By Francesco Ciabattoni (“Italy’s Cantatutori in the 1980s”, in La memoria delle canzoni. Popular music e identità italiana, ed. by Alessandro Carrera, Puntoacapo, 2017, pp. 142-143)

If the songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s attempted to reconcile the twofold soul of the Italian people, a nation in transition from its rural tradition to a new urban identity, in the 1980s the entertainment industry tried to turn the ears of the Italians toward a hedonistic appreciation of disengaged musical subjects. This cultural switch, however, also paved the way for a renewal of the themes and language of the Italian song. Guido Crainz lucidly summarizes the changed situation: newspapers featured fewer and fewer political debates, leaving the first page to the private concerns of an adulterous house wife from Cinisello Balsamo or the middle-age crisis of a fifty-year old Milanese professional. Journalist Eugenio Scalfari, commenting on the rampant success of actor John Travolta’s hit movie Saturday Night Fever, which seemed to occupy the minds of the youths more than the news of Brigate Rosse’s tragic kidnapping and murder of Democrazia Cristiana leader Aldo Moro, observed, “Il travoltismo attira i giovani molto più delle lotte” (Travoltism draws the young much more than political debates) (Crainz, Autobiografia, p. 130). This new paradigm of society’s concerns was therefore characterized by a withdrawal into the private sphere and was labeled riflusso (backflow) in opposition to the heated debates about collective issues that marked the previous decades.
In this essay, I will survey the singer-songwriters who emerged in the 1980s as well as those from the previous decade who were still active during this time and show how the new disengaged themes and forgetfulness of riflusso coexisted with residues of a lasting but hidden political discourse. Significantly, some of the most politically engaged voices of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Claudio Lolli and Ivan della Mea, remained almost silent during the 1980s.
An overt disquiet breaks out in Pierangelo Bertoli’s (1942-2002) Riflusso (Certi momenti, 1981): “Si parla sotto voce o nel chiuso delle stanze, nessuno canta più di libertà / adesso che è una colpa solo avere un’opinione, … Chissà se guarderemo i nostri figli apertamente dicendo almeno adesso tocca a voi / o scuoteremo il capo come un branco di imbecilli spiegando quali esempi siamo noi / racconteremo storie come reduci noiosi o forse fingeremo dignità / oppure gli offriremo fumo, sesso e disimpegno, le perle della nostra eredità?” (People speak quietly or closed in their rooms, no one sings of freedom any more / now it’s a fault even to have an opinion, … Who knows if we’ll look at our children and say openly at least now it’s up to you / or if we’ll shake our heads like a bunch of imbeciles and explain what great examples we have been / and tell stories like boring veterans or maybe we will fake dignity / or we’ll offer them pot, sex and disengagement, as the pearls of our legacy?). The notion of riflusso did not, however, have a negative connotation for everyone: Mike Bongiorno, anchorman of the 1979 edition of the Festival di Sanremo (Italy’s most famous music contest) commented: “Stiamo tornando … a quei valori e a quegli affetti che avevamo dimenticato. Anche i ragazzi della contestazione stanno cambiando. Vogliono ballare e divertirsi con John Travolta, sono stanchi di tirare sassi. … Stiamo forse ritrovando l’unione e l’equilibrio.” (We are going back … to those values and affections we had forgotten. Even the youths of the years of the protest are changing. They want to dance and have fun with John Travolta, they are tired of throwing stones … Maybe we are finding harmony and balance again) (1986: 189). In this tidal shift of perspective, mainstream music celebrated itself in the lavish choreographies of the Festival di Sanremo while a new generation of cantautori took advantage of the changed atmosphere to explore novel themes and communication codes that were distinctly remote from social engagement.