Friday, November 18, 2016

Billboard Top Ten November 17, 1984

For the past week and a half it has been very difficult for me to write about anything except for the rise of a racist, incompetent, misogynistic authoritarian to the presidency of the United States. I feel like taking a breather tonight with an old top ten chart. I chose this one because it was what people were listening to after Reagan's re-election, the moment where movement conservatism's hold on power was definitively cemented. It was also a time when those wanting a more fair and just America were in despair, as they are now. Not surprisingly, there's a lot of music on this list that's escapist or reveling in the excess of the 80s. And now, on with the countdown.

10. Lionel Richie, "Penny Lover"

Richie, the Judas of funk, had long left the Commodores by this point, and ruled the charts in the mid-1980s. This here is a standard pop soul ballad of the time with an easy groove, electric piano, gated snare, and reverby production. Richie seems to have found that place he had been searching for: the absolute middle of the road.

9. Cyndi Lauper, "All Through The Night"

Cyndi Lauper was another artist who had her peak in the mid-1980s. The sparkly synths have a little New Wave in them, but the melody is much more Top 40. She gives the song just that little dose of emotional yearning, the thing that made her ballads like this and "True Colors" and "Time After Time" more believable than the others on the charts at the time. I still can't help getting drawn in.

8. Sheena Easton, "Strut"

The drums hit you at the start, big and 80s-tastic with the slappy bass preferred by producers at the time. Also along for the ride are some bright horns and wriggly synths. It's a real time capsule, but funkier than the rest of the songs on this chart. It can be interpreted as a feminist song, but of the self-empowerment variety so well suited to the Reagan era.

7. Tina Turner, "Better Be Good To Me"

Tina Turner's renaissance in 1984 is one of the greatest comeback stories in popular music. While "What's Love Got To Do With It" was her most memorable moment, she cut some other good tracks, too. This song is more of a rocker, indicative of how in 1984 rock and R&B were melded into the reigning top 40 sound. The backing music is very basic, but she gives it her gruff Tina snarl, investing the song with way more heft and passion than others would have been able to give it. I was fascinated by Turner's songs back then because their perspective was so *adult*. This song is a middle-aged woman letting her suitor know that she's too old and wise to mess around with a man who won't treat her right. That kind of adult perspective seems to be totally absent from pop music today, which has become an entirely teenage domain.

6. Hall and Oates, "Out of Touch

I'll admit, I LOVED this song back then. The splashy production, the catchy chorus, the big beat. My opinion has changed, mostly because I see this period as a departure from Hall and Oates' more soulful beginning. Their earlier hits had more musicianship and groove, this song is like a bright shiny car fresh off of the 80s top 40 assembly line. It's a good model, but I'd rather listen to something less plastic. 

5. Stevie Wonder, "I Just Called To Say I Love You"

Okay, confession time: this song was my introduction to Stevie Wonder. Sad, huh? Nowadays I am a huge fan of his funky 70s peaks, and this song really pales in comparison. But even though this is hardly a "Superstition" or "Higher Ground," it's good for what it is. I hear it as a sweet little pop confection similar to "My Cherie Amour." Like that song it's damn pretty and catchy. 

4. Chaka Khan, "I Feel For You"

Oh man I loved this song back in the day. My local top 40 station growing up in rural Nebraska didn't play any rap music, but the start of this song gave me a bit of a taste. The record scratching blew my mind, but I liked the song's groove and the bright Stevie Wonder-esque harmonica. When it came on the radio it was like a sunburst cutting through the room. Sure the beats are spewed out metronomically by a computer, by Chaka Khan delivers a whole lot of soul on the vocal. This song is a good reminder that the 80s produced some good top 40 dance music.

3. Billy Ocean, "Caribbean Queen"

The mid-80s produced a lot of minor key pop songs with jaunty tempos that could only be played after dark. This is the sound of driving rain on slick city streets underneath pale lamplight on a murky night. Its darkness and mysteriousness are even more compounded by some classic 80s sultry sax. This is one of those rare 80s-tastic songs that still holds up despite being a total product of its time.

2, Prince and the Revolution, "Purple Rain"

2016 has been tough for music fans with the passing of so many great musicians, with Prince at the top of the list with David Bowie. This was not as big a hit as "Let's Go Crazy" or "When Doves Cry" or as resonant, but it's still a great song. Listening to this after all these other songs shows just how innovative and original Prince was; this sounds very different than the other songs on the countdown. The music is deep and the emotions complicated rather than typical love song stuff.

1. Wham! "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go"

Well, right here we have a prime specimen of 80s escapism. As Reagan was ripping the social contract to shreds, everyone was dancing to mindless music like this, sung by a hunky Brit in an oversized "Choose Life" t-shirt and hypercolor short shorts. It feels more like a parody of the 80s than anything else, an exercise in camp. There are elements of Motown soul here, but drained of feeling and replaced with the hair-sprayed sheen of empty 80s consumer culture. In the midst of growing inequality and the AIDS crisis the denizens of the mall just kept on dancing to songs like this. Despite its brightness, I find it to be such a sinister song considering the context.

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