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1984: The Year George Orwell Met Prince, Madonna, Michael, and Bruce

Before "The Walking Dead," Michael Jackson danced with zombies in "Thriller." And only a dead person could have been unaware of the artist and his music in 1984.
Before "The Walking Dead," Michael Jackson danced with zombies in "Thriller." And only a dead person could have been unaware of the artist and his music in 1984.
Screen grab from the "Thriller" video
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Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year
By Michaelangelo Matos
480 pp.
$30
Hachette Books

In late 1984, flush from the success of his work on Michael Jackson’s Thriller, super producer Quincy Jones told an interviewer from Radio & Records what he foresaw in music’s future.

He envisioned a time coming soon when music consumers could see an album or single on a computer screen, then click to listen to or purchase it. Or pick and choose which songs from an album to do either with. And that accessing music through satellites, computers, and TV sets would be the norm and might even mean the demise of physical media entirely.

1984: The Year George Orwell Met Prince, Madonna, Michael, and Bruce
Hachette Books Cover

Those predictions might have seemed bizarre when records (and cassettes!) by megastars Michael Jackson, Prince, Lionel Richie, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Wham!, Phil Collins, Tina Turner, Huey Lewis and the News, Cyndi Lauper, and Duran Duran were flying out of record store bins. And MTV played and played and played the accompanying videos.

Plus, Jones opined this in a year when the convenient compact disc was starting to take off (No scratches! No inaccurate rewinding or fast-forwarding!). But 35 years later, Quincydamus was indeed correct…

In this sizable tome, music journalist Michaelangelo Matos (The Underground is Massive), uses the year that many were anticipating with Orwellian dread to show how pop music reached commercial peaks, and how its sounds, style, and business practices continue to influence today’s artists. And it’s a very worthy read – if you can make it through the first part.

Matos says up front that he included previously published sources whose comments were included in books, magazine and newspaper articles, and video/online  in addition to more than 30 individuals he interviewed to write the book.

For the first 150 or so pages, Matos takes the reader on a dizzying rat-a-tat-tat journey through the careers and music of pretty much every performer or band who took a breath in 1984, and well beyond the realm of pop (Judas Priest? Wynton Marsalis? the Judds? Yellowman?).

Careening like a literary pinball, Matos offers up Wikipedia-style, basic information of lists and facts (sometimes random) on scores and scores of performers with little regard for flow, style, or connection. Frankly, it gets tiring, and Matos’ prose seems to live up to the book’s Lionel Richie-inspired title.

Matos does mine some funny quotes. Like when producer/musician Nile Rodgers flew to Switzerland to see about working with David Bowie, and the former Ziggy Stardust played him a slow, “dolorous” song on a 12-string guitar called “Let’s Dance.” Rodgers was unimpressed with this original version.

“Man, it must be fantastic to be white!” Rodgers told a BBC radio show in 2007. “Where I come from, if you write a song called ‘Let’s Dance,’ and no one wants to dance, you’re gonna get killed. It’s got to be incredible.”

But then, just as jarringly, Matos takes deeper dives and offers more author perspectives on meatier chapters based around specific performers (Jackson, Prince, Madonna, R.E.M.), media (MTV), and events (MTV Awards, Live Aid) with refreshing and interesting detours into club music and off-kilter acts (Black Flag, X, Los Lobos, the Replacements).

It’s here that Can’t Slow Down takes flight, with enough info for both casual and diehard fans of the acts he covers. And though it technically happened in 1985, the chapter on Live Aid (and the chaos behind the scenes) is especially well done as it did feature many high chart rankers of the year before.

Overall, the book is both a warm trip down musical memory lane and an often insightful look into a year in which Billboard’s Top 10 singles could include acts a diverse as Prince, Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, Van Halen, Culture Club, and even a resurgent Yes. Matos does leave one burning question hanging, though: What would George Orwell have put on his cassette mixtape to play on his Sony Walkman?

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