“There was nothing new about the search for exhilaration and satisfaction. But in the 1980s, that quest took forms shaped by Reaganism’s celebration of money, power, and fame. By the decade’s later years, the era’s quest for gratification had burned through its initial giddiness. Whether American society as a whole was ready to turn to other pursuits was not clear. But the thrill was gone.”—Doug Rossinow
In the following excerpt from The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s, Doug Rossinow describes the rise of three of the decade’s biggest stars—Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson—and how they reflected the politics and ethos of the 80s:
The themes of performance and pastiche led the 1980s culturally, but not without artistic originality. While Bruce Springsteen strove for authenticity with his anthems and dirges of American losers yearning for comfort, the other performers who equaled or exceeded his success in the decade were the avatars of performance—Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince. All three were born in 1958. Each built a powerful retail brand. Madonna Ciccone and Prince Nelson simply went by their first names. They were the pure examples, masters of stage personae who toyed with gender roles in public and forthrightly rejected the racial divide that long had structured American music, like so much else in American life. In 1980 one music critic remarked, “Seldom in pop-music history has there been a larger gap between what black and white audiences are listening to than there is right now.” African Americans were becoming more interested in rap, while many young whites were absorbed in European technopop–influenced New Wave bands like Talking Heads and Devo. No informed observer could describe such a division in 1990. The music industry in the 1980s moved toward blockbuster albums that generated multiple hit singles, and the leading artists in this trend either were African American or drew white and black audiences together, or both.
Madonna, with a series of dance hits from her self-titled debut album of 1983 and her distinctive personal style, showcased in MTV (Music Television, a cable channel that started broadcasting in 1981) videos, instantly became a postfeminist icon. Her funky, layered look, “thrift store chic” (also popularized, with different inflections, by Cyndi Lauper and the Go-Go’s, other white female acts), spread like wildfire among teenage girls. With her second album, Like a Virgin (1984), Madonna became controversial and revealed herself as a quick-change artist. For cultural conservatives, the title track’s flagrant sexuality was a sign of decadence; for feminists, the notion that a woman, presumably experienced in sex, would long to feel like a virgin was reactionary. Liberals and conservatives alike were also irritated by the other big hit from the album, “Material Girl,” in which the singer explains that she sees men as meal tickets. The video for the song was an homage to the Marilyn Monroe dance number “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” from the 1953 comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In 1989, the title song of a new album, Like a Prayer, and its accompanying video, showed an artist interested in continuing to tweak the conventions of many Americans—and with a social awareness previously hidden from view. In the video, Madonna prays to and loves a black man who appears alternately as a wooden saint and as a flesh-and-blood innocent victimized by an implicitly racist criminal-justice system. The Detroit-area native sings and dances joyfully with an African American gospel choir and stands dramatically in front of a range of burning crosses. Conservative Christians and those uncomfortable with interracial crossover—particularly between a white woman and a black man— were unhappy. At the video’s end, red stage curtains descend and the performers take a bow. It is just a show.
The extremely prolific Prince seemed a walking encyclopedia of musical styles, rapidly producing albums, starting in the late 1970s, that integrated funk, heavy metal guitar, psychedelic rock, electronica, and other styles into what was known, for a time, as “the Minneapolis Sound” (named for his hometown). Prince worked with a large, often changing, and usually racially diverse ensemble—known, until 1986, as the Revolution—that recalled the influence of Sly and the Family Stone and George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic. His 1982 album, 1999, was his breakthrough to the mass market, but the 1984 soundtrack album to his feature movie vehicle, Purple Rain, was part of a bigger, multimedia blitz. Prince always put himself front-and-center, posing in one overtly artistic stance after another on his album covers. His songs consistently earned “explicit” ratings for their sexual content, and he was daring in his sexual self-presentation. Prince took this tendency furthest in his nude pose on the cover of 1988’s Lovesexy, sitting among hugely enlarged images of flower petals. His musically conjured couplings always seemed to be heterosexual; his goal, it seemed, was to confound stereotyped images of male heterosexuality. Eventually, he would change his name legally to an unpronounceable “Love Symbol,” as he called it, created, according to some, by combining signs representing male and female.
But Michael Jackson was the biggest star of the 1980s, his career at its meteoric, unsurpassed height between his smash album Thriller (1982) and his follow-up, Bad (1987). He became known as “the King of Pop” and was celebrated by presidents. In 1984, Jackson came to the White House garbed in a bright blue tuxedo jacket festooned with gold epaulets, braid, and sash, his right hand alone gloved in white, and accepted an award for his donations to drug- and alcohol-addiction rehabilitation centers. Thriller was a true phenomenon. “[I]t became a hydra-headed monster . . . begetting seven top 10 singles, and, at one point, luring one million buyers a week.” It remains the biggest-selling album ever. Jackson’s dance performances and the videos he released to accompany his singles were inseparable from the album’s success. The videos for Thriller were the first to bring feature-film production values to the form. The first one, for “Billie Jean,” shows Jackson as an otherworldly being, dancing alone on the edges of an unreal, blighted city, the sidewalk squares lighting up when his feet touch them, the pavement a magic hopscotch course. The song’s beat is steady and insistent, an immediately infectious dance rhythm. Synchronized with the visuals and music are Jackson’s remarkably precise dance steps and vocals. His voice was emotionally intense and assertive as never before. Few commented on the song’s lyrics, in which Jackson angrily rejects a woman’s paternity claims. Jackson debuted what became his trademark move, the moonwalk—in which he seemed to glide, frictionless, backward over a stage while moving in a forward stride—in a much-remembered performance in 1983 in a televised celebration of Motown Studios’ twenty-fifth anniversary.
Jackson’s riches, and the excess of his lifestyle, became as famous as his music. In his 1984 White House appearance, he looked the part of a head of state visiting from a fantasy realm. Four years later, he purchased a large tract of land in California where he would build his “Neverland Ranch,” named for the magical place in Peter Pan where children never grow up. Soon his changing appearance—his skin grew paler, his nose smaller and sharper, and a dimple appeared in his chin—led to rumors of plastic surgery designed to make Jackson look less stereotypically African American. He was less a master of postmodern culture than its living embodiment, a prisoner of the masks he wore, unable to switch them endlessly. What the shimmering surface covered, if anything, was unclear—and it was immaterial to his stardom. The inner life of wealth and celebrity sometimes appeared a void. There was nothing new about the search for exhilaration and satisfaction. But in the 1980s, that quest took forms shaped by Reaganism’s celebration of money, power, and fame. By the decade’s later years, the era’s quest for gratification had burned through its initial giddiness. Whether American society as a whole was ready to turn to other pursuits was not clear. But the thrill was gone.