FROM COMISKEY PARK TO ‘THRILLER’
10 years ago, on the 30th anniversary of the Comiskey Park anti-disco riot, I published the enclosed piece. It’s worth revisiting 10 years later as we note the 40th anniversary of the infamous event. To be sure, the world has changed in 10 years, and of course Michael Jackson is no longer the revered figure that he was following his 2009 death. Reading the piece now, I do think my musings at the end about about the “current” state of pop and its future hold up pretty well.
From Comiskey Park To ‘Thriller’
(How The Pop Music Audience Was Torn Apart, And Then Put Back Together)
By Steve Greenberg
Thirty years ago this month, on July 12th, 1979, the disco boom, which had dominated the pop music landscape for the previous three years, came to an abrupt and decisive end. That summer, a radio disc jockey in Chicago named Steve Dahl led an anti-disco rally at Comiskey Park between games of a White Sox double-header. Thousands of disco records were exploded in the outfield as the overwhelmingly white male crowd shouted “Disco sucks.’ Racial and homophobic epithets were thrown into the mix, reflecting disdain for disco’s origins in the black and gay communities. A riot ensued, and the second game of the double-header was forfeited.
Coming the same month as President Carter’s “malaise” speech, in which the Chief Executive placed a large share of blame for the nation’s economic woes on the public’s bad attitude, the rally was yet another indication that there was a deep dissatisfaction in the land. For what was really taking place at Comiskey Park was a public lynching, in absentia, of the perceived dominance of black and gay culture in white America. White men were demanding a return to cultural pre-eminence. That yearned-for resurgence of white rock hegemony would arrive, but like all movements based on a return to the past, it would not sustain.
For disco, the end came quickly thereafter, as the cry of the “Disco sucks” forces continued in force. The same week as the rally, “Good Times” by Chic debuted in the Top 10. No one knew it at the time, but it was to be the last hit of the disco era. And a fitting close it was. Journalist Dave Marsh has noted that “Good Times” captured “the heady disintegrating atmosphere of…the late 70’s, as both local and national government abandoned any hope of social equity and opened the door for the ruthless laissez-faire heyday of upper and lower-class criminality that characterized the 80’s.”
When “Good Times” entered the Top 10 on July 21, 1979, the top six records in the country were all disco records. By the time it fell out of the Top 10 on September 22nd, there were none. Disco was declared dead; white kids, the media reported in relieved, even celebratory tones, were dancing to rock and roll again. A new wave rock record called “My Sharona” by the Knack replaced “Good Times” at number one and stayed there until October. “Good Times” fell out of the Top 40 later that same month, coinciding with the release of the very first rap record, “Rappers’ Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang, which used Chic’s bassline as its instrumental underpinning. The glossy fantasy world of disco was being replaced by a harsher street cousin.
Within a month, two events signaled that the 70s party was over in the world at large as well. November saw both the abduction of American hostages in Iran and Ronald Reagan’s announcement of his candidacy for the presidency. The 80s had been jump-started a bit early; the civil rights movement had run out of steam, and powerlessness, retrenchment, and xenophobia were in the air.
Whether by sheer coincidence or communal instinct, that same month witnessed the chart debut of “Coward of the County,” a country song by Kenny Rogers, which audiences immediately heard as a parable for America’s perceived paralysis and the country’s need to reassert itself in order to regain the world’s respect. Simultaneously, back-pedaling Top 40 programmers began to shy away from all records by black artists, in an effort to stay as far from the disco tag as possible.
Add to this mix a seismic technological shift on the pop radio dial: The immediate post-disco era saw a rise in “specialized formats” on the FM dial, which in 1979 supplanted mass-audience AM Top 40 radio as the prime source of radio music. At the end of the 70s, 50.1% of radio listeners were tuned to FM, ending AM’s historical dominance and hastening the demise of the mass-audience Top 40 stations that had dominated the radio ratings since the 1950s. By 1982, FM commanded 70% of the audience—and among the 12-24 year old demographic, it was 84%. Consequently, a mass pop music audience that crossed demographic lines could not be sustained. Instead of listening to stations which offered “the best of everything” as they had on AM, the abundance of choice on FM afforded listeners the luxury of hearing only the musical sub-genre they liked, without having to wade through everything else. One by one, the giant Top 40 stations of the past converted to more niche formats. The result of this shift was that each audience segment had only limited exposure to the music played on the formats targeted to other audience groups.
Further, with the last of the baby boomers coming into adulthood, radio stations had less incentive to cater to the rapidly shrinking demographic slice made up of teens—the group who usually drive innovation in the music marketplace. All together, these developments led to a period of doldrums and the rise of the so-called “faceless bands” of 1981—led by Styx, Journey, REO Speedwagon and Foreigner–whose “musical wallpaper” symbolized the era.
Likewise, the period was marked by a continued rise of adult-oriented country music on pop radio, peaking with the “Urban Cowboy” fad of 1980-81. This was yet another grown-up boomer rejection of the disco era. The film “Urban Cowboy” starred John Travolta, who just three years earlier had been the poster boy for white America’s love affair with disco music as the star of “Saturday Night Fever.” His perceived “conversion” seemed to represent the ultimate triumph of the anti-disco ethos. Actually, the baby boomer move toward country signified that this generation was aging and would no longer be at the cutting edge of musical
taste. Disco would prove to have been the last mass musical revolution led by the baby boom audience.
This overall situation led Newsweek, in April of 1982, to state “the Big Beat is sounding more and more like the muzak of 1984.” (Miller, et. al., 1982) Increased fragmentation had drained much of the excitement from the pop scene, as there was no longer much cross-fertilization between musical styles. Especially hard hit was black music, which had been banished from most white-oriented radio stations after the fall of disco and the demise of Top 40 radio. Ghettoized on urban contemporary radio, black artists began to disappear from mainstream pop culture in the early years of the decade: In 1979, nearly half of the weekly Billboard Hot 100 pop chart could also be found on the urban contemporary chart. By 1982, that number was down almost 80%. By the fall of that year, the height of early-80s musical fragmentation, not a single record by a black person could be found in the Top 20 on the albums chart or singles chart for three consecutive weeks—a phenomenon unseen since before the creation of Top 40 radio in the mid 1950s.
In this environment, number one urban contemporary hits, like Roger Troutman’s “Heard It Through the Grapevine” or “Burn Rubber” by the Gap Band, failed to even crack the pop Top 40. Prince’s “1999,” which would later emerge as a pop culture anthem, flopped at Top 40 radio even as it soared up the urban chart. A black superstar like Rick James could sell over 4 million albums while remaining unknown to most listeners of white-oriented radio.
A seemingly impenetrable wall had been erected between the black listening audience and its white counterpart; for the most part, neither black kids nor white kids had any idea what the other was listening to. Consequently, the nascent rap movement, which by decade’s end would reinvigorate American musical culture, was developing exclusively in front of a black audience, with most white American music fans barely aware of its existence.
Newsweek ended their article on rock’s “doldrums” by reminiscing about the “good old days” when Elvis Presley and the Beatles created excitement by providing an identifiable center to the pop music world, recording music which the various segments of the pop music audience could all share. According to Newsweek, Elvis and the Beatles were “Phenomena produced by a nation responding in unison to the sounds on every Top 40 radio station.” The magazine went on to predict that “In today’s fragmented music marketplace, no rock star can hope to have that kind of impact.”
Within a year, Newsweek’s prediction would prove spectacularly wrong, as a star appeared on the scene with unprecedented impact on the various fragments making up the marketplace. What enabled Michael Jackson to become such a dominant figure, and what eroded the lines of demarcation, reuniting the various segments of the pop audience, was the emergence of the decade’s most important pop culture innovation: MTV.
The growing popularity of cable television in the early 1980’s was the technological development that made MTV possible. With dozens of underdeveloped channels on the cable dial, Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment, an adjunct to one of the nation’s largest cable providers, decided to create a 24-hour channel for young people that would play music videos in rotation. MTV was launched in August of 1981, at its inception reaching only 8 million homes, mostly in small towns and suburbs. But its impact was immediate, and dramatic: In markets where MTV was available, the music industry became astonished as records featured on its playlist began to pick up sales without any radio airplay.
Why did MTV choose to play videos of songs that weren’t on the radio, rather than concentrating on the biggest pop hits? Quite simply, music videos for most of the American hit records of the day did not exist. Desperate to fill a round-the-clock schedule with videos, MTV’s initial playlists were chock full of clips by British new wave acts unfamiliar to American radio audiences. British videos were easy to come by since they’d been a staple of UK pop music TV programs like “Top of the Pops” since the mid-70s. And so, seemingly out of nowhere, British groups like Soft Cell and the Human league were “moving units” in places like Tulsa and Columbus, and fans were calling their local radio stations to request their records.
Measured against MTV’s playlist, the fare being offered up on American “pop” radio stations—Christopher Cross, Eddie Rabbit–began to seem very tired, indeed. Britain was still experiencing the aesthetic fallout of the punk/new wave revolution, which had never gained traction in the American mainstream. Now it was serving up artists that were younger, flashier and more innovative than their “faceless” U.S. counterparts. MTV’s embrace of this aesthetic was an implicit announcement that the baby boomers’ demographic reign was nearing its end, at least as far as music was concerned.
MTV’s true impact was not fully felt until the channel made its debut in the New York and Los Angeles areas in September of 1982. Suddenly, that which was a whispered rumor wafting in from the heartland became a resounding thunderclap rousing the cultural agenda setters in the nation’s twin media capitals. A plethora of print and television news articles appeared, declaring the dawn of the video era. British new wave acts crashed their way onto the national charts in a seemingly endless succession —Adam and the Ants, Culture Club, Flock of Seagulls, Haircut 100, Duran Duran, etc. etc. American pop radio, which had resisted this assault for a year, finally gave up in response to listener demand. And American record labels scrambled to find younger, hipper acts of their own which would look good in videos.
MTV’s early embrace of British new wave was matched by its unstated closed-door policy toward black music. Launched at the height of radio playlist segregation, the channel at first could not fathom its largely white audience wanting to hear black records, with which they were unfamiliar. The previously mentioned nadir of black presence on the pop sales charts was, in fact amplified by the launch of MTV in New York and Los Angeles—which led to a moment where black music was entirely shut out on both pop radio AND the nation’s only important music video channel.
Enter Michael Jackson. By the time his album “Thriller” was released in 1982, Michael Jackson had been a top recording star for over a dozen years. But his most recent album, the mega-hit “Off The Wall,” had been released in 1979, before the wall separating black and white music on the radio arose. CBS Records, Jackson’s label, was aware that there were no black records at all in the pop Top 20 the week they sent the debut single from “Thriller” to radio in October of 1982. Faced with the very real possibility that Jackson’s record would fail to become exposed to a crossover radio audience, the record company took no chances. That first single, “The Girl Is Mine,” was a gentle duet with the ex-Beatle Paul McCartney. McCartney’s presence virtually insured the song’s acceptance at white radio. And, aware that MTV didn’t play videos by black artists, CBS simply didn’t make one for Jackson’s single.
On the strength of the number two pop chart peak of “The Girl Is Mine,” Jackson’s “Thriller” LP became a certified retail hit that Christmas. As 1983 began, the label prepared its campaign for album’s second single, the more “urban” sounding “Billie Jean.” The strategy of opening with the McCartney duet paid off, as pop radio started to play this follow-up song as well. But with MTV the rage of the music world that winter, there was no way Jackson could occupy the central spot in a multi-format pop culture without its support.
CBS gambled and filmed expensive videos for both “Billie Jean” and the next single, “Beat It”–videos that were a joy to behold. Jackson was a natural video star, his era’s premiere song and dance man. The two videos introduced a standard of choreography previously unseen in music videos, arguably surpassing even James Brown’s 1960s live work, until then the gold standard against whom all rhythm and blues dancers were judged.
As a visual art form, music video is naturally suited to choreography. Yet with the exception of middle-aged Toni Basil’s “Mickey” clip from the previous fall, there really hadn’t been any accomplished dancing featured on MTV. This was largely due to the fact that the music business hadn’t in recent years nurtured artists who could dance—even the stars of disco music weren’t consummate dancers themselves. All that would soon change, with Madonna, Michael’s sister Janet Jackson, and Paula Abdul, among others. But in the meantime, Michael Jackson had the MTV dance-floor to himself.
Despite the obvious quality of the Jackson videos, MTV initially resisted playing them. Wielding its muscle, CBS threatened to withhold all its artists’ videos unless the channel featured Jackson. As it turned out, MTV’s capitulation to this threat was the thing that put both Michael Jackson and MTV itself over the top. Featuring Jackson’s videos widened the video-clip channel’s appeal as much as airplay on MTV widened the appeal of Michael Jackson. “Billie Jean” spent seven weeks at number one, followed by three weeks at the summit for “Beat It.” And of course “Thriller” went on to become the best selling of all time, moving more than 40 million units over the course of two years. It spent 37 weeks at number one, spawned seven hit singles, and won eight Grammys. The 13-minute video of the title track became the best selling music videocassette of all time (Ralfini, 1984). And lest there be any doubt that this album truly did unify all corners of the pop audience, it won the hipper-than-thou Village Voice critics’ poll for album of the year in addition to all those Grammys.
For MTV’s part, breaking Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” on such a grand scale offered proof of the channel’s new status as the most powerful single force in pop music as well as in all of youth culture. By 1984 MTV was reaching 1.2% of the daily total television audience and more than a quarter of daily teen viewers. Children of the 80s would henceforth be known as “the MTV Generation.”
As the channel opened itself up to more videos by other black artists, it single-handedly forced pop radio to reintroduce black music into its mix: After all, MTV viewers, now accustomed to seeing black artists and white artists on the same video channel came to expect the same mix of music on pop radio. It was impossible to keep the various fragments of the audience isolated from one another. Top 40 radio itself made a big comeback due to this seismic shift. Beginning in January of 1983 in Philadelphia, and rapidly spreading through the country, one or more FM stations in every city switched to Top 40 and many rose to the top of the ratings playing the mix of music made popular by MTV—young rock and urban hits.
In this environment, black music made a resounding comeback on the pop charts. If 1982 was the genre’s low point in terms of pop success, by 1985 more than one third of all the hits on the Billboard Hot 100 were of urban radio origin. Even Prince’s “1999” single, shut out of pop radio upon its initial release in 1982, was re-launched in mid-1983 and off the back of its MTV exposure became a huge pop radio success the second time around. Thus, in a way few historians appreciate, MTV proved itself a remarkably progressive force, helping to reintegrate a fragmented popular culture at the dawn of the Reagan era.
With pop stars now doubling as TV stars, it was time for some serious muscle-flexing. In 1985, Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie brought together an awe-inspiring grouping of American artists to record a single to benefit African famine relief: “We Are The World.” This video made its debut in March of 1985 on network television, but it required multiple viewings on MTV to identify all the superstars in the room, Pop, rock, urban—even country music was represented, uniting the music world on record and underlining the shared experience of the music audience in the MTV era.
The stars of “We Are The World” and those who joined together at the July 1985 Live Aid charity concerts held simultaneously in London and Philadelphia were the most familiar faces on the entire cultural scene. They derived their drawing power by the unprecedented combination of exposure on both MTV and radio and the collateral interest this exposure afforded them in the press. The concerts, broadcast live on television (MTV and broadcast TV) and radio, were seen by over one billion people worldwide. They became a giant coming-out party for the MTV generation. It is highly doubtful whether a similar effort by the “faceless” pop stars of four years earlier could have aroused the support of all corners of American society the way Live Aid’s stars could. Due to television’s magnifying power, pop stardom had simply become a bigger proposition–and it could strike an artist with unprecedented velocity.
The mass pop audience, stitched back together by MTV and Michael Jackson just when it seemed it had gone away for good, held together throughout the rest of the 80’s and 90’s. But it collapsed once again during this decade, as the internet’s dominance over the culture led to pop being served up to ever more thinly-sliced niches. Once again the constituent parts of the pop audience became isolated from each other; once more it became nearly impossible for any one performer to reach them all. Poignantly, the one musical event since the dawn of the millennium that had the power to command the attention all segments of the pop audience was the death of Michael Jackson himself.
Predictably, the death of Michael Jackson caused a communal recollection of his greatest accomplishment—re-uniting the pop music audience after a decade of increasing fragmentation—and a lamentation about the impossibility of anyone ever doing it again. The New York Times on June 28th wrote: “Fame on the level Mr. Jackson has achieved is all but impossible for pop culture heroes today, and quite likely it will never be possible again.” The similarity of these remarks to Newsweek’s 1982 incorrect prediction that it couldn’t happen again back then—even though “Thriller” was waiting just around the corner—is uncanny. The pop culture landscape and the technologies through which that culture is transmitted are ever-changing beasts. The notion that never again will the conditions be right for a truly mass, sustainable musical moment is myopic, to say the least. Who knows what developments, both technological and musical, await just around the corner this time to make such a moment possible—even inevitable?