New Wave to Shiny Pop
Blondie had its first hit in the 1970s, but in 1980 the band took center stage with the New Wave hit “Call Me.” New Wave music, with its urgent, straight beat, and its often ironic lyrics, was related to the punk rock movement of the late ’70s, but was far more commercially palatable. The early ’80s would be the high water mark for New Wave, spawning a passel of groups, like the Cars, the B-52′s, Flock of Seagulls, Talking Heads, New Order, the Motels, Gary Numan, the Police, Elvis Costello, Culture Club, Devo, and the Eurythmics. A minor band from the New Wave school was Romeo Void, whose song “Never Say Never,” featured one of the genre’s most memorable lyrics: “I might like you better if we slept together.”

In contrast with the emptiness of disco (which had died quickly) and the urbanity of New Wave, many listeners hungered for some real red meat – and Bruce Springsteen gave it to them. He had released his masterful Born to Run album back in 1975, and while it yielded no hit singles, it earned him heavy FM radio play. In 1981 he scored a solid hit with “Hungry Heart,” which displayed his talents for empathizing with the common man. Also notable this year was Diana Ross’s gay anthem, “I’m Coming Out,” which would be played every Saturday night in every gay club in America for the next two decades, if not beyond.

The pop music of 1982 had a shiny, glossy sound, as exemplified by Olivia Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical.” (Which, ten years after Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” proclamation of feminism, showed that the public now accepted a bluntly sexual woman.) Other hits with a glossy sheen included Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” and the Go-Go’s “We Got The Beat.” In keeping with the soft-focus mood, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder collaborated on “Ebony and Ivory,” a tuneful bit of pop fluff. (McCartney would team with Michael Jackson to produce 1984′s forgettable “Say Say Say,” proving that it’s not always a good idea for musical giants to work together.)

This year was dominated by two mega-smash hit albums. Michael Jackson’s Thriller sold so many zillions of copies it almost required an extra fleet of trucks to keep record stores stocked. Its hits included “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and the title cut, as Jackson rightfully crowned himself the King of Pop. Almost equally big was the Police’s Syncronicity, which launched “Every Breath You Take,” “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” and “King Of Pain” into heavy rotation. Between these two pop leviathans there was hardly radio air time for other 1983 stars, like Culture Club, Human League, Prince, the Pretenders, and Duran, Duran.

Bruce Springsteen had his biggest year this year, released the multi-million selling Born In the U.S.A., spawning the radio hit “Dancing In The Dark,” among others. Also reigning supreme was Tina Turner, with her earthy voice and ’60s rock pedigree, and Prince, whose Purple Rain sold 13 million copies and spent a jaw-dropping six months at No. 1. Outshining them all – eventually – would be Madonna, whose Like A Virgin would be her first hit album, scoring a handful of chart-toppers, including the “Material Girl,” “Angel,” and “Dress You Up.” Over the decades Madonna would cling tenaciously to the hit charts, and by the year 2000 it was estimated she had sold 120 million records worldwide, becoming the most successful female singer of all time.

Some groups experience massive fame before they disappear and are quickly forgotten, and 1985′s Wham! – who spelled their name with an exclamation point! – is one such flash in the pan. The duo’s “Careless Whisper” and “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” were enormous hits, only to be cast into the cut-out bin some 24 months later. Proving more substantial was “We Are The World,” the multi-artist hit single whose proceeds were donated to famine relief in Africa. Featuring vocals by more than 20 stars, from Tina Turner to Bob Dylan to Cindi Lauper to Billy Joel, the single sold over 3 million copies. On April 5, 1985, 5,000 radio stations played the song at the same time.

Pop music had one of its weak years this year, as the flaccid pablum of “That’s What Friends Are For,” recorded by Dionne Warwick, enjoyed massive success. Also finding great success with lackluster product were Mr. Mister (no, we don’t remember them either) with “Broken Wings,” and Lionel Richie’s soporific “Say You Say Me.” You’d need to go to a Holiday Inn lounge to hear anything from 1986 still being played today. The notable exceptions were Cindi Lauper’s pensive “True Colors,” and Run D.M.C.’s inspired remake of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” which would be cultural landmark in its melding of rock and rap styles.

U2 would lay claim to rock superstardom this year with “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With You Or Without You.” Having less commercial success, but pointing to a musical tidal wave on the way, was the Beastie Boys rap hit, “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party).” Rap was the most creative breath of musical energy since Paul and John picked up a guitar. It had originated in the ghettos of New York and Los Angeles in the late ’70s, but saw only modest radio play in the ’80s. The success of the Beastie Boys – white artists finding early acceptance for an originally black art form, a recurrent theme in pop music – gave notice that rap was on its way.

Tracy Chapman’s folkie-sensitive homage to endangered dreams, “Fast Car,” suggested that folk music might enjoy a resurgence – but no. Instead, this year’s big hits had the glossy sound that characterized much of pop throughout the ’80s: Gloria Estefan, George Micheal, Belinda Carlisle, Micheal Jackson – all these artists’ music sported a highly polished sheen. In contrast, a few of this year’s bands favored a raw sound, like the boozy Guns ‘n’ Roses and head-bangers Def Leppard.

One of the year’s biggest groups was Milli Vanilli, the slickly-produced dance-pop duo who sold millions of albums and won a Grammy. But the following year, the duo was exposed – gasp – as fakers. The public learned that the two weren’t actually singing at all, they were merely lip-syncing to the tracks of studio musicians. The decade’s dominant sound had been overproduced, studio-heavy tracks, polished within a half inch of perfection – exactly the Milli Vanilli sound. The duo became the shining example – the shiniest example – of the artistic emptiness of this often mechanical, artificial sound. Milli Vanilli was stripped of their Grammy, and comedians had a field day making jokes about lip-syncing.