Billy Ocean was a huge crossover success story in the 1980's. Born in Trinidad, raised in Britain, he was a fixture on the American R&B and pop charts in the mid and late 1980's. His multi-genre and multi-generational appeal led to a string of six top-five pop smashes in five years from 1984-1989, three of which went to number one. His chart resume in those years can stand up to just about anyone's.
His 1989 "Greatest Hits" collection (which I was listening to this past week) contained a new song that was carefully crafted to modernize his sound and launch his career into the new decade. Switching from R&B/funk to the then white-hot New Jack Swing sound and featuring a guest rap/monologue by The Fresh Prince, "I Sleep Much Better (In Someone Else's Bed)" had all the makings of a hit. Except it wasn't a hit. It didn't even chart on the Hot 100. In fact, after 1989, Billy Ocean never again placed a song in the Hot 100.
I often think about why so many music stars of the 80's turned quickly into afterthoughts at the start of the 90's. The neat and tidy explanations (Nirvana happened and killed off hair metal! Hip-hop took over!) haven't stood up to close scrutiny. Tastes are constantly changing and no "big event" or revolutionary bands were needed to vanquish the genres that were falling out of favour anyway, History makes for a cleaner read when it's "Band X took over from Band Y" but any music scene is a complex continuum whose evolution shouldn't be easily summarized by the actions of one or two bands. Still, a LOT of turnover happened between 1989-1992 -- or it could be my generational bias talking?
But maybe one needn't resort to the sorcery of grand assumptions to figure out what happened to Billy Ocean:
1) Mutt Lange was the wrong producer in the wrong place at the wrong time for this record. There's something to be said for loyalty and familiarity with a producer, but his attempt at producing New Jack Swing comes off as flimsy and fake compared with other records from the era.
2) NJS stars were trending much younger than the then-40 year old Billy Ocean. Downtempo R&B, led by the likes of Boyz II Men, would be huge in the 90's and Ocean would have had more success in that scene rather than trying to pass himself off as younger, hipper, and more club-ready.
3) The 90's in general were more about authenticity than presentation. A singer with a street smart fashion sense seemed real and believable, but a singer in a suit was a poseur in a fancy costume Groups like Boyz II Men did wear suits, but not exclusively so, and in their presentation they always came off like soulful street crooners, rather than supper club puppets. In this sense there wasn't anything Ocean could do, since he was typecast into his image.
Reason #3 is the most puzzling one, for in principle there was no reason why Billy Ocean, and many other 80's stars, couldn't reinvent themselves. Sure, not everybody is David Bowie or Madonna and can credibly pull that off, most stars are who they are and their careers live or die based on that. But was there a bias (or let's call it bigotry) against black artists in that respect? Most big late 80's acts lost their way in the early 90's, but some tweaked their image and became even more successful (Depeche Mode, U2, Tom Petty), remained popular as album oriented touring acts (Bon Jovi, Rolling Stones, Def Leppard), or kept themselves relevant and respectable on the charts in part due to soundtrack work (Elton John, Phil Collins). So were black artists more likely typecast as outdated hasbeens and dismissed? Even Prince, who could adapt himself to any genre he put his mind to, never truly managed to fit in during the 90's, at least not after 1991. The industry as a whole was more likely to pigeonhole black artists into a certain mold and not allow them to branch out.