Styles & Forms | Eighties Pop

Although many would contend that 1980s pop was typified by an empty, aspirational overload of bad haircuts and cynical blandness, the decade produced many of pop’s most individual artists. In addition, it was arguably defined by 1985’s Live Aid – a global charity event unmatchable in its reach, and definitive in its marking of the period.

The pop of the 1980s was directly shaped by three developments, which significantly changed the musical marketplace. Firstly, the extraordinary technological leap that saw the humble synthesizer progress to the sampler, the sequencer, programmable drums and the practical, affordable means to replicate the sound of an entire orchestra at the touch of a button. Secondly, the advent of MTV and the success of the promo video meant that, as 1980s super-producer Trevor Horn’s Buggles sang in 1979, ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’. And, last but not least, the lines between ‘black’ and ‘white’ music became irrevocably blurred as, encouraged by the astonishing success of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, everyone chased the ultimate crossover dollar by mixing soul, rock, pop and disco into an increasingly homogeneous whole.

Pop’s New Royalty

Former child star Michael Jackson became the self-proclaimed King Of Pop during the 1980s, with his Quincy Jones-produced albums Off The Wall (1979) and Thriller (1982). They defined the new commercial rules: sophisticated dance-pop combined with pop melody and occasional rock raucousness; lyrical themes that flitted between the self-referential and the more general pop languages of love, sex and dancing; and massively expensive and lavish video promotions, with the television premiere of the 15-minute movie made for the ‘Thriller’ single synchronized into a global event. His sister Janet also threw off her teen-poppet image with the Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis-produced Control in 1986 – a tough, feminist soul-pop album that took her immediately out of Michael’s shadow.

Jam and Lewis’s Minneapolis funk band The Time numbered a pocket-sized but potent performer/singer/composer/multi-musician in their ranks by the name of Prince Rogers Nelson. His lascivious blend of funk, soul, pop and classic rock went supernova in 1984 with the soundtrack to his Purple Rain movie. His Hendrix-meets-Little-Richard-and-learns-James-Brown’s-dance-moves image seduced the world, and saw him go on to be the decade’s most talented and prolific pop prodigy.

Meanwhile, in New York, an ambitious ex-dancer was plotting her path to glory. The disco bounce of Madonna’s first hit, ‘Holiday’, progressed into cheeky, smart and unforgettable dance-pop in 1984’s ‘Like A Virgin’. Ms Ciccone then embarked on almost two decades of unparalleled pop invention and reinvention, seamlessly staying one step ahead of each pop trend without breaking a sweat.

The soul-pop crossover continued apace in the shape of two contrasting divas. Tina Turner had been a rock’n’soul star since the 1960s, but had disappeared into obscurity until enjoying a comeback smash with the Private Dancer album in 1984, featuring songwriting credits from the likes of Dire StraitsMark Knopfler and production work from the likes of British synth-popsters Heaven 17...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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