Taylor Swift’s 1989: An Odd Year for Pop Music 25 Years Ago

By Courtney E. Smith

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.

 

It was also an excellent year for one-off, joke hip hop tracks crossing into the mainstream. It was the year of Young MC’s “Bust A Move,” Tone Lōc’s “Funky Cold Medina,” Biz Markee’s “Just A Friend” and Prince’s “Batdance” (that was a joke single, right?). The thing “Shake It Off” owes a debt to is Young MC’s track. Her cadence, her narration as the straight man in an unreasonable situation, the appeal to the listener to be on her side: all of these things are tricks he pulled in “Bust A Move.”

When Swift says she was sonically influenced by 1989 pop, though, and that she’s working with Max Martin, citing “bright colors, bold chances, rebellion” as the reference points, it’s hard to know what she means. That particular year at the end of the decade was one of the least colorful, in literal presentation, and most filled with morose singles of possibly the entire decade. The Cure’s “Lovesong,” Martika’s “Toy Soldiers” and Poison’s “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn” were the jams. Beaches, the world’s most depressing movie, came out accompanied by the sob-along song “The Wind Beneath My Wings.” One of the all-time great karaoke songs, the Bangles “Eternal Flame,” was a huge, successful single. The most rebellious pop music moment, after Madonna of course, came when Cher released her butt-bearing video for “If I Could Turn Back Time.”

The song Swift and Martin hopefully drew their strongest influence from that year is the B-52’s “Love Shack.” This underdog (in the pop charts race) band from Athens, GA kind of rode their friends in R.E.M.’s coattails into the mainstream and dropped this weird gem on the world. If Swift has one track as bright, colorful and catchy as “Love Shack” on her album she’ll be minting gold.

 

With her video for “Shake It Off,” Swift taps into a very 1989 idea, that of the superstar, name brand video director. She landed Mark Romanek, who has helmed some of the most iconic music videos of all time. Under his belt are: Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” Michael and Janet Jackson’s “Scream,” Jay Z’s “99 Problems,” Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” and Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.”

This was a trend in 1989 as well. In fact, it was the mark of a great video. Chris Isaak landed noted fashion photographer Herb Ritts for his “Wicked Game” video, making it one of the most iconic of that year. David Fincher (future director of The Social Network and Fight Club) was the guy behind Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” video — notably co-starring a very young Elijah Wood. In fact, Fincher was nominated for 3 of the 5 possible Best Director slots at the 1989 VMAs, for his work on Madonna’s “Express Yourself” (the winner), Jody Watley’s “Real Love” and (inexplicably) Steve Winwood’s “Roll With It.” Dominic Sena, future director of Kalifornia and Gone In 60 Seconds, helmed Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” and “Miss You Much.” And Nigel Dick, who would go on to be lauded many times over for shooting several of Britney Spears’ late ’90s videos and make hard cash directing several Nickelback clips, manned the camera on the set of Guns ‘N Roses’ video for “Patience.”

 

Max Martin is the dominating Swedish music influence of pop music in the present, but 1989 was also a year that Swedish music ruled the charts. But back then it was in the form of a duo called Roxette. They had so many hit singles that year that anyone listening to the radio (which was a thing everyone did all the time in 1989) would have found them inescapable. There was “The Look,” there was “Listen To Your Heart” and in 1990 their success would be solidified by a track called “It Must Have Been Love” getting placed into a little movie called Pretty Woman.

 

The one other pop act that it is absolutely mandatory to mention when we talk about 1989 is New Kids on the Block. This was their breakout year. They had the right stuff, they were hanging tough, they blew our minds, they even released a Christmas album. If there was only one thing teenage girls were listening to in 1989, it was NKOTB.

It becomes apparent, after looking at the names of artists who dominated 1989, that it was not particularly inventive year in music. But the top pop songs of the year from the biggest artists, with a few exceptions, did not stick around. They did not change the face of music as we know it. They did not change lives — although some NKOTB fans might take issue with that.

The best music in 1989 happened on the fringes. De La Soul created one of the great albums of the golden era of hip hop with 3 Feet High and Rising. Garth Brooks started a revolution that would push country music to the mainstream with his self-titled debut album. The Pixies dropped Doolittle, which would become revered in the rock cannon. And perhaps the top album of the year came from a grown up version of the Beastie Boys, who released Paul’s Boutique.

But it’s doubtful Swift will have include illusions to any of those albums on her album 1989. She’s not going to recreate Paula Abdul’s “Forever Your Girl” either, one hopes. It is yet unclear what Swift, Martin and Shellback have crafted up from the exhaust fumes of a very odd year in music.

There was a particularly rebellious album that came out in 1989, however, and it garnered little mainstream attention on its release. It would go on to sell millions of copies, given some time. It was Nirvana’s indie rock debut album, Bleach.

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