Taylor Swift’s 1989: An Odd Year for Pop Music 25 Years Ago
Taylor Swift took over the internet for a short time yesterday to declare herself no longer a country crossover queen, but a pop star. She debuted her new single and music video, “Shake It Off” and announced her forthcoming album 1989, named after the year she was born, and the music from that time.
One quarter of a century ago, before Spotify, before iTunes, before mp3s and Napster and the resurgence of vinyl, way back in the monoculture before YouTube and Twitter, what did 1989 sound like?
One of the most lasting moments that year was Michael Jackson being dubbed the King of Pop for the first time when Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Murphy presented him with the Soul Train Heritage award. The lowest moment came courtesy of Milli Vanilli, who had several singles on the charts including the big hit “Girl You Know It’s True,” and who were subsequently discovered to be lip synching the whole time and had their Best New Artist GRAMMY stripped from them.
In between those extremes, however, is the real 1989.
At best, pop music was off-kilter. At worst, it was a disaster. It was the time before SoundScan, which wouldn’t launch until 1991, so there was no reliable public mechanism for tracking record sales. C+C Music Factory formed and the Who broke up. New wave was dead and hair metal thrived. Billboard’s No. 1 single for the year was Chicago’s “Look Away,” but the kids were more into the No. 2 track, Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative” — which Britney Spears would go on to cover in 2004.
Even ranking on the Billboard charts was different. The chart today includes streaming data from places like YouTube and Spotify, which would have precluded Chicago’s odd reign at the top of the 1989 chart. These additions emphasize things people want to hear, rather than relying heavily on what radio programmers were playing in a time when payola was rampant. If today’s technology were available in 1989, the top single of the year would undoubtedly have been Madonna’s “Like A Prayer.” It was the biggest musical event of the year. The track was sort of popular on the radio, but Madge was a ubiquitous star of the MTV generation. Her big deal with Pepsi kicked in around the album’s release, but after the release of her controversial video for “Like A Prayer,” it left. So did as did her then-husband Sean Penn; events that would start a social media wildfire in this day and age. But as it is, Billboard only ranked it as the No. 25 song of 1989.
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