In the days before YouTube and Spotify, most people discovered new music through a little device called the radio, and tracking the popularity of hit songs was much simpler. Back in the 80s, Billboard determined which songs charted through sales of physical singles on cassette tapes or CDs, and of course, airplay on the radio — which is how singles by artists like Blondie and Prince became inescapable at that moment in time.
In this episode, your When We Were Young co-hosts take Billboard’s #1 charting pop single from every year of the 80s out for a spin — and the results are mixed! If “80s music” makes you think of Madonna, Billy Joel, Van Halen, or even A-ha, you’re not alone — but none of these popular artists actually dominated the charts in any given year of the decade. (Believe it or not, neither did the King of Pop himself.)
While some tracks, like 1983’s chart-topper “Every Breath You Take,” are no-brainers, there are a few head-scratchers in the mix, too. The 80s were surprisingly big on ditties about Oscar-winning divas and the gaits of ancient peoples. So put on your best aerobics attire and join us as we whisper carelessly about the #1 Pop Singles of the 1980s —the ones we still have plenty of “Faith” in, those we’re desperate to “Look Away” from, and everything in between.
Doing an episode on Billboard’s #1 Pop Singles of every year of the 80s and 90s reinforced the idea that the biggest isn’t always the best — or the most memorable. While there are some songs that very much seem like chart-toppers — The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” George Michael’s “Faith” — and others that I may not have expected to find at #1, but are fully worthy of this elite status as morsels of pure pop perfection — Blondie’s “Call Me,” Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” — there are also several that feel totally random.
Chicago’s “Look Away,” which capped off the decade as the top single of 1989, is the real head-scratcher — I seriously don’t think I’d ever heard this song before. But Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes,” while a perfectly fine song, also doesn’t strike me as something that would have been that popular. It goes to show how much of what’s popular in any given moment is a flash-in-the-pan fad (who would have guessed The Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian” would forever taint our understanding of ancient Egypt?) or a total anomaly (Dionne Warwick’s charity single “That’s What Friends Are For,” featuring Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and Elton John). It takes a certain unpredictable alchemy for such songs to become juggernauts at that particular moment in time. Whereas Prince’s “When Doves Cry” feels like it could have topped the charts at any time.
When we think of 80s music, few of these songs would ever cross our minds. The absence of Michael Jackson and Madonna, amongst others, feels truly bizarre. But for me, that was the fun part of this episode — seeing all the ways these chart-toppers defied my expectation, while also seeing how they did, in their own way, define the decade. Moving from disco and rock-tinged hits at the beginning of the decade into pure pop, with music video-friendly sex symbols taking over mid-decade, then giving way to a cheesy throwback to acknowledge the AIDS crisis and a goofy, somewhat culturally obtuse dance craze. Then 1989 sent the 80s out with a drippy breakup ballad — and, well, that turns out to be strikingly appropriate for what the early 90s’ #1 singles had in store…
|#1 Pop Single||Artist|
|1981||“Bette Davis Eyes”||Kim Carnes|
|1982||“Physical”||Olivia Newton John|
|1983||“Every Breath You Take”||The Police|
|1984||“When Doves Cry”||Prince|
|1986||“That’s What Friends Are For”||Dionne & Friends|
|1987||“Walk Like an Egyptian”||The Bangles|