30: Michael Jackson – “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” (1983)
There is perhaps no other artist as indicative of and imperative to the understanding of the 1980s from a pop cultural perspective as Michael Jackson. The sixth single from Jackson’s blockbuster icon of ‘80s cross-over R&B and MTV video culture Thriller, “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” was also one of the album’s least spectacular in terms of sales and critical reception. Like its predecessors, “P.Y.T” managed to crack the Top 10 the Billboard Hot 100, but it would go no higher. Yet listening to it now, despite the emblematic nature of singles like “Billie Jean,” “Beat It” and the title track and its accompanying video, “P.Y.T.” is one of the few tracks on the album that doesn’t scream early-1980s.
Unlike the more straight-forward structure of the singles in whose shadow “P.Y.T.” often rests, the song relies on a rather complex melodic structure as it alternates between the minor key feel of the verse and major key resolution of the chorus. Anchored by the thumping bass of Louis Johnson, it sounds more like a product of Off the Wall’s more polished disco funk than the MTV-ready riffs of the rest of the album – no coincidence seeing as Johnson played on both albums. So while it might not be as well-known or loved as “Billie Jean” or “Beat It,” from a strictly musical perspective it’s a far more interesting track.
But there is the unspoken stigma of the title as viewed within the personal legacy of Michael Jackson. Removing the song from its original context within Thriller and with the benefit of hindsight and what was later revealed regarding Jackson’s personal life, the idea of him needing the “loving” of a “pretty young thing” takes on a much darker, far more prurient tone. And while is almost certainly not the intention as the track itself was written by Quincy Jones and James Ingram, it can’t help but be perceived as something far more unsettling than the innocent love between two similarly-aged individuals. Of course this is more of a conspiracy theorist approach and, as with some of the early comedy of Bill Cosby (if we’re feeling generous in light of the heinous accusations), is best remembered for what it was at the time rather than what the artist behind the material was eventually revealed to be. – John Paul
29: Madonna – Borderline (1983)
Of the five singles released from Madonna’s indelible 1983 self-titled debut, “Lucky Star” was the megawatt arrival and “Holiday” was the potent earworm, but “Borderline” was the real sleeper. Hitting a sweet spot between soulful yearning and hip-shaking synth-pop, the track is a dance-y piece of bubblegum bliss tinged with relatable pangs of unrequited angst. Madge infamously had then-boyfriend John Benitez rework the song into a busier club jam that felt just a mite too overproduced, but Reggie Lucas’ writing on the original version is the emotional lynchpin of the album that launched a three plus decade career that’s still not quite dead.
There’s a tangible push and pull between Madonna herself and the structure of the song. “Borderline” has the effervescent, upbeat feel that would later become shorthand for anyone looking to send up mall pop in movie flashback sequences to come, but Madonna’s vocal performance is so richer, more textured than the music around her. Where the synths are clean and buoyant, she’s fighting her way through the hook like a kind of weaponized blue-eyed soul. Madonna would go on to spend years coloring outside the lines, sometimes to mixed results, but here she sounds like a scrappy pugilist, punching through the walls of her dance diva box to claw her way to a taste of transcendence.
American Psycho helmer Mary Lambert’s video for the song (the first of many fruitful collabs with the singer) perfectly captures that cocoon shattering, with Madonna refusing to fit into either of the roles the short narrative’s pair of suitors sees for her. She appears like a fully formed pop icon asserting her identity in quick cuts, teasing the charisma that would go on to make her a worldwide phenomenon. The crux of that is this talented and defiant young woman able to express complex emotions without overpowering the undeniable radio power of the music backing her up. – Dominic Griffin