To say that the musical landscape of rock ‘n’ roll was diverse in the early ‘80s is an incredible understatement. Never before in the history of Western music had so many different artists representing so many different styles achieved or maintained such simultaneous success. Acts from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ’70s had not only refused to leave the stage, but were gaining in their fan base. Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, the Everly Brothers, and Little Richard were performing concerts; Paul McCartney, Cher, and the Beach Boys all had hits on the charts; and the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, and Paul McCartney and Wings were selling out world tours. Newer heavy metal acts like Van Halen, Metallica and AC/DC were hitting full stride while art rock bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, the Moody Blues, and Yes were still recording and finding fans. It was if all the waves of collected rock styles had reached their second peak at the same time.
Out of the incredible diversity of styles available in the decade of the eighties came two newly revised rock threads: “techno-pop” and a counter-pop movement called “alternative.”
The pop sound of the early eighties can be easily traced back to Motown, the Beatles and even the post-rockabilly sounds of Elvis Presley. In the dance moves, the memorable melodies, the contemporized instrumentation and love/relationship based lyrics, the sounds of the ‘80s royal three: Michael, Madonna and Prince, emulated and built upon the past.
The linkage between Michael Jackson, ‘80s King of Pop, and the Motown pop sound of the ‘60s is indisputable. The dance moves, the clear, high vocal style, the steady, danceable beat, and the carefully marketed final product all give homage to Berry Gordy, Jr. While maintaining the Motown basics, Michael Jackson contemporized his sound by giving a predominant place in the musical mix to the synthesizer, a new type of electronic instrument that was offering hundreds of synthetic sounds for studio use. The electronic experimentation that began with the Beatles’ tape loops and Jimi Hendrix’s heavily distorted guitar solos was pushed once again in the early ‘80s.
The euro-techno-rock sound of the late ’70s, frequently under the direction of Brian Eno, can be heard in albums by David Bowie, Talking Heads, Devo, and others. It emphasized an industrial, minimalistic sound that moved away from the ambient warmth of pop towards a collection of cold, techno-produced tracks. Eno would go on in the mid ‘80s to influence the restructured sound of U-2 on albums like The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree.
At the beginning of the decade, pop music was willing to elements of the techno-sound by way of the synthesizer and other studio innovations. Electronic drum kits, synthesized guitars were soon a part of the instrumental-nouveau sound of ‘80s pop. Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, the Eurhythmics and others bought heavily into the synthesized sound.
Michael Jackson was undoubtedly the “King of Pop” in the ‘80s with his dominance of the record charts, the radio play lists, the exploding MTV video market, and the big business of concert tours. Jackson created two of the most successful albums in history (Thriller in ’83 and Bad in ’87) which collectively garnered several #1 hits on the pop charts, 6 Grammy awards and sales of over 50 million units sold for the pop artist. His ability to blend a danceable beat, memorable melody, contemporary sounds, highly polished dance moves and a distinctive look have created him a place at the head of the list of ‘80s pop-rock artists.
Like Michael Jackson, Madonna rode a techno-pop dance sound to the top of the charts in the early ‘80s. While the music, video production, dance moves and extensive costuming was similar between the two artists, they differed sharply in lyric content and mainstream acceptance.
Michael Jackson’s songs were about the unity of mankind, the innocence of young-love, and the idealistic blending of cultures. Even when venturing into subject material like horror (Thriller) or rebellion (Bad), Michael came across innocently campy or naively romantic. His idealism and humanitarianism was praised in the late ‘80s from dozens of sources including the NAACP, Forbes Magazine, National Urban Coalition, Vanity Fair, the Boy Scouts of America, and the World Music Awards. BMI instituted their annual Achievement Award and named it after Michael Jackson. President George Bush hosted a White House reception where he named Jackson “Artist of the Decade” for the 1980s.
In stark contrast with the lyrics and activities of Michael Jackson, Madonna was as much the queen of controversy in the ‘80s as she was the queen of pop. With video and concert outfits that traversed from sensually erotic to bizarrely sadomasochistic, Madonna challenged the censors, the standards and the guardians of moral propriety. Her conduct in concerts and videos also created shockwaves; “Like a Virgin,” “Like a Prayer,” and “Justify My Love” contained scenes that were so controversial and explicit that those that passed the MTV legal censors only resulted in sending parents apoplectically diving for the television remote. All of these were before he entered her infamous sex era of the early ‘90s. Regardless of the controversies, Madonna was the female equal to Michael Jackson, in both stage persona, chart success and media exposure.
While Michael and Madonna were the darling and demoness of the mainstream American entertainment industry, a more creative and only slightly less controversial pop icon was emerging.
Although Prince lacked the polished dance moves of Michael and Madonna, he eclipsed them in musical talent. From his second album on, Prince merged elements of electronic funk, new wave, rock, soul, and hip-hop into a diverse blend of songs that frequently were both artistically and commercially successful. While neither Madonna nor Michael played any instruments, Prince played several, composed his own songs and oversaw the final productions. With his break-through album, Purple Rain, Prince established himself as worthy of pop icon status. In comparison with the seemingly shy humanitarian King of Pop and the self-confident sex-goddess Queen of Pop, the Prince of Pop created an image of being mysterious, aloof and androgynously sexual.
The highly polished, produced and promoted albums of Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince reflect only the pop side of ‘80s rock. Another message, less commercial but more passionate, was being created by those groups who were reaching back to the roots of rock ‘n’ roll.