The music video that famously played during MTV’s first minutes on the air was “Video Killed The Radio Star,” by the British synth-pop duo The Buggles. Four weeks later, a young American singer-songwriter named Christopher Cross completed a meteoric rise from obscurity when his hit ballad “Sailing” reached the top of the Billboard pop chart on August 30, 1980. In the years since, many observers have linked the first of these two events to the eventual decline of the man who accomplished the second. But even if MTV is what “killed” the radio star Christopher Cross, it did so only after he accomplished a run of success as great and unexpected as any in pop history.
Released in January 1980, Cross’s self-titled debut album was one of the biggest soft-rock hits of all time. The first single was “Ride Like The Wind,” which featured a memorable backup vocal by Doobie Brothers singer Michael McDonald and rose to #2 on the pop charts the following summer. “Sailing” was the follow-up single, and it rose even faster and higher, hitting #1 on this day in 1980. It also transformed Christopher Cross from a complete unknown to the biggest name in pop almost overnight, propelling him to a still-unmatched sweep at the 1981 Grammy Awards, where “Sailing” won Grammys for Best Record and Best Song, Christopher Cross won for Best Album and Cross himself won for Best New Artist. Cross would have another #1 pop hit later that year with “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do),” co-written with Burt Bacharach and Carol Bayer Sager and winner of the 1982 Oscar for Best Song. But Cross’s next top-10 hit, “Think Of Laura” (1983), would be his last.
Some say that the extremely talented but not terribly telegenic Christopher Cross was undone by the esthetic imperatives brought on by the dawning of the MTV era. But it is just as reasonable to suggest musical fashions were already shifting away from Cross’s “lite” Adult Contemporary sound without the help of MTV. In any event, Cross disappeared from the pop scene almost as quickly as he entered it.
“Would I have rather had a career like Peter Gabriel’s or Sting’s or somebody that grows over a long period of years and sustains like they have?” Cross asked himself in an interview 20 years after his heyday. “I’d prefer that as opposed to the sort of meteoric curve of my career…[but] I hear my music in grocery stores and people do know who I am, and I continue to tour so it’s great. Given the options, I wouldn’t change a thing.”