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1982: Music’s Incredible Year
How the Industry Changed Its Tune & Struck a Chord
As I write my annual ’80s vs. the current year article (like: “1981 vs. 2021”), my focus has been on music. I was shocked at how pivotal the year was for the industry and how many classic ’80s hits were released too. But it was no accident. To understand the music industry’s transformation in 1982, we must be aware of three factors and one revolutionary album.
Thriller Was a Killer
Record sales were down twenty-five to fifty percent, CBS Records had a massive lay off and most outdoor concerts didn’t turn a profit. So how was 1982 such a monumental musical twelve months?
During the early 1970s, many radio DJs were free to choose the tracks they played. The phrase Album Oriented Radio (AOR) was used to describe the ability to play any song regardless of whether it was pushed by a record company. By 1982 major radio stations were restricting that spontaneity. Shockingly, it wasn’t until 1981 that Billboard started tracking the “Airplay Chart” for album tracks. I believe that small decision to track airplay majorly shifted the music industry in 1982 and contributed to Michael Jackson’s success and staying power.
If the weight of that statement was lost on you, consider one more data point: 1982’s Thriller is still the number-one-selling album of all time! Sure, Jackson had solo success in the late 70s and achieved his goal for Thriller where “every song was a killer,” but what good is a masterpiece if the audience is limited? Case in point, some say I’m the greatest writer to ever live, however you fortunate, limited readers may be the only ones to know this. But not MJ. And Jackson wasn’t only getting airplay - that new Billboard chart was being published which acted as free marketing.
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MTV, Radio Formats and Clubs: A Sound Plan
Writing for Rolling Stone in early 1983, Christopher Connelly reviewed the prior year’s music sales as paltry. An interesting trend had emerged in 1982 – major artists’ albums and singles weren’t making a lot of money anymore – listeners were spreading the love. And because Billboard only tracked a year’s sales through October (!), Michael Jackson’s late November album release wasn’t captured yet. As Connelly pointed out, “1982 was a bad year for the music business…Nevertheless, [t]elevision, adventurous radio formats and dance clubs helped bolster many unknown bands into considerable success, as consumers responded to the acts’ exposure and bought their records.”
This got me thinking. I bet the same amount of money was spent on music as the year before, just not consolidated with a few privileged artists. The first of these three major changes, television, was specifically 1981’s advent of MTV. By 1982, the new channel tripled its subscriptions from three million to nine million. And dance club popularity meant people were hearing varied artists cheaper and faster than listening to a few live acts as was previously popular.
Connelly explains, “MTV and the increasingly popular dance clubs helped songs like Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” and Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” (at 43 weeks, the longest-lasting single in the history of the Billboard Top 100) achieve their surprising success.” And Connelly's vague third factor, “adventurous radio formats,” was best described by a record executive’s strategy for newcomers A Flock of Seagulls. “‘We used dance-club play to get AOR airplay,’ says Arista president Clive Davis. ‘It helped that Flock used guitars and a real drum sound. But the barriers are coming down; these groups were in the forefront and broke through the barriers.’”
Again, these three industry upheavals sound antithetical to Jackson’s success, and I’ll grant you, as Time said, “Michael Jackson is a special case.” But in many ways, Thriller set records and won awards because of those very reasons. Allow me to explain via a circuitous route.
The first single, “The Girl is Mine,” a duet with Paul McCartney, was released October 18, 1982, and the second single, “Billie Jean” on January 2, 1983. Jackson knew “Billie Jean” would do well in clubs because it made him want to dance. The song was played in clubs and on the radio, but the final boost came from the video. The Thriller album had already sold two million records but when MTV premiered[i] the “Billie Jean” music video on March 10, 1983, the album quickly sold another 10 million copies.
And, although “Beat It” wasn’t released as a single until February 14, 1983, it had been rapidly climbing the airplay charts for a month after the album’s release. Exemplifying the power of radio, “during the week of December 18, 1982, ‘Beat It’ was one of Billboard’s top three adds on rock radio alongside cuts by Sammy Hagar and Bob Seger.” The song’s style crossover meant it got pop radio presence but with Van Halen’s guitar solo, also rock airplay.
Because the Thriller album was released late in the year, Jackson had most of 1982 to get the pulse of the music industry. In fact, Jackson admitted to stealing “Billie Jean’s” groove from Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” which released late in 1981 and gained popularity in 1982. That extra time allowed Jackson to fine-tune his album’s sound and style around what audiences craved.
More Than Michael: Sound Design
The sound of popular music in 1982 defined the decade. There was a backlash against disco, summed up perfectly in “Heat of the Moment,” where breakout band Asia sang, “And now you find yourself in ’82; The disco hot spots hold no charm for you.” Granted, ’82 songs like Skyy’s “Let Love Shine,” Imagination’s “Just an Illusion,” and Dazz Band’s “Let it Whip” were technically disco and did well, yet they were few and far between.
In 1979 Kurtis Blow sang “Christmas Rapping,” the first rap single ever released on a major label.[ii] Because of the disco backlash, 1982 audiences looked to the new sounds of new wave, rap, and rock’s evolution. Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” could have been disco a few years earlier but manifested as a combination of synth-pop, reggae-pop and new wave. Basically, if you had a synthesizer, you were gold.
Although a rare few didn’t rely on synthesizers to catch audience’s attention. “In 1982, the Go-Go’s made history, becoming the first all-female band who wrote their own songs and played their own instruments to reach number one in the Billboard album chart. No other band has matched that achievement.”[iii] Their songs like “We Got the Beat,” “Vacation,” and “Our Lips Are Sealed” made it to Billboard’s Top Hot 100 Songs for the year.
Meaning in the Message
As instrumental (pun intended) as the sound was for 1982’s incredible year in music, the message was crucial too. For example, I’ll show in the Christ and Pop Culture 1982 vs. 2022 article later this month, the two years can be compared around themes of greed and giving. Charlene’s “I've Never Been to Me” is a manual on how the commonalities of greed and envy will lead to unhappiness. And sometimes lyrics about relationships exposed shadows of greed in manipulation. It was never clearer than in “That Girl” when Stevie Wonder complained, “She says she keeps the upper hand; ‘Cause she can please her man.” Lest we’re too sympathetic, guys were pretty bad too.
Songs like “The Other Woman” by Ray Parker, Jr., “Centerfold” by The J. Geils Band, and “867-5309 (Jenny)” by Tommy Tutone demonstrate males using “love” and emotion for selfish gains. And while Olivia Newton John’s “Physical”[iv] and Joan Jett’s (and the Blackhearts) “I Love Rock 'n Roll” weren’t exactly respectful, it makes me pause and think about how patriarchal the industry was (and is).
But there were artists showing a more loving, giving perspective. Jennifer Warnes and Joe Cocker were united in explaining that love could lift us “Up Where We Belong.” And, while some of the lyrics are cheesy, the idea that true love puts people in a place they were designed for (“belong”) is pretty powerful. Both sides, the bad boys and the hopeful lovers, remind me of Jesus’ words on love. He acknowledged people lacking a relationship with Him would use love for greedy and vengeful purposes, but those who submitted to His love would become giving and peaceful (John 13:21-35).
That kind of sacrificial love and restful peace aren’t marketed too often. Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” instructs us to stay hungry “for the kill with the skill to survive.” As the title track, the song is synonymous with 1982’s Rocky III. For as epic as the song and movie are, it seems irrational that Rocky is portrayed as having to relearn passion while required to beat the snot out of Mr. T.
In real life, an influential member of the Bronx gang the Black Spades had to fight to survive. But having once bought into the “greed” gang culture of building ranks and expanding turf, Afrika Bambaataa instead decided to foster peace. His 1982 influential “Planet Rock,” not only laid the foundation for many hip hop beats and was certified gold, but propagated peace, giving, and, naturally, dance clubs. Bambaataa didn’t just talk about giving back and unity, he took action by creating the Universal Zulu Nation; an organization promoting the idea that hip hop was created to unify all cultures, with “Planet Rock” as its anthem.
Summarize Well and (Air Supply’s) Sweet Dreams
By design 1982 saw several influential music formats birthed. And Michael Jackson, more than any other artist, was able to use those structures and consequently reap the benefits. But having so many songs still meaningful and popular 40 years later illustrates a deeper significance than impressive marketing. I believe the key was diversity.
People of color fought to be heard on the radio and in clubs while breaking down barriers between music styles. MTV being forced to play a Black artist got a wider range of music to a larger audience. Having women write and perform their own rock songs or sing pop ballads about using men. And the fact that an electric instrument was easily accessible to synthesize sounds for any genre of music meant audiences might love the sound of a synthesizer so much they would listen to styles outside their typical sphere.
1982 was truly an incredible year for music. Not just in industry transitions, but also in providing so many hits. Whether you’re currently “Working for the Weekend” or need “Sweet Dreams,” do yourself a favor and listen through Billboard’s 100 Singles!
[i] Initially MTV refused to play the video for “Billie Jean” because executives said Black music didn’t fit their rock video business model. Walter Yetnikoff, CBS Records President, threatened to expose MTV’s racism and on March 10, 1983 the “Billie Jean” music video premiered. Ironically, the three Thriller music videos ultimately saved MTV from being shut down.
[ii] Technically Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” was released in September 1979, but not released on a major label.
[iii] The Go-Go’s documentary, 2020.
[iv] The TV show Physical is clearly based on Olivia Newton John’s song of the same name. Consider Season 2’s (2022) first episode “Don’t You Want Me,” (a reference to Human League’s aforementioned “Don’t You Want Me”).
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