Friday, March 02, 2012

Flashback Friday: 1987

The year 1987 hardly seems significant, as I don't remember much about the events of the world during that year. 1986 had the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion and a royal wedding (Prince Andrew to Lady Sarah Ferguson). 1988 had the Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, Canada; the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea; and a presidential election between Vice President George Bush and Governor Michael Dukakis. What is most memorable about 1987? Well, that happens to be the year that the four biggest singing superstars all had new albums released. Plus a fifth one, if you consider Bruce Springsteen. Twenty-five years later, two of these superstars are dead with drugs playing a key role. Despite the tragic deaths, the bigger tragedy is that their self-destructive behaviours destroyed their careers. Twenty-five years ago, their new releases increased their superstar status and seemed to guarantee a lifelong successful career. Perhaps too much success led to their eventual demise. Who knows? Let's look at these major album releases from twenty-five years ago...

Whitney Houston came onto the music scene with her 1985 self-titled debut album. After racking up a string of hits, including three #1 hit singles in 1986, expectations were high for her sophomore album, which she not-so-creatively titled Whitney. This was one of the most anticipated albums I've ever been excited about. I could not wait until it was released so I could rush out and buy it with my allowance money. Its funny to reflect on it now, as I rarely get excited over an upcoming new release (Johnny Clegg is now the only artist whom I always get excited about when I hear a new album is scheduled for release). But in 1986 through 1988, Whitney Houston was my favourite female singer. A lot of it had to do with this album, which I consider even better than her debut album.

The first single to be released was this album's equivalent of her only up-tempo dance song from her debut, "How Will I Know?" The video is even kind of similar, as Whitney sings, "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)." She's all frizzy hair and skinny legs, looking like she's having fun as she seeks a male dancing partner. Why did it have to be Bobby Brown, Whitney? He was not in the picture in 1987. The next single, "Didn't We Almost Have It All?" kind of reminded me of "The Greatest Love of All" in terms of melody and the use of "All" in the title. "So Emotional" is a great uptempo song and "Where Do Broken Hearts Go?" is another great ballad (and video). Her streak of #1 hit singles on the Billboard Top 100 Singles Chart ended with "Where Do Broken Hearts Go?" in the spring of 1988. Why they decided "Love Will Save the Day" was a hit single is beyond me. It's a good song, along with "Love is a Contact Sport", but I think they missed an opportunity with "Where You Are", another ballad but still to this day my favourite Whitney Houston song of all time. This song makes me think of my family's three week road trip through England, Scotland, and Wales, as I listened to this cassette a lot and especially this song. I was never a big fan of ballads, so it's amazing that her vocal performance and the lyrics to this ballad grabbed my attention like nothing else.

On this sophomore album is also a duet with her mother, Cissy Houston, who was a famous Gospel singer. They performed a song from a musical, called "I Know Him So Well." It was written in a way that could be thought of as a man or God, depending on the spirituality of the person (or not). Whitney claimed that she was singing about God in that song. At any rate, it is a good duet to close an absolutely perfect album. If there is any song that doesn't feel like the others, I think it's "Just the Lonely Talking Again." I did not like this torch song at first. It took awhile to get used to and grow to love. Now, I think its so ingrained in the album that it just fits.

There was a lot of attention surrounding Michael Jackson in 1987. His follow-up to the hugely successful Thriller, which became the biggest selling album of all time with 30 million copies sold (it is supposedly over 100 million in sales now). The follow-up was due in 1986, but as a friend of mine and I speculated at the time, Michael probably delayed release of Bad for a year to allow his baby sister Janet the chance to find success with her album Control. By the time Bad was released in the fall of 1987, Control was a huge success and the string of hits already played out on the singles charts. If Michael did delay his album's release for a year on behalf of his sister, that was a good move on his part. Of course, he's also well known as a perfectionist and might have felt that the album wasn't ready yet in 1986.

It was during my family's road trip through the British Isles that I heard the debut single, "I Just Can't Stop Loving You". I loved it from the start. Never heard of Siedah Garrett before, but it was a good, strong single to reintroduce himself to the music buying public. This is another song that always makes me think of England whenever I listen to it.

The following single, "Bad" also had a long-form video attached, which introduced his new style of black leather with buckles all over. I never really liked this song nor the video. It was funny to hear my dad and other adults think that calling the single and album "Bad" was a sign of "truth in advertising." As we 80s kids knew, "Bad" was a slang word that actually meant "good." Well, it conveys more than just that, but that's hard to explain actually.

Other singles followed: "The Way You Make Me Feel", "Dirty Diana" (supposedly a favourite of Lady Diana Spencer, the Princess of Wales), my personal favourite: "Man in the Mirror" (to this day, my all time favourite Michael Jackson song), "Smooth Criminal" (which had another longform music video featuring Michael Jackson as a 1930s-style gangster), and "Another Part of Me." This album became the first to have five singles hit #1 on the Billboard Top 100 Singles chart. It was a hit album, but came no where near the sales of Thriller, which was difficult for any artist to do, much less Michael Jackson!

For Christmas in 1987, I actually received two copies of Bad. From my parents, and from a girl I was penpals with. I have no idea why she sent me one. Now, I have the special edition CD which features the song "Streetwalker" that was supposed to be on the album, but producer Quincy Jones nixed it because it seemed too adult for an album that many kids would want to have. It's not a bad song, but the album doesn't really hold up well for me all these years later. I find 1991's Dangerous to be much better than Bad, but none of his albums hold a candle to Thriller.

When Madonna's single "Who's That Girl?" started playing on the radio, I was shocked because I had expected "Love Makes the World Go Round" to be the next and final single from Madonna's super successful True Blue album of 1986. "La Isla Bonita" was the last single released from her third album and now she had a new song that featured some Spanish words thrown in to the lyrics, like "La Isla Bonita." I loved "Who's That Girl?" and it remains high on the list of favourite Madonna songs for me. I couldn't wait for her new album to be released.

Again, like Whitney Houston's "Where You Are" and Michael Jackson's "I Just Can't Stop Loving You", Madonna's "Who's That Girl?" makes me think of my family's U.K. roadtrip. I also heard this song a lot during that vacation. When the album was released, I was disappointed that it only had four Madonna songs: "Who's That Girl?", "Causing a Commotion", "The Look of Love", and "Can't Stop." I liked all of them and wanted more (yes, even after her perfect True Blue album and dance remix album, Spotlight). However, the album did feature songs from other artists, which were pretty good. Does it hold up after a quarter of a century? Well, its a pretty typical example of 80s pop music. I didn't get to see the movie until I was in college in the late 1990s and saw it in a video store. As expected, the movie was bad and Madonna's acting was atrocious. This was another case where the soundtrack was better than the movie.

Interestingly, when Whitney Houston's debut movie came out in late 1992, the soundtrack to The Bodyguard only featured six songs by Whitney Houston and the rest by other singers. It reminded me of the Who's That Girl? soundtrack. However, Whitney could act and the movie was a huge success as well as the album. Madonna only released two of her songs as singles, though all four of them could've done well on the pop charts, especially "Can't Stop."

Twenty-five years later, Madonna has given one of the best half-time shows in Superbowl history and has a new album coming out this month. Her career seems as strong as ever, even if she doesn't sell as well as she used to. However, it is difficult to stay relevant in today's changing music scene, with music interests being as fractured as it is. I plan to buy Madonna's new album, but my expectations are not very high. It'll be hard for her to top the musical brilliance of Confessions on a Dance Floor and Hard Candy, but we'll see.

The fourth major artist of the 1980s achieved huge success with 1984's Purple Rain soundtrack. I remember this soundtrack as being a staple of my 7th grade year at Logan Fontenelle Junior High School in Bellevue, Nebraska. Prince is a talented singer / songwriter who has been quite prolific in what he has managed to come out with. For many years, he released an album a year. This might be good news for fans, but in terms of quality, it was often hit or miss. Some albums only had a song or two that was a hit while the rest felt like filler. He certainly could have combined the best songs from a few albums and discarded the waste and have a much stronger album. This includes 1985's Around the World in a Day, with its sole hit "Raspberry Beret" (my all-time favourite Prince song) and 1986's Parade, with its solitary hit "Kiss." Then came Sign o' the Times in 1987, a critical and commercial hit. It was certainly his best since Purple Rain and would be in the top five of his best albums ever.

The single "Sign o' the Times" is Prince's equivalent of John Lennon's "Imagine." Also on this album were the singles "U Got the Look", "If I Was Your Girlfriend" (made a better single for girl group TLC), and "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man". Even the songs that were not released as a single were quite good. This was a strong album that is worth listening to. After this one, there were only three others that I liked after that: Batman soundtrack, Diamonds and Pearls, and The Gold Experience.

Prince is still around, releasing music. But in terms of the four biggest superstars of the 80s, he was in fourth place. Unlike the other three, he released an album every year. That might have been the problem. He should've waited two, three, or even four years between albums to create some kind of demand and attention, plus it would have been far better to include his best songs on a single album than to release albums with only one or two hit songs or single-worthy songs. It got to the point where each year, with a new release from Prince, one would think, "Another Prince album?" Think of 1988's Lovesexy or 1990's Graffiti Bridge. If anyone should be working on a major comeback, Prince definitely should. He should get with Madonna (they did sing a duet in 1989's "Lovesong" for Madonna's fourth album, Like a Prayer) to get advice on how to create a good album that garners attention in the press and appeals to the music buying public. I'd love to see him come out with a critically acclaimed, musically brilliant album again. It has been a long time!

Finally, the fifth major superstar of the 1980s, Bruce Springsteen scored a huge hit with his Born in the USA album from 1984. His follow-up was much anticipated, but turned out to be a disappointment. In 1987, he released Tunnel of Love, which lacked the brilliant rock anthems of his huge hit album that promoted him to performing in stadiums. It was a mellow album of ballads about love and disillusionment about love. The only single I remember is "Brilliant Disguise" but even that song gets lost among his bigger hits before and since.

On Tuesday his latest album, Wrecking Ball, is released and it has gotten acclaim already for being one of the best of his career with lyrics that reflect the politics of our times. I will definitely be getting this album sooner rather than later. I've heard the lead single, "We Take Care of Our Own" and I love it. Hopefully, he'll be singing a lot from now until election day. It's time for Americans to remember "the Boss" that they loved in 1984-1985. He's had hits (The Rising, Magic, Working on a Dream) and misses (Tunnel of Love, Lucky Town, Ghost of Tom Joad), but I think Wrecking Ball will be among his best. It is great that twenty-five years after that magical year in music, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen have new albums out and still enjoy a loyal fan base and critical attention. Not everything they've done in the past twenty-five years has been great, but through it all, they've worked hard and shown some growth as people and as artists. They've managed to avoid the self-destructive behaviours that have befallen others. I only hope that they will continue to do the creative projects that bring joy, inspire thoughts, and engage the public. Here's to the next 25 years!

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