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Over time, the 1980s have become not just a decade of time, but a genre of music. Likely, when you hear the phrase "80s music," you can almost immediately hear a variety of songs playing in the back of your mind. Maybe you think of Michael Jackson or Madonna, or you could be hearing a Bon Jovi or Journey power ballad. Regardless of your opinion on the music you associate with the 80s (because let's face it, some of these are pretty painful), they are undoubtedly synonymous with the time period.
But, in 1982, a legend was born. On September 30, soft rock band Toto released the song/masterpiece "Africa" as a single for their album Toto IV. It topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1983, and since then it has remained a cultural icon. Thirty-five years later, you'd be hard pressed to find a room where at least half the people in it didn't know at least the chorus. But why did this song survive through the decades when so many other 80s classics have been lost to time? Why this one, when so much of Toto's own discography hasn't held up?
First of all, the song has a lot of strongly unique qualities. With the heavy use of synthesizers (including that awesome electronic flute solo at the bridge), it's easy for some to just call this an 80s song and be done with it. However, the song isn't simply an American song named after an exotic place — it incorporates a lot of musical influences from countries around the world. While the use of global music is a much more common tactic in popular music nowadays, Toto was an early adopter. David Paich, keyboardist for the band who co-wrote the song, gave an interview in 2015 about the song, revealing a lot of insider information about his view on the piece. He stated, "'Africa' was one of the entries into that genre, because it was the only way to describe that song, really. Here was a pop band that was taking influences that came from South Africa and Bali and different places like that."
Another thing that heavily benefited the longevity of "Africa" is its memorability and mimic-ability. A surefire way to make sure your song lives forever is to make it impossible to forget. The insanely catchy rhythmic section, featuring congas, a gong, and various other interesting instruments keeps the beat in your head for days on end. The intro to the song is immediately recognizable (dun-dun-dun duh-nuh nuh-nuuuuuuuuh), and a catchy lead-in is 100% effective in making sure people hear your song, recognize it, and get excited every time it comes on. The instrumentals are perfectly complex to keep listeners engaged, yep, simple enough that they aren't overwhelming.
The vocals are a story all their own, as the verses begin fairly gentle and subdued, but the chorus is an explosion of a 3-part harmony that's simply unforgettable. Marked by the lyrics, "Gonna take a lot to drag me away from you, there's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do" the chorus has an intense, passionate, and almost desperate tone, instilling a strong sense of emotion in the listener. When the song gives your audience chills, they will not only remember what they heard, but how they felt. The chorus of "Africa" is pretty much flawless, which also exponentially increases people's desires to jam out to it. For a song to truly be a classic, you've gotta be able to play it in a large crowd and have everyone really just rock out — Toto really captured that with this song.
There's also a certain quality of this song that's just totally repeatable. The cover linked above by Mike Masse and Jeff Hall is a great example of this, because people love to hear their favorite songs covered, altered, and sometimes even improved. The more popular a song becomes, the more covers are made, and the more covers are made, the more popular a song becomes. It's a cycle of success; a cycle that "Africa" has been caught in for 35 years.
The lyrical content of the song is almost hilariously generic in its descriptions of Africa, and drummer Jeff Porcaro described it as, "a white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he's never been there, he can only tell what he's seen on TV or remembers in the past." David Paich also commented on it, "At the beginning of the 80s I watched a late night documentary on TV about all the terrible death and suffering of the people in Africa. It both moved and appalled me, and the pictures just wouldn't leave my head. I tried to imagine how I'd feel about it if I was there and what I'd do." The band revealed that, while many fans hear the lyrics and imagine it to be a love song between two people, it's really more about a man's love for a place. However, the interpretation of how you hear and feel about a song is really up to you. We can all agree that the song invokes a sense of emotion and adventure, so whether it's about love or travel doesn't matter too much.
All I'm trying to say is that this song is timeless, and it's still great. Toto really did a remarkable job in creating a song that works on all sides, and I'd argue that it's one of the greatest soft rock songs of all time. The band mentioned that they debated even including it on Toto IV, but I'm glad they ultimately did, and I'm sure that they're even more glad that they did. May we always remember to bless the rains down in Africa.