Once there was a mixtape that approached perfection. Unforgettable songs from a vast array of genres: synth-rock, blue-eyed soul, R&B, dance pop, glam, and disco. Artists represented an exhilarating and expansive demographic sweep: male and female, young and old, gay and straight, international and American. There were one-hit wonders and industry warhorses and manly everymen and sinuous androgynes and even an all-star, all-hands-on-deck singalong. You know what that mixtape was called? The Billboard charts in 1985.
How did music get so good that year? Was it the result of a highly classified government project conducted by a shadowy cabal of deep state apparatchiks? Or was it something else? I’m not prepared—or allowed—to answer that question directly, but watching the third season of Stranger Things, set in that year, one cannot help but feel a twinge of yearning for a radically different epoch in the music industry.
1985 was an auspicious time for the business. Technological innovation, cross-cultural dialog, and a surfeit of resources created a thriving ecosystem of popular and underground music, as well as viable channels for those currents to intermingle. Old guard royalty like Bruce Springsteen and Hall & Oates struggled to hang in with supernovas like Madonna and Prince, who themselves upped the ante while burnishing their indelible mark on the culture. Independent labels functioned profitably as farm teams for the majors, ensuring that worthwhile new talents were constantly scouted and signed. In short, it was a moment pregnant with possibility and filled with triumph.
Here is an overview of the major players that made the first year of Ronald Reagan’s second term one of the great datelines in music history.
There were a lot of winners in 1985 but none bigger than Wham! and Madonna. Both placed two songs in the year’s top 10 and both ultimately ended up with four in the top 100. More importantly, their success was a recognition of generational voices establishing a permanent beachhead in our consciousness. The deep blue Wham! classic “Careless Whisper” was both the year’s highest-charting single and the first full-fledged evidence of George Michael’s gestating excellence.
Madonna’s top-10 doublet “Like a Virgin” and “Crazy for You” perfectly encapsulated the come-hither mastery of her early persona, while hinting at the deeply layered subversion that would ultimately characterize her most celebrated work.
After Purple Rain and his world-historic 1984, it was something of a quiet year for Prince, but even a quiet year in the midst of his prime yielded the unforgettable likes of “Raspberry Beret.” Here were three mega-talents (with apologies to Andrew Ridgeley) all under the age of 28, all primed to carry the industry forward as trendsetters and hit-makers for years to come.
By the mid-’80s, artists like Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, and Tina Turner had been with us in some form or fashion for parts of three decades. But the thing is, they weren’t old. In 1985, Turner was all of 45, which is to say the median age of Sleater-Kinney today. Sir Paul was 42, which would make him currently the youngest member of The National. And Wonder, who released his first LP in 1961 as an 11-year-old, was only 34, practically young enough to be an ascendant wunderkind. These were megawatt talents in the prime of their lives. They couldn’t simply be expected to go away, and they did not. Turner’s resurgence in popular culture, which had begun with the previous year’s smash “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” continued with two more charting hits. McCartney and Wonder checked in with successful singles as well, as did Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and ’70s-adjacent holdovers like Phil Collins, Kool & the Gang, and Glenn Frey and Don Henley from the Eagles.
Entering their third decade as dominant cultural forces, rock and R&B commenced their long migration from strictly youth music to multigenerational phenomena. The kids were all right, but the adults were pretty good too.
MTV’s massive footprint in the mid-’80s provided a pathway to stateside success for a host of image-savvy, Bowie-inspired British and international superstars, including, as it would happen, David Bowie himself. By 1985, Duran Duran’s massive commercial tidal wave had begun to crest, but the indelible Euro-disco outfit still managed to chart with the self-mythologizing “The Wild Boys” and the Bond theme “A View to a Kill.” Moody British rockers Simple Minds scored one of the year’s biggest smashes with “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” while acts like the Eurythmics, Tears for Fears, and Dire Straits all contributed a uniquely continental sensibility to the American charts.
Best of all was “Take on Me,” the sole American hit for Norwegian synth-rockers A-ha, a timeless classic whose groundbreaking half-animated video and infectious singalong ensured pantheonic status for a populist love song that continues to thrill 35 years after the fact.
By 1985, a grassroots movement composed of independent artists and record labels throughout the country had resulted in a thriving American underground of art-rock, punk, and hardcore music. Labels like Los Angeles’s SST, Minneapolis’s Twin/Tone, and the mega-indie I.R.S. had demonstrated proof of concept, moving tens of thousands of units by bands like Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, and R.E.M. (eagle-eyed viewers may have noted the Murmur poster in the bedroom of Stranger Things’ Jonathan Byers). Taken together, they created the contours of what would become known by the unfortunate appellation “college rock,” and which would eventually become the equally sub-optimal “alternative.” Genre categories aside, the indies filled the pipeline with new artists whose talents deepened the best elements of the rock tradition.
Paul Westerberg’s down-and-out take on lower-middle-class escapist rock was a close cousin to Bruce Springsteen, while Hüsker Dü’s high-energy bedlam and inescapable songcraft owed everything to early Beatles and Byrds. R.E.M. was a ready-made hit machine whose mercurial cleverness and raft of outré influences provided just enough misterioso to mask what was, at base, a wonderfully pop veneer. These bands ultimately succeeded commercially to greater or lesser degrees, but the important point is that they all made for good bets within the industry in that moment. In today’s consensus-driven, sales-starved, risk-averse market, it is fair to wonder whether any of them—or any number of their similarly gifted underground contemporaries—would be provided with the opportunity for exposure to a mass audience today.
“We Are the World”
“We Are the World”—the American recording industry’s response to the British recording industry’s response to a humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia—is not an objectively good song. Written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, it’s a kind of worst-case scenario for those two songwriters in collaboration: preachy in a humblebraggy way, all faux inspiration and glitzy self-aggrandizement.
Despite this problematic deficiency, the January 28, 1985, recording session was an astonishing event. The crowd that showed up to track that evening was a cross-pollination of great artists on one record: Ray Charles, Dionne Warwick, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, and Al Jarreau. That is a small sampling! Who else was there, you ask? Billy Joel, Waylon Jennings, and Cyndi Lauper? Check, check, and check. Smokey Robinson, Lindsey Buckingham, and Kenny Rogers? Yes! Everyone was there—except Prince, who with his unerring radar for the potentially uncool, decided to contribute a separate track of his own to the relief effort. (If you haven’t already, I beseech you to find one hour of your life to watch this “making of” video.)
From Jane Fonda’s earnest narration, to seeing the riveting cool of producer Quincy Jones in action, to a stoic Bob Dylan cracking a smile during a moving, spontaneous tribute to Harry Belafonte, this is the time capsule we should leave behind for future civilizations who want to know what human life was like before streaming.
Nostalgia is a potent cocktail and potentially dangerous in large doses. Like all businesses, the music industry is cyclical and susceptible to convulsive market forces and unforeseen technological shifts, developments that help to explain its vast contractions in recent years. Maybe, as Howard Jones put it in 1985, no one is to blame. But maybe there is some utility to looking back at the mid-’80s musical big tent as well. The paradox of the streaming era is that for all of its ostensible limitless access, it seems to create far fewer memorable and bankable stars. This is not a reflection on the current pool of talent, but it may be a referendum on how that talent is presented. If nothing else, the industry’s imperial phase is a reminder that big sellers need not emerge from careful market testing and microtargeted playlists. They gave us the full gamut—homegrown and exotic, ancient and modern, frothy and fretful—and we loved the unkempt lot of it. It was a wild world, but we are the world after all.
Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.