Scott Creney

Depeche Mode: the Martin Luther Kings of Synthpop

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by Scott Creney

It is common knowledge that there are three pivotal moments in the history of US race relations. The first is Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 which freed all American slaves. The second is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed major forms of racial discrimination. And the third is Depeche Mode’s 1984 single, ‘People Are People’.

Released at the height of Reagan-era patriotism, Depeche Mode’s first US hit single, one that would eventually reach #13 on the Billboard pop charts, forced Americans to step back from their Rambo/Springsteen/Olympic-fueled hysteria, and consider for a moment, to take stock of their humanity and the humanity of those around them.

People are people so why should it be, you and I should get along so awfully?

The question may have been rhetorical, but for a nation only 20 years removed from allowing black people to freely vote and use the same public restrooms as white people, the question had a deeper significance.

I can’t understand what makes a man hate another man.

And despite the differences between the members of Depeche Mode and the average American — differences that included fashion, sexual proclivities, citizenship, and hair gel — the pleas of ‘People Are People’ did not fall on deaf ears. The single was released in the U.S. on July 11th 1984, one week after America’s birthday. Two months later, The Cosby Show would make its debut, marking the first time in American television history that a non-poor black family would be featured in their own show. The nation, still reeling from DM’s inclusive message, flocked to the show in droves. It still stands as the most successful television program of the 80s.

The Cosby Show‘s success paved the way for other black — about to become African-American, to reflect this new raised consciousness —programs like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, A Different World and The Arsenio Hall Show. All of these shows were based on the novel premise of featuring African-American characters who were not criminals, not extremely poor, not taking drugs, and not mangling the English language (with the exception of Arsenio, in the last case). Needless to say, this came as a shock to most white Americans.

Which leads us to today’s America. Barack Obama is the president. Oprah Winfrey is the most powerful entertainer in the country. And Ronald Reagan is dead. Thank you, Depeche Mode. You accomplished a lot more than Bono ever did.

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