Why 1984 Was the Best Year in American Pop Music

Thirty-five years ago, America was enjoying a bit of a patriotic swoon.

The go-go ’80s were underway as the country finally emerged from a debilitating recession. Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Summer Olympics—the world fell in love with a winsome teenager from West Virginia when Mary Lou Retton became the first American female to win the all-around gold medal in gymnastics.

In what seems like an inconceivable feat in the era’s deep political divide, American voters rallied behind Ronald Reagan in 1984. The incumbent president won 525 electoral votes in the November presidential election, crushing his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale, by 18 million votes; the Minnesota native barely eked out a victory in his home state to halt a 50-state sweep by the Gipper that year.

For those of us on the older side of Generation X, the music of 1984 was the soundtrack of our Coming of Age, animating our college and high school years. I turned 16 a few months after John Hughes’ iconic film “Sixteen Candles” premiered. (Samantha Baker and I both celebrated the big event in the Chicago suburbs.) I got my driver’s license; learned the hard way that a baseball team can break your heart when the Chicago Cubs and the 1984 National League MVP Ryne Sandberg came within one game of going to the World Series (damn you, Steve Garvey!); and discovered that Stroh’s Light and Virginia Slims made a great combination.

It remains one of the most impactful periods in music; Rolling Stone magazine called 1984 “pop’s greatest year . . . New Wave, R&B, hip-hop, mascara’d hard rock and ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic all crossed paths on the charts.” In one poll, 1984 ranked number four in the all-time best years of American music.

Contrast all that with today, when new music choices seem limited to country tunes or some warped version of Drake, 1984 had something for everyone. Legends such as Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, and Paul McCartney introduced themselves to the children of the children they entertained in the 1960s. Our parents—and in my case, grandparents—had their own copies of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the top-selling album of all-time that debuted in 1982 but still dominated the record charts in the spring of 1984.

The year was so cool that Van Halen named an entire album after it.

If American pride was on the upswing in 1984, our FM radio stations and Walkmans (which just celebrated its 40th anniversary) blared uniquely American lyrics. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” was released in June. The title track and other singles including “My Hometown” and “Glory Days” didn’t offer up glossy tales of American success but instead described little chunks of life in what is now considered “flyover country.” In the music video for its first release, “Dancing in the Dark,” Springsteen pulled a then-unknown actress, Courteney Cox, on stage to dance.

John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” also made the charts in 1984, and Huey Lewis’ “Sports” album included other songs about Americana such as “Heart of Rock and Roll” and “Walking on a Thin Line.”

In addition to Springsteen’s top-seller, another iconic blockbuster was released in 1984: Prince’s “Purple Rain.” The album spawned five top-ten hits including “Let’s Go Crazy” and “When Doves Cry.” “Purple Rain” monopolized the Billboard charts from August until the end of the year. Music videos for “Purple Rain” helped boost sales and turn Prince into an international sex symbol while giving Jackson some healthy competition as the reigning King of Pop.

Prince’s soundtrack (the movie was released a month after the album) competed with another hot movie soundtrack in 1984: “Footloose.” The best part of the smarmy film about a city boy upending a religious town and winning over the pastor’s daughter was the high-energy music. Kenny Loggins composed and sang two of the tracks, and other artists including Bonnie Tyler and Shalamar contributed to the album.

The meld between movies and music was powerful in 1984: The theme songs for “Ghostbusters” and “Against All Odds” were top-10 hits, and the soundtrack to “Beverly Hills Cop” debuted in December, resulting in several hits the following year.

Plenty of girl power in 1984, too. Madonna released “Like A Virgin” in the fall and Sade’s “Diamond Life” debuted over the summer. Cyndi Lauper owned three of the year’s top 40 hits that year and the Pointer Sisters had four top-100 tunes.

Three years after the launch of MTV, artists learned that the fastest way to sell a record or become an instant heartthrob was to star in a video. Even bad songs in 1984 became tolerable thanks to the right music video: What else could explain the success of “I Wear My Sunglasses at Night,” “Somebody’s Watching Me,” or “99 Luftballoons”? Lionel Ritchie serenaded a blind girl who then creates a perfect sculpture of his head in what has to be the cheesiest video of 1984 for his single, “Hello.” Wham’s George Michael made all the young girls swoon thanks to his videos for “Make It Big.”

From Whitesnake to Bryan Adams to The Cars and Run DMC, the music of 1984 rarely missed a beat. Now, our music is as siloed as our politics—iPhones and Apple Music playlists and AirPods are one more way to separate us from each other.

So if you’re feeling nostalgic this Fourth of July weekend, crank up some music from 1984. I’ll bet even your kids will know most of the words.

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Photo Credit: Rogers/Express Newspapers/Getty Images

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