If the dystopian warnings in George Orwell’s visionary novel Nineteen Eighty-Four hadn’t entirely come to pass, there was plenty of alienation, disillusionment and despair to go around in 1984. Fear of nuclear destruction was at an all-time high. The AIDS epidemic continued to spread. And the government’s covert sale of arms to Iran had been exposed as an illegal and misguided scheme. Yet in 1984, Ronald Reagan — with a big assist from the Moral Majority — insisted it was “Morning in America,” and was re-elected to the White House in an unprecedented landslide.
In the year’s music, these disquieting times were reflected in a widespread sense that everything was up for grabs: gender identity (Boy George, Annie Lennox), sexual roles (Madonna, Prince), even the definition of rock and roll itself (Van Halen adding synthesizers on the 1984 album, Arthur Baker‘s 12-inch remix of Bruce Springsteen‘s “Dancing in the Dark”). Pointing toward the future, Run-D.M.C.‘s pioneering debut album was the first rap album to go gold, and new strains of underground rock emerged, from the sloppy punk-funk of the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the literate moping of the Smiths.
These releases followed two landmark events that forever altered the scale and ambitions of pop: nationwide carriage of MTV and the triumph of Michael Jackson‘s long-form “Thriller” video. Though not all rock stars immediately embraced music videos, by 1984, MTV was affecting everything from advertising to fashion design to film.
As artists accepted and harnessed this power, they unleashed an overwhelming number of true blockbusters. There was Purple Rain, borne aloft by a feature film that essentially functioned as a long-form music video, and Born in the USA, which saw a musically streamlined and physically re-sculpted Springsteen conquer the video format he had previously criticized. There was also Duran Duran‘s Seven and the Ragged Tiger and Tina Turner‘s Private Dancer — albums that could have been the phenomenon of the year at another time. U2 landed their first Top 40 U.S. hit, “Pride (in the Name of Love),” and Bon Jovi broke through with “Runaway.”
Perhaps the event that best encapsulated 1984’s new order was MTV’s inaugural Video Music Awards, at which Madonna writhed on the ground in a wedding dress and flashed her undergarments as she sang her new single, “Like a Virgin”–solidifying her place alongside Jackson, Prince, and Springsteen as pop’s Mount Rushmore of the era.
Meanwhile, as the Jacksons‘ spectacular, controversial — due to an exorbitant $30 ticket price (Springsteen charged $16) and questionable lottery process — Victory tour rolled across America, pop radio was becoming more racially integrated than ever before. In fact, 1984 marked a genuine revolution in terms of the visibility and impact of African Americans across popular culture: Jesse Jackson ran for president, Michael Jordan began his NBA career, and The Cosby Show debuted on NBC.
Finally, technology was undergoing a radical transformation. The first commercial compact disc players had been put on the market in the U.S. in 1983, but it was in 1984 that the first portable CD players were sold and installed in cars. Along with Apple’s introduction of the Macintosh computer — announced with perhaps the most famous advertisement in television history, a one-time-only evocation of Orwell’s novel that aired during the Super Bowl — the next two generations of music distribution had arrived.
Maybe there have been bigger years than 1984 in terms of pure sales; certainly, the teen-pop boom at the turn of the twenty-first century saw Britney Spears,’N Sync, and the Backstreet Boys move incomprehensible numbers of units. Those acts, though, had fan bases that were narrow and deep; they didn’t span a cross-section of listeners, radio formats, and generations. Looking back, 1984 marked the moment when pop music got so big that its center could no longer hold — leaving such emerging bands as The Replacements and Metallica to pick up the pieces. It was also a glorious moment when the biggest was often the best.
Listen to Billboard’s curated Spotify playlist of 1984’s biggest musical moments:
Alan Light is the author of ‘Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain,’ which will be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in December.
This article first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of Billboard.