Author Talk: 1984 – Pop Music’s Greatest Year
360°Sound spoke with author Michelangelo Matos about his new book Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year (out now on Hachette Books). Matos has written about music for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, GQ and Vice. Can’t Slow Down is his third book. He also wrote The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America and a 33 1/3 book on Prince’s Sign O’ the Times album. In Can’t Slow Down, Matos makes a strong case for 1984 being pop music’s greatest year.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
360: Of all the years, why did you choose 1984?
Michelangelo Matos: So much was going on at every level [in 1984]. The post-punk/indie/college radio/independent venue label structure was in place. One of the crucial quotes in the book is from Julie Farman. She had been the booker of the Rathskeller, the Rat, [a live music venue] in Boston. She said, ‘We didn’t distinguish between Metallica and the Violent Femmes. If they were on an independent label, if they were doing it on their own, they were the same.’ There was a real egalitarian ethos going on in the underground back then. That was important. That was a counterweight to the big news-driven stuff elsewhere in the book.
Indie rock has an amazing year. Hip-hop has a transformative year. Radio is better than it’s been in 20 years. Radio in ‘84 was amazing. I was a kid listening to it; ’84 was just incredible because everybody upped their game. All the people wanted to get on the radio with good music. It wasn’t simply formulaic, and it became very formulaic in the late ‘80s.
There was a real sense that the center of pop was something worth going for. This flew in the face of years of radio segmentation, and even the early years of MTV, which was essentially a rock station. They played a lot of the same stuff as they played on album rock radio. That was a lot of what was available, but it was also pretty narrowly formatted, they didn’t play any Black music, unless it was like rock.
By ‘83 and ‘84, there’s this radically inclusive ethos going on in radio and in MTV. Michael Jackson breaks the mold. I wouldn’t say the floodgates opened on MTV, it wasn’t suddenly inundated with Black artists, but it was much more open than it had been. Crossover was the name of game kind of everywhere. Everything I talk about in the book is related in some way to crossover. How do they react to this idea? In some cases, they reject it outright, which is the case with indie rock. In some cases, they embrace it wholeheartedly, but on their own terms, like Run-DMC.
Run-DMC is making fun of the rock ‘n roll tropes of the time. You look at the “King of Rock” video from 1985 and they’re stomping on Michael Jackson’s glove. They’re in opposition to that, even though they’re gunning for the center. They’re playing Live Aid, they’re headlining tours, they’re reaching audiences that a few years earlier wouldn’t have been available to them. They probably would have been kept in the Black music ghetto. Hip-hop is really interesting because in this period it’s becoming more and more obvious that white people love this music. This is not like, ‘We have to soft-pedal this so white people buy it.’ White people bought it immediately.
I especially enjoyed the chapter about album-oriented rock (AOR) and the resurgence of Top 40 radio.
Thank you, I think that may be my favorite chapter. I appreciate that because nobody looks at that moment much. What you start to see now is what I’ll just refer to broadly, and maybe at my peril, is Pitchfork revisionism. Like suddenly in the mid-‘80s AOR has a certain fascination for younger listeners. There’s a certain historicity to it. This was the classic rock that people didn’t get shoved down their throats except at the time, and even then, most of it wasn’t very successful. I thought at first this was just going to be the power ballad chapter, but then I came to realize this is the AOR chapter because AOR was the only rock that was getting on the radio, in the later ‘80s especially.
The mid-‘80s is interesting because it’s a lot of guitar-driven pop-rock or just rock that gets on pop Top 40, it’s part of the mix. As the ‘80s progress, that ground is ceded almost entirely to hair metal bands. So, the younger bands are getting these songs on the radio, but at that point, it was a free for all. Van Halen and Don Henley could get on pop radio. These guys were aiming at pop radio.
There hadn’t yet been that divide, which is what happens after classic rock radio comes in as a format, which begins in earnest in ‘85. Prior to that, most of the artists from the ‘60s and ‘70s are not aiming specifically for the adult market. They want to make hits. They see themselves as hitmakers. Don Henley has been making hits since 1971. By this point, the whole marketplace is upside down from where it had been three years earlier because of MTV. MTV changed rock more than anything else. It changed hip-hop to a degree later on, but MTV didn’t make hip-hop what it became. MTV made rock what it became.
What were some ways in which MTV changed rock?
Well, you had to be young and good-looking. That’s the biggest change. You had to be young, good-looking, and/or hire a fashionable director who knew how to get around your manifest limitations as eye candy. That would be ZZ Top. Probably of any artist whose career began in the 1960s, ZZ Top adapted to MTV better than anyone. They found this guy who put them in videos, and he turned them into Alfred Hitchcock doing a cameo. Their whole mission was to stand there and look cool while all this other shit went on around them. It was perfect.
How did the music of 1984 influence the pop music to come?
I would say as much as anything it was how the business of music could work. [With Thriller], suddenly it wasn’t enough to have an album sell a million records and maybe get a single off of it. Suddenly nearly every song needs to be a hit single. A pop album had to be six singles deep. That’s what Thriller did.
When you look at the albums that were nominated for Album of the Year at the 1985 Grammys, which cover October ‘83 through September ’84, Cyndi Lauper’s first album, Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down, Purple Rain, Born in the U.S.A. and Tina Turner’s Private Dancer. There were 27 [Top 40] hit singles total off those albums. Springsteen had seven, Prince had five, Cyndi Lauper had five, Lionel Richie had five, and Tina Turner had five. That’s insane. Up until that moment, it was unprecedented.
Here’s a perfect example, Carol King sold 10 million copies of Tapestry, which came out in [February of] ‘71. Her next album came out [in December that year]. In ‘71, the music business didn’t go, ‘This thing is a runaway train, maybe we should sit back for a while and release some more singles and really milk this thing.’ That wasn’t in the playbook until later.
When you look at the big late ‘70s albums that have a lot of hits, Rumours, Hotel California, and Saturday Night Fever, those are all from ‘77. That didn’t become the playbook until Thriller. Those were flukes. They were flukish in the way Tapestry was flukish or Bridge Over Troubled Water was flukish, that they sold 10 million records, which was unheard of. The Beatles might sell that but nobody else. The biz reacts to this in a different way than it would later, which is we’re just gonna keep the treadmill going. You’ve got another album due. There was never any sense that we’d try to turn this into a bonanza for themselves. By ‘84, that’s the playbook, that’s what changes the most.
Editor’s Note: According to the Billboard Year-End charts, the top pop singles in 1984 were:
- “When Doves Cry” – Prince
- “What’s Love Got To Do With It” – Tina Turner
- “Say Say Say” – Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson
- “Footloose” – Kenny Loggins
- “Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)” – Phil Collins
- “Jump” – Van Halen
- “Hello” – Lionel Richie
- “Owner of a Lonely Heart” – Yes
- “Ghostbusters” – Ray Parker, Jr.
- “Karma Chameleon” – Culture Club
The top pop albums were:
- Thriller – Michael Jackson
- Sports – Huey Lewis & The News
- Can’t Slow Down – Lionel Richie
- An Innocent Man – Billy Joel
- Colour By Numbers – Culture Club
- 1984 – Van Halen
- Eliminator – ZZ Top
- Synchronicity – The Police
- Footloose soundtrack
- Seven And The Ragged Tiger – Duran Duran