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What is 80's Music?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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By the end of the 1970s, disco music was rapidly declining in popularity, due in no small part to the raw energy of punk rock and the rise of an alternative pop sound known as New Wave. Early 80's music was largely dominated by groups such as the Clash, Blondie, Talking Heads, the B-52s and other New Wave or mainstream punk bands. The earliest years of this genre also saw the return of one-hit wonders such as Chilliwack and the Greg Kihn Band. Much like the early 1960s musical doldrums, the first few years of the 1980s were not particularly memorable.

The 80's pop scene benefited greatly from the advent of music videos and a cable television station dedicated to showing them on a regular basis. When the Music Television channel (MTV) first went on the air, bands and solo artists who already had promotional videos got an unexpected career boost. One important element of 80's music became the visual aspects of the song's promotional video. In fact, many of the genre's hits can be identified just as easily by the images in their videos as they can by the artists or song lyrics.

With such an emphasis placed on visual as well as musical appeal, many musical groups concentrated nearly as much time on their appearance and choreography as they did on their music. Bands such as Duran Duran, Bananarama, INXS and the Go-Gos often produced stylized videos shot in exotic locations and prominently featuring the most camera-friendly members of the group. The early to mid- 1980s were perhaps the best years for pop groups which incorporated fashion into their onstage personas.

80's music was also defined by older solo artists who contributed much of their best work during that decade. Michael Jackson's iconic album Thriller became a monstrous hit during that time. 60s icon Tina Turner became a solo sensation after the release of her album Private Dancer during the early 1980s. Singer/songwriter Billy Joel also dominated the pop charts with his album An Innocent Man. One of Paul Simon's most critically acclaimed solo albums, Graceland, also appeared during the 1980s. Other groups such as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Dire Straits and REM all enjoyed major success during the 1980s.

While the pop music scene remained in flux, harder edged rock bands continued to produce solid albums, but many of the arena rock bands of the 1970s had either disbanded or succumbed to the excesses of the hard-living rock and roll lifestyle. So-called "hair bands" such as Motley Crue, Skid Row, Sebastian Bach and Whitesnake took over the reigns of hard rock, mixing the wild antics of Glam Rock musicians with the vocal pyrotechnics of power ballads and stadium shows.

Country music during the 1980s became much more commercial, with production techniques previously reserved for mainstream pop artists. Classic country acts were largely replaced with more commercially appealing performers such as Barbara Mandrell, Kenny Rogers and the group Alabama. The slick production values and pop sensibilities of many of these 1980s albums did not sit well with traditional country fans, however, and by the end of the decade many of the more traditional country artists were back on the charts.

One defining feature of 80's music was the frequent use, some might argue overuse, of electronic keyboards and drum machines. Many music producers used banks of keyboards and studio tricks to create a fuller background sound. This heavily produced sonic sweetening can frequently be experienced during the end credits of many 1980s movies, where groups such as Asia or Survivor would perform power anthems enhanced with synthesizers and over-the-top vocals. Perhaps the power ballads performed by these and other groups best defined the quintessential sound of 80's music, especially songs such as Starship's 1986 ode to the Bay City music scene, We Built This City.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Musical Expert, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By ceilingcat — On Sep 01, 2012

@Monika - I like music videos also, but I think it's kind of a shame that because of music videos, bands have to concentrate on their image so much.

You don't have to be good looking to make good music. But these days you have to be good looking to get a chance to make music, and I think a lot of that is due to music videos. I wonder how many good bands and artists we've missed out on over the years because of this?

By Monika — On Aug 31, 2012

I had no idea that music videos originated in the 80's. For whatever reason, I always thought it was a 90's thing. I personally love music videos though, and I miss the days when the music television channels actually played music videos instead of whatever awful reality television show is popular!

By betterment — On Aug 30, 2012

@KaBoom - I agree with you. I like metal a lot, and 80's metal was just not that great (in my opinion.) I'll take thrash metal over glam metal any day of the week!

Most 80's rock and metal is just so cheesy, and some of it still gets played on the radio. If I could go the rest of my life without hearing "Cherry Pie" or "Pour Some Sugar on Me" I would be a very happy camper.

By KaBoom — On Aug 29, 2012
I have to admit I much prefer 1990's music over music from the 80's. However, that's probably because I was a teenager in the last 90's, so 90's music means a lot more to me than 80's music.

That being said, I think 80's music is almost too saccharine sweet for me, if you know what I mean. It kind of lacks substance. Everything is synthesized and poppy! I much prefer the bands from the 90's that actually played some instruments!

By giddion — On Aug 29, 2012

@DylanB – People give the hair bands of 1980's music a hard time now, but they really did have an awesome sound. Unfortunately, they ended up being known more for their glamor than their music.

Their fashion was very in-your-face, but still, they could rock out like no one had before. I think this was a very valuable time in music history, and I think that we should remember that instead of just the fashion aspect of it. Every era has its fads, so we shouldn't blame the people of that time for following them.

By OeKc05 — On Aug 28, 2012

Fashion fads and music went hand in hand during the eighties. Every school kid wanted to look like their favorite MTV artist, so the halls were flooded with ripped jeans, headbands, and way too much makeup.

During the eighties, even the guys in bands wore lots of makeup. It was strange to see both a male hard rock singer and a male New Wave pop artist sporting lipstick and eyeshadow.

I believe that the eighties would have been entirely different if we had not had MTV. People tried to emulate the look of their favorite artists, and that resulted in a flurry of fads that defined the 80's fashion scene.

By orangey03 — On Aug 27, 2012
Can anybody give me a good playlist of 80s music that would work for a party? My friends and I are throwing a retro 80s-themed party, and I want to have a really good selection of music. The whole thing was a little before my time, so can anybody help me out?
By DylanB — On Aug 27, 2012

Several good trends in music occurred during the 80's. I think that popular sound became much edgier than it had been in previous decades.

Also, I think it was much easier to dance to the music of the 80's than the music of the 70's. Pop beats sped up and became more complex than those of disco.

I believe that the electric guitar sound of hard rock bands reached perfection in this decade. A band could have two or even three guitarists performing in harmony, and they could be so tight that they seemed to share a brain when they played!

By medicchristy — On Dec 30, 2010

@dega2010: Motley Crue is still together and releasing music. Motley Crue consists of bass player Nikki Sixx, vocalist Tommy Lee, guitar player Mick Mars, and vocalist Vince Neil. Motley Crue is known as one of the most popular hard rock and heavy metal bands around. They have sold over 45 million albums.

All of the members of Motley Crue have lived on the wild side. They have all spent time in jail and have had drug or alcohol problems.

By dega2010 — On Dec 28, 2010

Is the band Motley Crue still together?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to Musical Expert, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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