A New Medium: Why Was 1984 Such A Good Year In Music?

Every so often, I like to play a Billboard top 100 playlist from a certain year on Spotify. Recently, I zeroed in on my grad year, which was 1979. While it was reminiscent, I can’t say it was transcendent. It was like you had 60 seconds to rummage around the year and quickly stick whatever top pop you could grab in a bag.

Actually, it was a bit of a train wreck. There was the peak (and, as we now know, the sudden demise) of disco, with Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” and Chic’s “Le Freak.” There was a lot of top 40 schmaltz, with Peaches and Herb saying how good it was to be Reunited, Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand lamenting about a lack of flowers, and Randy VanWarmer crying we weren’t there just when he needed us most. And if all that wasn’t chaotic enough, throw in The Charlie Daniels Band with the Devil went down to Georgia. The bright spots were few and far between: a little Blondie, the odd Billy Joel and some Cheap Trick. And even they didn’t shine too brightly.



So I tried my wife’s graduation year, 1984. Wow, what a difference! Every track seemed to be a classic: Prince, Van Halen, Yes, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, U2, Elton John, the Cars. Even the obviously commercial stuff was in a totally different league from just five years before: Cyndi Lauper, Culture Club, Phil Collins, Madonna, Huey Lewis and Lionel Richie. And, although it missed 1984 by a few weeks, don’t forget the release of the final video from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the seven-minute video of the title track, released in December, 1983.

I realize music is subjective. Maybe, I thought, 1984 was just a better year for my own personal tastes. But, with a little more research, I found those who know more about such things than I do -- for example, Billboard magazine -- called 1984 the greatest year ever in pop music. Of course, I had to ask why there such a quantum leap in quality between the two years. The answer almost everyone seems to agree on was that it was because of the introduction of a new medium: the music video.

A New Medium

It was in 1984 that MTV reinvented itself as a top 40 phenomenon, with VJs introducing music videos. Music now expanded in all directions at once. There was a second British invasion, a reincarnation of disco as dance music, gender bending and blending with Boy George and Annie Lennox. Rap even made its appearance known that year, with Run-D.M.C.’s pioneering self-titled debut album.

But more than anything, music had become a visual medium. Performing was just as much for the eyes as it was for the ears. And the introduction of a new medium seemed to pour fuel onto the sparks of creativity.

The bar was raised significantly with Jackson’s release of "Thriller." Its cinematic scope (it was directed by John Landis, who was definitely on a directorial roll at the time) and sheer visual spectacle forever redefined the role of music videos in popular culture.

I was working at a radio station in Canada at the time and I remember what an event the debut was. We all gathered in bars and clubs on December 2, 1983 to watch MTV on the big screen and to be able to say we were there. For each pre-announced playing of the video, MTV had audiences ten times bigger than normal. I wasn’t even a Michael Jackson fan, but it didn’t matter. Everybody was watching this video.

The stunning success of “Thriller” ushered in an intense period of visual and auditory creative competitiveness. It was if music finally had its blindfold removed. Prince launched "Purple Rain." Madonna writhed on stage during the very first MTV Video awards. Even Bruce Springsteen did a philosophical about face and buffed up for the camera to harness its power for "Born to Run".

As I dug further into the reasons for 1984 music’s superiority, it became clear that in this case, a new medium was the message. It turns out that the Buggles were wrong. Video didn’t kill the radio star. In fact, if the 1984 playlist is any indication, it gave them a new life unlike anything they had experienced before.

2 comments about "A New Medium: Why Was 1984 Such A Good Year In Music?".
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  1. John Grono from GAP Research, February 14, 2024 at 5:51 p.m.

    Gees Gord!

    - Another Brick In The Wall
    - Brass In Pocket
    - Message In A Bottle
    - Cars
    - My Sharona
    - Oliver's Army
    - Atomic
    - Highway To Hell
    - Up The Junction
    - Cruel To Be Kind
    - Making Plans For Nigel
    - I Go You

    .... I'd better stop now.

  2. Patrick McOwen from Effectv, February 15, 2024 at 3:09 p.m.

    Born to Run was earlier, "Born in the U.S.A." was 1984.

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