December 31st 1989. The 1980s are drawing to a close. In the USA, Germany and Canada, the number one song is defined by its synthesizers, its poppy hooks and its drum machine rhythm. It’s ‘Another Day in Paradise’ by Phil Collins. But that description would fit a whole host of pop music releases, right up until the present day.
You don’t even have to reach too far to liken Collins’ 80s anthem to the current UK number one, Drake’s 808-heavy ‘God’s Plan’. Clearly, in many ways, the 80s never really ended. Pop music still draws on the era heavily for many of its major hits. Though many may despair at this predicament, there are a number of good reasons today’s major artists look back for inspiration.
There’s no denying the huge number of big name artists that came up in the 50s, 60s and 70s, but the 1980s took things to another level. With the help of MTV, singers were beamed into fans’ living rooms 24-hours a day. Along with the proliferation of music magazines and brand sponsorships, MTV helped the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna became integral parts of 80s pop culture. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing their songs or seeing their faces.
With the birth of social media, this trend has only continued. Pop stars are now seen as a whole package, their music wrapped up with their personalities, brand endorsements, political stances, and performances. Without a doubt this can be traced back to the MTV generation.
This parallel has led many present-day artists to consciously model themselves on their predecessors. Lady Gaga drew Madonna comparisons in the early 2010s for her headline-grabbing fashion sense. The Weeknd has spoken about his efforts to become this generation’s Michael Jackson. “I can never be Michael Jackson or do what he did,” the singer told Pitchfork, “but he is definitely a good inspiration: I want to give the kids that feeling.”
It seems so strange to write this today, but in the 1980s, what’s now known as the Billboard Hot Hip-Hop/R&B Songs chart was genuinely called the “Hot Black Singles” chart. This reflected the industry mindset that music was created and consumed along racial lines. While R&B songs had found success on the main Hot 100 chart before, it was during the 1980s that this racial distinction became rapidly outdated.
The boundaries were broken down by colossal hits like Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ and Prince’s ‘Little Red Corvette’, both of which topped the Black and mainstream (implied white) charts. These songs led MTV to finally break its unspoken ‘whites only’ rule.
As well as reducing racial stereotyping in the way music was marketed, songs like these paved the way for other hits to come from outside ‘mainstream’ genres. The biggest legacy of this today is hip-hop’s recent domination of the pop charts, even though the genre still has a Billboard chart of its own. Before long, hip-hop will have become just as mainstream as today’s R&B.
Synth-heavy soundscapes were born in the 1980s. The likes of Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra developed computer instruments in the preceding years, and before long they began to work their way into pop singles. The Roland 808 drum machine graced the charts in Marvin Gaye’s smash hit ‘Sexual Healing’. Boy George’s Culture Club classic ‘Karma Chameleon’ was a mixture of synths and live instruments. New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ was created almost entirely with synthesisers. The same can be said of hits like Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’.
Music producers today use similar techniques to create synthesised walls of sound. The ever-ubiquitous Max Martin has crafted music for Katy Perry and Taylor Swift that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in, well, 1989. Which brings us back to the beginning. Maybe it says something about the power of the 1980s that one of the biggest recent hit pop albums is actually named after that decade’s final year.