When he began exploring the many windows into what he considers the biggest year ever for pop music, Twin Cities author Michaelangelo Matos saw a giant opening in the Grammy Award nominations list for best albums of 1984.
And the nominees were …
“Purple Rain” by Prince & the Revolution; “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen; “Private Dancer” by Tina Turner; “She’s So Unusual” by Cyndi Lauper; and “Can’t Slow Down” by Lionel Richie.
“That’s the pop music version of the 1927 Yankees,” Matos emphatically declared. “Every one of them was a major hitter.”
And the winner was …
“Can’t Slow Down,” which now doubles as the title of Matos’ new book, subtitled “How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year.”
Also a writer for the New Yorker and an alumnus of City Pages, Matos counted up a whopping 26 songs off those five ubiquitous albums that became U.S. Top 40 hits; 22 even made it to the Top 10.
Throw in Michael Jackson’s still-gyrating “Thriller” (which swept the Grammys the year before) and Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” (which the Grammys characteristically snubbed) — along with the powder-keg explosion of MTV into living rooms across America — and you can easily understand Matos’ premise.
Out Tuesday from Hachette Books, “Can’t Slow Down” not only dives into the back stories of these albums, but also looks at what was happening in the record and radio industries at the time as well as the world events that shaped them.
FM radio in the early ’80s had become weighed down by lightweight “album-oriented rock” (AOR) such as Toto and Air Supply. Many Black artists at the time were relegated to R&B departments at the big record companies — even Jackson, who infamously couldn’t get regular MTV rotation before “Billie Jean.”
Matos makes a case in his book that his hometown hero Prince was as key as MJ in changing things: “Jackson was the avalanche, but Prince was the test case for breaking AOR and MTV’s color lines,” he writes, foreshadowing a Black renaissance in pop music that also carried Richie, Turner and later Whitney Houston to the fore in the mid-’80s.
Said Matos, “If Prince hadn’t put out ‘Little Red Corvette’ [in 1983], ‘Thriller’ probably would not have caught on like it did.”
Prince’s innovative use of synthesizers and his androgynous/glam look also became bellwethers of the era, styles simultaneously popularized by the British bands then exploding via MTV such as Boy George’s Culture Club, Wham!, the Eurythmics and Duran Duran.
Even the “metal” bands of the day such as Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard and Mötley Crüe began to heavily apply synths and makeup in 1984 to become some of rock’s all-time biggest sellers.
Matos said his chapter on these hair bands was among his favorite to write, even though he admitted/bragged, “I just never went through a metal phase.”
“Which is unusual for someone of my background,” added the Richfield native, who was 9 in 1984.
“Those bands at that time all managed to do something metal bands had never done before, which is cross over enough to catch the attention of young girls who previously would never have listened to, say, Manowar.”
Taken for granted
It might be surprising that Matos was so heavily invested in the main pop stars in his book.
Referring to his formative teen years as being “very much a Sunday-night-dance-party-at-First-Avenue kid,” he’s been known to cover much less mainstream artists as a journalist — particularly EDM, which was the subject of his previous book, “The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America.”
“I think that’s the City Pages and Village Voice background in me,” he said. “I’ve always kept my eyes on the pop charts and the underground at the same time.
“That’s partly a Twin Cities thing, or a First Avenue thing, where you might have a bill like Atmosphere with Lifter Puller and Dillinger Four. We weren’t a big enough city with enough going for everyone to exclusively stick to one niche or another.”
Matos also showed a bit of shrewdness in recognizing what he believes to be a dearth of books on this era’s mainstream music — aside from the many Prince, Springsteen and Jackson biographies.
“Nobody really told the narrative of how everything exploded at once,” he said. “There are more books on underground rock and hip-hop in the ’80s than there is on the popular stuff.”
He does spend one chapter apiece going into those hip-hop and indie-rock subcultures. Minneapolis’ Replacements and Hüsker Dü factor heavily in the latter with their 1984 albums “Let It Be” and “Zen Arcade.”
“Those chapters are there as a reminder that all this groundbreaking stuff was going on outside the mainstream, but it would later become the mainstream,” he explained.
Maybe the ultimate indicator that Matos’ book focuses on the less cool, more mainstream pop of the day is that he picked Richie’s album for the title.
Let’s face it: Of all the acts high on the list here, ol’ Lionel’s mushy ballads and cheesy music videos haven’t endured as well as most. Still, Matos points out, “at the time, Lionel was as big or bigger than all of them.”
“I think ‘Three Times a Lady’ is corny as hell, too, but it’s a standard. He made honest-to-goodness standards, and he wrote, recorded and produced them all himself, which even [Jackson] didn’t do at that point.”
While he hasn’t ruled out writing more on this era and these artists, Matos said there really is not an effective “Part Two” of his book.
“The late-’80s became terrible years for radio, and the big stars of the day became a lot more superfluous,” he said, singling out Paula Abdul and Vanilla Ice “and a lot more forgettable acts.”
As for the class of 1984, though, he marveled, “This stuff hasn’t gone away.
“Every single city in America of a certain size has an ’80s dance night going on somewhere in town. This music is still all over TV and the radio. It’s omnipresent to the point we really take it for granted.”
Not as much now.