Attack of the 80s

Café Slavia

Dear listeners, it’s always a pleasure to tell you about all of the interesting things that we experience and see in the Czech Republic. But this time I’m venting some expat anguish. There are things, you know, that we foreigners don’t like about the Czech Republic. There just aren’t many. This, however, is one of them, for me. To get the full impact, I’ll ask you to close your eyes… You’re in an old Prague café. Maybe one where Einstein lunched. It’s plush, definitely romantic. The coffee isn’t even bad in this place. All the senses are at peace, except for one.

That’s not the absinth kicking in, my friend, that’s Debbie Gibson, and if you don’t remember her, it might well be because you don’t frequent the pubs and cafés of the Czech Republic much, where bad music reigns supreme. At first you might not notice it, in short stays you can tolerate it, but after years of bar-hopping you start to feel you’re in a ripple of space-time that creates a wormhole between the Czech Republic and 1986.

You might say ‘what’s the problem, if you don’t like the music you can leave the café’. But that’s where the real crime begins; 80s music has a particular ability to get stuck in your head, and it’s when you leave the café that you discover the mental damage that’s been done. In these cases even good eighties songs can cause temporary insanity. Did you know that Kool and the Gang sing the word ‘celebrate’ 34 times in that song?

Last week I was sitting in the most famous Prague café of all, Café Slavia, where Jaroslav Seifert used to sit by the window onto Národní Street writing Nobel Prize winning poems. When the tuxedoed pianist came out, cracked his knuckles and played Phil Collins, I suddenly had the saddest imagine of Seifert sitting petrified in the window like a mannequin, with a perm, a white jacket and a lot of chest hair.

A Czech friend once said to me ‘travel is completely different for you Americans and Brits, because wherever you go, you have your music’. But I don’t think anybody who visits the Czech Republic appreciates that in any way. And as for Czechs themselves, I don’t actually know any passionate fans of 25-year-old pop music, in fact most people I know have rather discerning musical tastes, but simply abide it when they’re forced to listen to junk music.

It’s time for Czech restaurants cafés and radio stations to move on. Even Debbie Gibson moved on. She’s an actress now. Her latest film is called Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus.

What happened to the boisterous singing and fiddles in the pub’s that the Good Soldier Švejk sat in? Or to the phrase Co Čech, to muzikant, “he who is Czech, is a musician”? Some people tell me it’s the communists who killed traditional ethos, turning pubs from social centres into drinking holes for tired and bored workers. Was Kundera sitting in Slavia listening to terrible music when he wrote about kitsch in the Unbearable Lightness of Being? The makers of the film version got that impression in any case, when they boiled his arguments down to the scene where the couple is sitting in the restaurant musing over the uglification of the world. ‘Could you stop that noise?’ they ask the waiter, referring to the background music. ‘It sounds like dirty water.’ ‘The other customers like this noise,’ he retorts defensively and is met with the obvious question: ‘How can they eat food and listen to shit?’