I’ve been on a non-fiction kick lately. I recently read two books each about an art medium in a particular year and only one of them was good. This blog is about the so-so one.
Let me heap praise on the good one first. I highly recommend Brian Raferty’s Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen. It’s a very well written book covering about two dozen movies, most of which are incredibly influential still to this day. It doesn’t get into cinephile territory, and strays from just being a book of IMDB factoids by getting into the culture of the 1999. He’s also pretty mean to American Beauty, which I think is something we can all get behind. Plus, as I recently re-watched the horror show that is Phantom Menace, I re-read the chapter on that book with glee
The other book I read is Michelangelo Matos’ Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year. This book was a slog. I want to know about the music in 1984, not the struggle between adult contemporary radio stations and album oriented rock. And that’s how the book starts. Even Gen-X and boomers don’t want to know about this.
The book really struggles because Matos jumps between the past, present (1984 present that is), and future. Case in point: Michael Jackson. I can understand why context is needed, because other than being the biggest pop star on the planet and the height of his career, I want to know more about the man and how he got to that point. But Matos’ writing seems schizophrenic with timelines as he jumps from the 1970s to Jackson’s reputation in the 2020s then back to 1984. It’s disorienting and it’s so bad, I’m surprised a Hachette allowed this to press.
Balancing all of this history and insight is very hard, but it feels unnecessary. Raferty remarks about Kevin Spacey and his actions, but he doesn’t get bogged down in them. His prose remained focused on the film and year at hand. I am under the impression Matos just threw out facts or statements to say them, perhaps to impress someone, but I was not impressed.
For a book about music, there’s very little about music in the book. For example, there’s a lot about Prince and the monster year he had with Purple Rain. But little about his music or virtuosity.
With not having much to say other than surface details or factoids, I felt the book is really missing a critical assessment of the year. Madonna may have changed a lot of things about concerts, pop music, sexuality, and more – but this is where Matos chickens out and instead of invoking how without her, there wouldn’t be Beyonce or any major pop star from the last three decades, he instead segues to talk about how busy Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards are.
For a book that’s supposed to take place in a calendar year, it seems an odd choice that Matos ends the book with extensive coverage of Live Aid which took place in 1985. I believe he’s trying to stress that a lot of what was achieved in 1984 spilled over into 1985 and beyond. Understandable, but the concert took place in July 1985, not say January or February. It was a lackluster ending to the book; my main takeaway is Phil Collins is a super hero and that Bob Dylan was a horrible headliner.
I have to give credit where credit is due that Matos’ book is both very well researched and the book covers a lot of ground. I dare you to find another book that covers as many genres, stars, and world events of a single year in just over 300 pages. The book also seems to have the definitive story of my favorite pop Christmas song – “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Also, I did appreciate how Matos’ coverage of Live Aid was anything but hagiographic.
One thing I wonder is if I was alive in 1984 would my assessment of the two books differ. I was in junior high in 1999 and I’ve seen most of the movies in that book – though I didn’t see many of them until I was in college. Most of the music discussed in Can’t Slow Down i’m intimately familiar with, and have been listening to for most of my life. I believe that because Can’t Slow Down is more about the culture and players and connecting them in a mind-map fashion than actually something substantive, it’s an inferior book to Best. Movie. Year. Ever.
Pitchfork rating: 6/10