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One of the fundamental challenges of writing cultural history is periodization. If we take culture to be something that is always in process, there’s not a lot of chronological starts and stops. Unlike, say, the Kennedy administration, or World War II, things like “film noir” or “punk rock” don’t really have a precise beginning or endpoint. Even artist-specific works tend to exceed the parameters of the subject’s life and career: For instance, any responsible book on Elvis Presley would spend a considerable amount of time talking about what came before him, and any interesting one would spend at least some time on what came after him.
Music historian Michaelangelo Matos’ new book, Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year, confronts this problem by taking up not an artist nor a scene nor a genre but rather a moment itself. A long moment, to be sure—as Matos readily admits in his introduction, his story frequently spills outside the boundaries of the calendar year in question. Can’t Slow Down is Matos’ third book, after an album-specific work (a volume in the 33⅓ series on Prince’s Sign o’ the Times) and a genre-specific one (2015’s The Underground Is Massive, a history of electronic dance music). Can’t Slow Down is a sweeping, roundtable history, at which Duran Duran sit alongside the Judds, who sit alongside the Minutemen, who sit alongside Rubén Blades, who sits alongside Metallica … you get the picture. It’s also a carefully researched and remarkably ambitious work that immediately takes a place on the shelf of indispensable books about music in the 1980s.
1984 was the year of the Macintosh, Mary Lou Retton, and a 49-state Reagan landslide, of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and Stop Making Sense and the first-ever MTV Video Music Awards, where a rising star named Madonna memorably performed her latest single, “Like a Virgin,” in a wedding dress. In Matos’ telling it was also “the last year of the old world,” and indeed, reading this book in 2020 can often feel like looking at a hinge in music history. In 1984, MIDI technology was changing the way music was made, Solid State Logic mixing boards were changing the way it was recorded, and compact discs were changing the way it was sold, three landmark developments in the digital revolution that, by the early 21st century, would effectively destroy the industry as it once was. 1984 saw Michael Jackson’s Thriller enter the Guinness Book of Records as the highest-selling album of all time, a distinction it still holds; 1984 also saw the release of T La Rock and Jazzy Jay’s “It’s Yours,” a hip-hop landmark that was also the first record to bear the name “Def Jam.”
In its best moments, which are frequent, Can’t Slow Down feels like a breakthrough in popular musical historiography. By deemphasizing the boundaries of genre, Matos has constructed a more honest and complete assessment of how pop music is made, circulated, and enjoyed—how it is lived, in other words. Musicians don’t exist in vacuums—they’re listeners too—and music fans rarely map neatly onto markets. No one really only listens to country, or hip-hop, or indie rock, and even if they do, writers shouldn’t assume that person as their reader.
But this isn’t to suggest that Can’t Slow Down is a work of overly poptimistic, “post-genre” revisionism. If anything, a great deal of the book is about artists negotiating the challenges of market segmentation and radio formats during a time when those structures held tremendous power. A central theme of the book is struggle, even in moments of triumph: Prince’s long-awaited, hard-won pop breakthrough with Purple Rain; Los Lobos, a band that had been around since 1973, finally releasing its major label debut and taking third place in the Village Voice’s year-end Pazz & Jop critics poll; Tina Turner becoming the oldest solo female artist to top the Billboard Hot 100, with her first-ever No. 1, “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”; Run-DMC bulldogging their (and, by extension, hip-hop’s) way onto MTV, Live Aid, and mainstream radio.
Especially following the deaths of 1980s icons like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston (whose earth-shaking debut falls just outside the scope of Matos’ book), George Michael, and Prince, it’s become increasingly common to look back on the music of the era as the sound of bygone consensus. Commercial monsters like Thriller and Purple Rain and Whitney Houston and Faith sold zillions of copies because they were great, we tell ourselves, and once upon a time selling zillions of copies was what great music did. And yet while Matos’ writing is infused with real love for much of the music he writes about, he is rightly skeptical of the industry triumphalism that often goes hand in hand with musical nostalgia. After all, the very sort of omnivorous pop appetites that Can’t Slow Down models have long existed in both concert and tension with the vicissitudes of corporate capitalism, and never more so than in the mid-1980s, when the pop industry was booming against a backdrop of Reaganism and Thatcherism. No one is more invested in the idea that great music is what sells the most than the music industry itself.
This dynamic emerges most prominently toward the end of Matos’ book, when he turns his attention to those twin bonanzas of well-intended pop self-regard, the trans-Atlantic Live Aid concert and USA for Africa’s “We Are the World,” along with two megastars indelibly associated with each, Phil Collins and Lionel Richie. (Richie co-wrote “We Are the World”; Collins famously availed himself of the Concorde to perform at Live Aid on both sides of the Atlantic.) During the 1980s, many critics scorned Collins and Richie as lucrative purveyors of the middlebrow, and both have seen their reputations burnished in the 21st century.
This is largely warranted, as both made some great and, particularly in Collins’ case, startlingly influential music. But they also made a lot of music that was slick to the point of translucence, lifestyle product that demanded little more of its listener than their wallet. Matos quotes a 1984 interview in which Richie speaks of “a group of people out there who, in this day and age, just want to be left alone. They think the world is going a little bit too fast. Those are the people I wanna sell to.” Later in the book, Matos describes Collins’ megahit “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” as boasting “a vocal whose passion is so obvious you either succumb or retreat,” a great description that brought a shock of recognition to this reader. (I am the latter.) One of the reasons Richie and Collins tended to clean up at award shows is that they made a lot of people rich.
Can’t Slow Down takes its own title from Richie’s monster 1984 LP that took home Album of the Year at the Grammys the following February, beating Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual, Tina Turner’s Private Dancer, and Prince’s Purple Rain, the last of which had only recently ended a 24-week run atop the Billboard album chart. A month earlier, Prince had notoriously skipped the “We Are the World” session to go clubbing, an act that, as Matos recounts, made him the object of widespread scorn both within the industry and among the public at large. (Prince thought it was a bad song, an impolitic and completely correct opinion.) It was a messy and rude gesture, an enormous star surveying the world that made him and calling bullshit, and it absolutely hurt his career. Can’t Slow Down reminds us that, in a time of great consensus, dissent is a dangerous note.
By Michaelangelo Matos. Hachette.