huge step in that direction, picking up where disco left off. Now, the once tortured emotion of R&B is buried under a torrent of melisma, and mainstream rock isn’t worth dignifying with a snark. Those boomers in The Big Chill were connecting with those hits, HITS!, from the sixties because at that time the record companies had yet to figure out how to remove the emotion from musical performance and replace it with a reasonable facsimile. Is there anything on the charts today that can compare with the sorrow of Tracks Of My Tears, the devotion of My Girl, the desperation of I Heard it Through the Grapevine, or the joy of A Natural Woman? Why do you think people put Kurt Cobain on such a pedestal? Because it was probably the last time anything real actually made it onto the Billboard 100. 
The Big Chill gets a bad rap today mainly because it was such a high profile showcase for the narcissism of the Baby Boomer Generation, and rightly so. But it was also about something real, something that’s missing now, something that people hunger for and will only find with the most robust search engine available. Unfortunately, it said goodbye to what it loved just as it helped usher in all that it bemoaned. A dubious legacy indeed.