We give a lot of attention to the “decade” when it comes to our popular culture. Decades are defining, encompassing, even self-containing. We use them as markers of our times, of our influences, even of our loves. We use them as substitutes for expressing the things we share with others. “I’m a child of the 60s.” “I’m a child of the 80s.”
There’s no inherent reason why one ten-year period should be any more singular than another sequential ten years. Just like there’s no reason why the change from one year to another should be any more significant that another year change. The transition from 1979 to 1980 didn’t end one era abruptly and begin another that was all that different. Like most things cultural, if you know where and how to look, you can see the evolution of things over time. Some things evolve more quickly than others, some take a less straight line, but the process is always there.
But there is something about 1980.
A lot of what makes this year so special and so unique is the nostalgic hindsight of knowing the other nine years that followed it. When nostalgia and identity mix with that cultural tendency we have to build decades into something bigger, 1980 suddenly becomes some big turning point.
A bunch of groups who would be huge for the decade had albums released that year. Rush, The Police, Journey, Scorpions, Air Supply, John Cougar, Whitesnake, and even the Human League released albums. Most of the groups had previous releases in the 70s, but most also had bigger albums to come in the 80s.
Disco was in serious decline, but it was also in transformation in the music of people like Donna Summer, Michael Jackson, and Prince. Rock was transitioning, finding the middle ground between metal and glam, all wrapped in excess. And people like Anne Murray, Kenny Rogers, and Olivia Newton-John had pop hits, too.
These 5 songs are all special to me in some way, but they’re emblematic of the things to come in the decade. (One special mention goes out to Prince and his album Dirty Mind. It’s my second favorite Prince album of all-time, and it contains what just might be my favorite Prince song of all-time, “When You Were Mine.” But Prince doesn’t let his stuff stay up for very long on YouTube so all he gets is a shout-out.)
5. “Another One Bites the Dust” (Queen)
Queen is talent. Queen is skill. Queen is glorious. Queen is a band that made a career out of producing songs that drew from everywhere and often sounded like no one else ever could. This single–one of their most enduring and biggest-selling–is another example of their ability to do something unique. The bass-driven song is accompanied by a host of sounds that almost seem misplaced. The song was also my introduction to backmasking. Sometime in ’81 or ’82, one of my next door neighbors played a cassette tape of the song for me but it was playing backwards. It sounded like Freddy Mercury was singing “It’s fun to smoke marijuana.” This must have been controversial, whether or not it was true. I remember thinking at the time how that was a stupid thing to be singing. Ah, Catholic school…
4. “You Make My Dreams Come True” (Hall and Oates)
I am a defender of Hall and Oates. They’re amazingly talented, and they’re better than their reputation. A lot of the negative vibe that goes their way is due to the fact that they were so influential in creating the 80’s sound. This song, from their 1980 album Visions, is a perfect example of their pop skills and the tendencies that would define so much of the decade. The guitar, the background vocals, the quick stops, it’s all there. (The song is also the king of movie montages.)
3. “Boys Don’t Cry” (The Cure)
Talk about influential. I wasn’t a big fan of the Cure in my youth. They’re one of the big bands for my wife, though, and that’s nurtured a real appreciation for them on my part, but one that came much later. That said, it’s amazing to me that this song is from this early. It’s actually a 1979 song from their debut album Three Imaginary Boys that was re-packaged and re-released again in 1980 in the US as part of the album Boys Don’t Cry. The amazing thing to me is that it sounds so much like the music of mid-decade. It’s a great song, definitely one of those that stands the test of time.
2. “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” (Billy Joel)
This song is the first 45 I ever bought. We went to our local record store–a chain called Licorice Pizza–and my folks let me and my sister buy our own record. She chose “Funkytown” by Lipps, Inc. I chose this. Songs like this make the switch from the 70s to the 80s seem more severe than it was. The saxophone, the weird backtrack, the production quality–even the clothes he wears in the video–all of it make it seem like Billy Joel knew what he was doing.
1. “Off the Wall” (Michael Jackson)
This is a little bit of a cheat. Michael Jackson’s fifth solo album Off the Wall was released in 1979. The single, however, was released in 1980. If it is a cheat, it’s an appropriate one, though. The song, much like the album, is the epitome of the transition between the 70s and the 80s. Michael’s version of late-disco R&B contains all the brilliance he and producer Quincy Jones can muster. The grooves are so tight they still get people moving on the dance floor today. The melodies are rich, after all, the man is singing with himself as backup. Michael’s next outing would be the biggest-selling album in history. Even if that one never happened, we’d still be talking about him because of songs like this. (Hell, we’d be talking about him still even is he’d never made another record after the Jackson 5!)