Okay, it's a bold statement, but I stand by it: 1984 was the year that Top 40 radio achieved perfection. Spurred by the twin successes of MTV and Michael Jackson's Thriller, radio playlists were fully shaken out of the doldrums they'd been in since the disco slump of 1979. Colorful and photogenic British new wave and synth pop acts had been making slow inroads into the Billboard Top 40 since Gary Numan's "Cars" back in early 1980. But the UK pop stars of the day were making overt plays for the American airwaves, and established stateside artists ranging from Prince and Bruce Springsteen to Billy Joel and Tina Turner were responding with some of their biggest-selling albums. And in the middle of it all, two newcomers named Cyndi Lauper and Madonna Ciccone were offering very different -- although equally interesting -- new takes on what it meant to be a female pop star. Here, in chronological order by the week they debuted on the chart, are a baker's dozen of 1984's biggest and best. We could have chosen at least as many more.
Tina Turner -- "Let's Stay Together" (chart debut February 18, reached #26)
In one of the first cases of a vintage R&B star being brought back by younger musicians, a thoroughly washed up Tina Turner was recruited by Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh of the electro-pop trio Heaven 17 to record vocals for a song by their side project the British Electric Foundation. That track led to a hit single with a stark but impassioned synth-driven take on the Al Green classic "Let's Stay Together." That single's U.K. chart success led Capitol Records to sign Turner to an album deal, resulting in the massive-selling Private Dancer LP. She had bigger songs later in the year, including the career-defining #1 "What's Love Got To Do With It," but this smaller hit still sounds the best.
Tracey Ullman -- "They Don't Know" (chart debut March 17, reached #8)
British actress and comedian Tracey Ullman later became a beloved TV figure (not least because she gifted us with The Simpsons), but this note-for-note cover of the late Kirsty MacColl's brilliant 1979 girl-group homage was the first we ever heard of either of these talented women. Literally: that explosive "BABY!" that slams home the final verse is MacColl's powerful voice, not Ullman's charming but thin instrument. And yes, that's Paul McCartney at the end: Ullman was co-starring in his big-budget vanity project Give My Regards To Broad Street when the video was filmed.
Billy Joel -- "The Longest Time" (chart debut April 7, reached #14)
After a string of albums that seemed like increasingly naked attempts to be taken seriously as a songwriter, Billy Joel made the best album of his career just by going back to the '50s R&B and pop singles that had been his first musical love. An Innocent Man had bigger hits, like "Tell Her About It" and "Uptown Girl," but perhaps the best was this doo-wop homage that doubled as an atypically sincere love song for his then-new sweetheart Christie Brinkley. Both his later albums and the marriage went south, but whadaya gonna do? To their credit, Joel and his touring band were unafraid to look like complete ninnies in this silly video taking place at a high school reunion.
Madonna -- "Borderline" (chart debut April 14, reached #10)
After the dancefloor-centric singles "Everybody," "Burning Up" and "Holiday," Madonna proved her pop suss with this incredibly hooky single. It's as easy to move to as any of her other early tracks, but the beat was de-emphasized by the bell-like synth riffs and addictive synth-bass pulse. Brazilians call the sense of aggreeable melancholy on display here saudade, and it gives "Borderline" an elegance that her next couple of singles, "Lucky Star" (the video of which was extremely important to my 14-year-old self for obvious reasons) and "Like A Virgin," would lack.
Cyndi Lauper -- "Time After Time" (chart debut April 21, reached #1)
The goofy "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" made it seem like Cyndi Lauper was going to follow Nena's "99 Luftballoons" into the annals of one-hit-wonders, but this heartbreaking ballad made it clear that despite her perhaps-questionable fashion sense, she was a genuine talent. She's So Unusual was jam-packed with hits ranging from "She Bop," the most overt hit about female masturbation until DiVinyls' "I Touch Myself," to a gorgeously minimal cover of Jules Shear's "All Through the Night." But "Time After Time" was the only one awesome enough that no less than Miles Freakin' Davis recorded it.
Night Ranger -- "Sister Christian" (chart debut April 21, reached #5)
All together now: MOTORIN'! The archetypal power ballad, "Sister Christian" was the song that made it okay for girls to like poodle-haired dudes in spandex and mascara. Although this means Night Ranger were therefore partially responsible for some of the worst hits of the pre-"Smells Like Teen Spirit" era, the song's use in the supremely bizarre home invasion scene in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights almost makes up for "When I See You Smile" by Bad English.
Duran Duran -- "The Reflex" (chart debut April 28, reached #1)
The original mix of "The Reflex" that opened Duran Duran's third album, Seven and the Ragged Tiger, was kind of a botch, sluggish and overlong. For the single, the Durans enlisted Chic's Nile Rodgers (yes, the same dude who made Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" so awesome) to remix the song from top to bottom, and his tighter, punchier and more inventive take scored the band their first American #1 hit. As primitive as it seems now, this video looked positively state of the art in the spring of 1984. It was mildly controversial in the halls of Levelland Junior High, as I recall: the sequence that starts around 3:20 was rumored to suggest...um, y'know...it's a giant wave of white fluid hitting audience members in the face, you figure it out.
Bruce Springsteen -- "Dancing in the Dark" (chart debut May 26, reached #2)
Born in the USA was lavishly praised from nearly all corners critically, but living in a small west Texas town at the time, I distinctly remember a lot of Springsteen's biggest fans around me finding "Dancing in the Dark" an overt slap in the face. Powered by a nagging synth riff and a booming, Phil Collins-like four-on-the-floor snare, it sounded like a "f---y little disco song" to the "Born To Run"-loving jocks. I found his willingness to listen to recent musical trends rather encouraging, but I was mostly just into the video for the really cute girl he pulls out of the audience at the end, who a decade or so later turned out to be Courteney Cox.
Dan Hartman -- "I Can Dream About You" (chart debut June 2, reached #6)
A primo piece of Hall and Oates-style '80s blue-eyed soul from a writer-producer who'd had a minor disco-era hit called "Instant Replay," "I Can Dream About You" was somewhat notorious at the time for its video. Not the one above, which was rarely if ever shown on MTV, but the actual clip that MTV had in heavy rotation at the time, which is seen in the TV screens in this version. That clip was a scene from the now-forgotten teen-angst flick Streets of Fire, in which a doo-wop quartet (including future indie director Robert Townshend and Forrest Gump costar Mykelti Williamson) lip-syncs Hartman's vocal. To this day, there are probably people who adore this song who have no idea that it was sung by a baby-faced white guy with a really bad perm.
Prince and the Revolution -- "When Doves Cry" (chart debut June 9, reached #1)
Nearly three decades later, it can be hard to remember just how weird this song sounded when it first hit the airwaves with a burst of Hendrixian feedback and some mumbled chanting. As skeletal as it is undeniable (ever notice that it doesn't have a bass line?), "When Doves Cry" was the song that confirmed that Prince was even weirder, and even more talented, than we had thought. As a musician, anyway: Purple Rain is a strong contender for the coveted title of Worst Film With The Greatest Soundtrack.
John Waite -- "Missing You" (chart debut July 21, reached #1)
The thing about John Waite, who had been the leader of a short-lived rock band called The Babys before he went on to a solo career (and who later was the frontman of the aforementioned Bad English), is that there's this weirdly cynical vibe about him. You just can't believe a word the guy sings. Ironically, that's what makes the chorus "I ain't missing you at all" work as well as it does: a more empathetic singer wouldn't put across the paradox nearly so well.
Bananarama -- "Cruel Summer" (chart debut August 11, reached #9)
Back in the pre-internet 1980s, it sometimes took literally years for a British hit single to attract enough of an American audience to hit the U.S. charts. Bananarama's "Cruel Summer" was the "Blurred Lines" of the summer of 1983 in their native land, but unless you were the kind of person who haunted the import section of your local record shop, it was a little over a year later before it reached your ears. Even though it had been the opening track on the trio's self-titled second album, released in the spring of 1984, it hadn't been London Records' first choice for an American single off the album. That honor went to "Robert De Niro's Waiting," a bouncy little tune that underneath its happy-go-lucky surface appears to be about the post-traumatic stress of a sexual assault victim.
George Michael -- "Careless Whisper" (chart debut December 22, reached #1)
When George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley started Wham!, the duo meant for their music to be a cynical commentary on Thatcherite economic policy. Seriously: go listen to their first single, "Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)." Or better yet, don't: it's absolute rubbish. When a song as fluffy as "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" is a huge improvement over your prior output, it's clear that you started from a bad, bad place. But that first American hit's follow-up "Careless Whisper" (released as a George Michael solo single everywhere but the US, where it was somewhat confusingly credited to "Wham! featuring George Michael") was the first indication of Michael's Elton John-like talent. And you can't fault that sax solo: it just encapsulates the 1980s, doesn't it?
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If you think about it, most of the season of The Real Wig Pullers of Lace Front Industries was spent with the women standing around in driveways fighting. That's really all they did. There was the fight in Porsha's driveway between her and Kenya and then another fight between them in the parking lot of a restaurant ("Bye Ashy!"). There was the infamous occasion where NeNe wouldn't let anyone into her house because they showed up three hours late and Kernya yelling at Kandi's assistant Don Juan in the driveway of Kandi's housewarming party. And finally, last night, we had Kernya Moo-ah hectoring Porsha in the driveway at her stupid "Iconic Female Icons of Blackness from Iconic Films or Films That Black Women Were In That Aren't Iconic or OK Maybe a TV Show Sponsored by Blackglamma" party. What a way to end a season! (Also, the best Housewives fight in a parking lot is the Melissa Gorga/Teresa Giudice throwdown from last season of Real Acid Tossers of Paramus Chemical, so they didn't even do it the best, they just did it a lot.
The whole thing started when Kernya Moo-ah met with four people to help plan the party. I believe one of the men, who remained silent and whose name was not put on screen, was the same party planner that Sheree Whitfield once asked who, exactly, was expected to check her, boo. I could be mistaken. This time around he had on glasses, like we wouldn't be able to tell Superman from Clark Kent. I think it was the same guy. Please, please be the same guy.
Oh, the one thing that had nothing to do with the party last night was Porsha's visit to Touchstone, which is where her psychiatrist lives. With a name like Touchstone you would think magicians lived there, and we are going to need a wizard to get any sense into Carvell, Porsha's husband who is a Cookie Puss come to life. He is also kinda awful. OK, he is entirely awful. And knowing that he filed for divorce just recently made this whole thing hurt more than getting a paper cut on your eyelid.
Carvell was really talking some nonsense. He wants Porsha to stay home and cook and clean for him and raise his children and not have a job. That is fine, if that is something Porsha wants too. It clearly is not. Then he says he wants her to have all that, but she hit the nail on the head saying, "You agree to it, but then you make it impossible to accomplish." I hate to say this, but maybe it's best that they got divorced. They never seemed like they were on the same team. The only time he came to her defense was at the fight when he got into a silly altercation with Kernya's main gay Brandon that made no sense and that was more because Brandon wasn't letting Carvell control the situation. He doesn't really defend her honor in any way, he just defends his honor in regards to how peopel are treating her. It's like Brandon was leaning on his car or something. The way Carvell treats her like a possession is gross. There's being protective and then there's carting something away like it's a statue that you bought at one of those stores in Manhattan that has been GOING OUT OF BUSINESS for the last 17 years. No one wants to live like that.
So, the party. Well, first, let's talk about everyone's outfits. Kernya Moo-ah absolutely killed it as Pam Grier. The wig, the body suit, even her face looked like a young Miss Greir. It was errrrrrrrrrrr-ything as the children would say. She might be awful on the inside, but there sure is some wonderful goodness on the outside (when she's not wearing too much foundation and her skin isn't broken out). Cynthia Bailey looked good as Diana Ross, but she should have gone with her shimmery caftan dress instead. We all know she has like seven Diana Ross wigs, so why she didn't wear one of them is beyond me. She looked like she could have tried harder. Her husband Peter looked great...if he was dressed as an asshole, because that's what he acted like all night.
NeNe Leakes got her gays to pull her together a Grace Jones look that would do any costume party proud but, I'm sorry, Grace is next to impossible to fully pull off and, well, she didn't quite. Kandi Burruss. Oh Kandi. You came and you gave without taking and we want to send you home to change, Oh Kandi. She looked like the the girl on the cover of the Tina Turner costume bag that you buy at Halloween Adventure where she looks like the celebrity she's supposed to be imitating, but everything is, well, just a little off and cheap. That wig looked like it used to be a homeless person's coat and it got so warn down someone combed it into a hairpiece. The rest of her costume was just, well. Not good. Phaedra Parks looked delightfully daffy as Eartha Kitt's Catwoman, but she was, you know, a TV character so it wasn't really applicable to the theme. That and some stun guns (I would like one of each of Phaedra's ridiculous products in a gift basket on Shop By Bravo Dot Come, please) were all Phaedra did last night.
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And then Porsha Stewart. Poor, poor Porsha. Now, Kernya wanted all the ladies to dress like iconic black women in film or iconic characters played by black women in film and then she was so bold as to tell each woman who she should come dressed as. Porsha's homework assignment was to come as Halle Berry from B.A.P.S., a movie that is not iconic and a role that is not iconic and, well, it was a way for Kernya to be mean to Porsha. Ms. Stewart, to her credit, tried on some B.A.P.S. looks at the hair salon and I think she actually looked really good. Like hoochie good, but still really good. Anyway her weave weaver convinced her that Kernya was trying to play a trick on her which, duh. Porsha was in a pickle. Go as Halle Berry according to plan and be a patsy or try something else? Well, the joke was on her no matter what.
Porsha shows up at the party dressed as Halle Berry not as B.A.P.S., but as Halle Berry as Dorothy Dandridge. So, basically she came as Dorothy Dandridge and you can cut out the Halle Berry part altogether. She looked good in a shimmery gold gown and a cute short 'do (maybe with all this divorce nonsense, she should change her hair and do this for real?). When Kernya saw her dressed as Dorothy Dandrige she flipped her afro wig and told Porsha to get out. She actually had security escort her out of the party because she wore the wrong costume. What sort of black souled beast is this woman? You know when you would leave the front door open as a child and your mother would say, "Were you raised in a barn?" What do you say to Kernya Moo-ah? "Were you raised in a Victorian orphanage where you were starved and beaten and all the love, decency, and manners driven from your heart?" Is that what you say? What can you say? You can say nothing. You can stand there and gape at her incredibly misconstrued sense of appropriateness. This was the grown up equivalent of packing up your toys and heading home.
Now Porsha might have handled it a little bit better. She smiled and smugly said, "I didn't want to do B.A.P.S. I did Dorothy Dandrige." She could have tried to play it off a bit more. "Oh, I wasn't comfortable doing that and Carvell gets made if I show off my Flying Saucers to everyone else in Cookie Puss Village," or maybe, "I tried to get B.A.P.S. together and I just couldn't find the right thing but I had this lying around so I just threw it together at the last minute." Something like that to show she tried.
Either way it wouldn't have made much of a difference. Kernya had laid the perfect trap. If Prosha would have been humiliated if she showed up as B.A.P.S. (You know how if you say something absurd long enough it starts to sound kinda surd and then the absurdity of that surdity makes you feel like your brain is meling into a pile of goo and their is a half-eaten sugar cone sticking out of it? That's how I feel about B.A.P.S. right now.) and if she didn't show up as B.A.P.S. then Kernya could humiliate her by throwing her out of the party. She even went so far as to pretend that she had some elaborate sketch planned for Porsha, but we all know that's a ruse. That's a scam. That's like that store in Manhattan that says it's been GOING OUT OF BUSINESS for 17 years.
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The rest of the Housewives did the right thing for a change and they all left the party together in protest. Cynthia, usually Kernya's only ally, even told her that she went too far. Kenya was being stupid. She was being as ridiculous as her afro wig was big. She was being as insincere was her peephole cutout was well placed. She was being as rational as her party theme was totally overdone and annoying. The whole thing was laughably stupid. She had no real argument at all. "OH, I had to cancle the program." Oh, shut up Kernya. You made that all up. (PS-This is also why the Housewives should never go to a costume party. The only thing worse than grown women fighting is grown women fighting while wearing ridiculous costumes. Remember Vicki at the Bunga Party last year on Real Citrus Rinds of Limefruit Jungle? It's sort of like getting a call that your mother died and having a Sisqo ringtone.)
But praise be to NeNe Leakse who showed up in a chariot drawn by two Nubian gods and she showed them all that, even though she is off in L.A., she is still the alpha female around here. People coaxed Porsha back in the party and NeNe told Kernya she better apologize or she was going to whip her to death in her Grace Jones costume. (However, NeNe shouldn't have gotten all up in that, "Never burn a bridge," line of reasoning when she and Kim had a falling out the way that they did.) Kernya did apologize and, while we all know it was a pile of iconic dung in film (probably from Weird Science) at least she did it and made it sound sincere.
And with that the party ended. The season ended, and we found out everything that happened to all of the housewives in those humorous little end cards that have become a staple of the series. They are all light and jovial and full of little digs. But not Porsha's. No. Hers just said. "Carvell filed for divorce." Period. Send. That is all it said. No pun, no sparkle in its eye, no hope for the future. Just a funeral procession driving across your screen. It was like a woman crying in her car in front of her lawyers office, just straggling out there along letting everyone see its mascara run down its face. Poor girl.
Yes, the party was over, all the guests were gone, the tears were dried, the animosity tamped deep down so that the finale party could go off without a hitch. The cameras were switched off. It was really over. The workmen were stacking up the chairs and taking down the "step and repeat" and Kernya Moo-ah decided it was finally time to take off her wig. She held it in her left fist by the knap as she ran her right hand through her real hair, mussing it around and trying to get rid of that strange painful feeling you get in your scalp when your hair has been immobilized for too long.
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She took a long walk over to the window and tried to look out at the night, but she just saw her reflection looking back at her, that gorgeous red dress and that hair that was crying bloody murder. Oh, how did she get here, she thought. What a year. All the fights and break ups and new friends and old wounds. All of this work and heartbreak and not anyone had seen it yet. "They're gonna love me," she thought about what was going to happen when the audience finally gets hold of this footage. "They are going to love me. They are going to do the Gone with the Wind fabulous twirl and they are going to buy my exercise video and they are going to be stealing my look and trying to be me. They're going to tell all the other women that they're wrong and they're gonna see, NeNe is gonna see, that the fans love me the most now. It's time for Kernya Moo-ah to arrive and she has, darling. Oh how she has. Just you wait. They're gonna adore me!"
She focused, not out on the stars and haggard trees beyond the pane but on her reflexion and, with her wig still in one hand, tried to shape the mess that was on her head. She got it to something she considered workable and then gave her best beauty pageant smile to the reflexion and turned around quickly on the balls of her feet. The dance floor was empty. There was no one to tell her if she was right or wrong, no one to tell her she looked good or a fright, just the parquet floor with a lone, green champagne bottle right in front of her feet. A workman rushed over and tried to pick it up, but Kernya said, "No, leave it." She kicked it slowly across the floor and followed behind it, kicking that empty bottle over and over again. She was soothed by its uneven rolling and bolstered by its little green glints sent off in every direction. But mostly she loved the sound it made while it rolled alone, completely hollow.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
[Photo Credit: Bravo]
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