I’m going to kick off this month of writing about the music of the eighties by getting the biggest-selling artist of the decade – maybe of all time – out of the way right away.
And I’m doing it to kick off the “theme” of this, the first week of my observance of eighties music; Genre-bending.
One of the great tragedies – maybe “Tragedy” isn’t the right word, but work with me, here – of the nineties and 2000s is the caricature that Michael Jackson became.
You probably know where this is going; the bit every music writer mentions about Michael Jackson in the eighties; he had Eddie Van Halen play the guitar solo on “Beat It”.
You’ve heard it – the statement and, natch, the song – many many many times before.
So why does it matter?
Let’s look at the biggest-selling artists in pop music, by decade:
- Fifties: Frank Sinatra (followed by Elvis, Pat Boone and Perry Como)
- Sixties: The Beatles (no surprise) followed by Elvis and the Rolling Stones)
- Seventies: Elton John (followed by David Bowie and the Stones).
- Eighties: We’ll come back to that below.
- Nineties: Madonna
- Oughties: Eminem.
- Teens: We don’t know that yet, now, do we?
So what do we see, here?
Look at Frank Sinatra and Elton John. They had very defined styles. They both did them – whatever you think of the styles’ respective merits – very well. And both presided as the most successful artists over decades – or, as I keep saying, parts of decades – where music really didn’t change a whole lot; where people stayed in their genres and did their thing, not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that.
Eminem? Yeah, he’s a white rapper – and the closest he’s ever gotten to musical cross-cultural pollination was his hip-hop version of “Sweet Home Alabama”, from Eight Mile. Which was funny, and pointed, and really really good, but hardly a cultural milestone. He’s collaborated with…Dr. Dre. Interesting, but hardly a stylistic reach.
The Beatles got on the charts by covering the Isley Brothers. Elvis got famous by covering R&B music from back when R&B was “black peoples’ music”. And Michael Jackson, after more than a decade as an R&B star with some crossover success, suddenly went beyond bending the genres to downright twisting them.
Which opened the way – commercially, if not creatively – for the mass of cross-pollinating creativity that was to follow.
Which we’ll be talking about more through the rest of this week.