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Can’t Slow Down: by Michaelangelo Matos

Maybe you had to be there. Critic Michaelangelo Matos, former Village Voice columnist and author of a 33 1/3 volume on Prince’s Sign ‘O’ the Times, was there, nine years old in the musically formative summer of 1984. In the thoroughly researched, sprawling book Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year, Matos tries to confirm his childhood suspicion that he was living in a banner year for pop music, and he’s convincing to a point. But over several hundred pages, the mini biographies stitched together to form its narrative begin to read like a musical laundry list.

Matos notes in an introduction that the decade at hand is so maligned that much more seems to have been written about non-mainstream music of the era than of the dominant stars, and in fact, certain of Can’t Slow Down’s abbreviated profiles seem to recapitulate recent longer-form works; this writer recognized stories told in much greater detail in Beastie Boys Book and Remain in Love, and your references may be different.

For a decade steeped in “Miami Vice” neon and other forms of aesthetic excess, frequently dismissed at the time but now regarded fondly, this can be surprisingly dry stuff. Matos’ personality, which came through in his Voice column and on Twitter, is often pithy and irreverent, but that tone ironically feels buried in this longer work. Part of that may come down to familiarity with its major players.

One of the driving theses in Can’t Slow Down is that 1984 (give or take a few months) was a rare period in which the music charts wer integrated: rock lay down with R&B, Eddie Van Halen made a cameo shredding for Michael Jackson on “Beat It,” which was released in 1983 but earned the Grammy for Record of the Year in 1984. Such unlikely genre crossovers made boatloads of money, and it wasn’t the only one: in this era, Bruce Springsteen wrote a song for Donna Summer, Chic’s Nile Rodgers collaborated with David Bowie and Prince Rogers Nelson was a one-man pan-genre juggernaut.

Can’t Slow Down takes its name from the Lionel Richie album that beat out Prince’s Purple Rain for album of the year. But Matos doesn’t limit his study to the pop charts. This was also an era when upstarts like R.E.M. were gaining momentum, veterans like Lou Reed were making fresh new music and the back catalogs of artists like James Brown were being tapped by a new generation.

Matos clearly has some respect for the ex-Commodore who gave his book its name, but Richie’s music, fairly or not, is often perceived as a compromise of watered-down funk and saccharine balladry. So if Can’t Slow Down rightly celebrates the landmark year(ish), there’s also a built-in awareness of its inevitable corruption. While most engaging musical stories here revolve around the hip-hop boom, the narrative slides home with long chapters on charity records and the cross-continental charity concert Live Aid, the apex of a series of 1984 spectacles that spanned awards shows and Olympic games, self-congratulation and a dream of universal harmony. What do you think won out?

Referring to the Who’s Wembley Area reunion, Matos gets out some dry snark: “Live Aid’s primary musical legacy was this veritable golden parachute, putting the media spotlight back on acts with nothing to contribute to the present day.” Can’t Slow Down is on one level a browsable refresher on a pivotal year for the musical industry, but this pop culture survey comes most to life on those all-too-rare occasions when it’s most cynical.

On one level a browsable refresher on a pivotal year for the musical industry, this pop culture survey comes most to life on those all-too-rare occasions when it’s most cynical.
60 %
Cynical Celebration

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