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What Is New Wave Music?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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New Wave music is often thought of as an outgrowth of punk music that became popular in the 1970s. Punk was seen as distinctly separate from Heavy Metal, or rock bands because of its anti-corporate, and often anti-government stance. New Wave, however, often embraced the corporate in its marketing strategies, with many bands becoming one-hit wonders by producing a single popular record and then quickly becoming obscure. This style of music also became associated with the excess of the 1980s, though some bands believed that it had more of a punk philosophy.

Bands associated with this genre can be very different in structure. Early examples include bands like Elvis Costello and the Attractions, The Pretenders, Duran Duran, U2, and The Police. While some of these bands relied on previous rock strategies, deriving more from punk and rock, others drew on the significant development of the synthesizer to replace many standard instruments.

Duran Duran is a perfect example of synth-produced music. Most of the drumbeats and orchestral sounds replaced the more standard arrangement of drums, electric bass, electric guitar, and piano. Even bands that relied more heavily on standard arrangements, such as The Police, delved into synth produced music, especially in their last two albums, Ghosts in the Machine and Synchronicity.

new wave music

By the mid 1980s, the term New Wave encompassed just about all musicians that might now be considered “alternate” rockers. In fact, many of the original artists in this genre responded to this great popularity by returning to more fundamental rock roots. This is particular the case of musicians like Elvis Costello, Sting — the lead singer of The Police, who started producing jazz albums — and Joe Jackson. Most of these musicians went back to the roots of rock or earlier to use real rather than synthesized instrumental sounds.

Some bands fought their inclusion in this category, particularly U2. The band continued to produce music with limited synthesizer inclusion, resulting in being reclassified simply as a rock band in the 1990s.

New Wave was also associated with deliberate fashion movements. For men, this often meant heavy use of makeup like eyeliner, and Romantic-styled fashions like blousy shirts. Some called the early fashion stylings of bands like Duran Duran and Adam Ant, New Romance. In musician’s circles, one might hear such bands referred to as New Romantics rather than New Wavers.

new wave music

Often, New Wave fashion stretched and bent gender lines. This was definitely not always considered as transsexual or homosexual, although some of the more popular musicians of the time claimed bisexualism, such as David Bowie, Boy George, and later George Michael.

The style is often thought of as akin to disco in its popularity, and unimportance. Some important artists came out of this period, however, particularly U2, Sting, and Elvis Costello. These artists have easily jumped the gap into the mainstream because of demonstrated excellent musicianship over 20-year or longer careers. They are also more likely to retain a degree of social responsibility. Bono, lead singer of U2, is one of the foremost celebrity leaders who has advocated for non-violent conflict resolution and for aid to impoverished countries

Most artists in the New Wave industry could not ignore the heightened attention given to AIDs toward the end of the 1980s. Since excessive lifestyles often led to greater sexual activity of an unsafe nature, the genre lost some of its artists to HIV. Those who have remained popular have turned their attention to promoting awareness and raising funds for research into HIV, and for support of nations destroyed by their growing HIV populations.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Musical Expert contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon956789 — On Jun 16, 2014

I was born in 1989 so I never got to experience it first hand. But, even though I grew up in the 90s, I would hear bits and pieces of new wave songs that would occasionally still play on the radio at that time. Even though grunge took over, for some reason I picked up on the sounds of the 80s,

Once the internet came around and people started to contribute uploading more things, I discovered a ton of music. Like everyone else. I listen to what sounds good, which ranges all the way from new wave, synth pop/rock, italodisco, jazz, all the way to bluegrass. But new wave has a special place. I usually lump together new wave and synth pop and italiodisco because they share certain elements that overlap.

I'm glad to say I've introduced these awesome types of music to many people I know, who would have other wise never gotten into it.

By anon950763 — On May 12, 2014

Roxy Music is the touchstone.

By anon318124 — On Feb 05, 2013

I love u2's first three albums.

By cloudel — On Oct 18, 2012

I think of the band Dead or Alive when I think of New Wave music. The first time I saw their video for “You Spin Me Right Round,” I wasn't sure if the singer was male or female, and I thought for a minute he might be Boy George.

Regardless of his appearance, the song was unbelievably catchy and addictive. It made me dance no matter where I was when I heard it.

It lifted my mood, and I think that this was something really cool about New Wave. To this day, I feel better when I hear New Wave music. Part of it is nostalgia, but the majority of it is that it was just awesome music.

By orangey03 — On Oct 17, 2012

@JackWhack – I loved New Wave music! I thought that each band did their own take on this sound, so I don't agree with you.

The colors, the makeup, and the clothes were all colorful and stylish. The music reflected that. To me, it was all eerily cool in a way that hasn't been replicated since.

I was proud to be a part of the New Wave era. I went to high school back then, so I really was influenced by it. Those were good times in music!

By Perdido — On Oct 17, 2012

I had no idea that U2 was ever termed a New Wave band. I'm only familiar with their albums from The Joshua Tree and onward, so I may have missed something in their early sound.

I would definitely call their sound at this time rock and nothing else. To me, they have nothing in common with Duran Duran or anyone in the New Wave genre.

I'm glad they were able to shake that classification. They are truly one of the classics of all time.

By JackWhack — On Oct 16, 2012

I think it's funny that nearly all the popular bands of the eighties could be described as New Wave. After a few years, there was nothing new about it!

I remember those days, and I got tired of seeing everyone try to copy each other's sound. Seriously, originality was not rampant back then. It may have made for fun dance music, but I wouldn't call it artistic genius.

By amypollick — On Oct 15, 2011

@FirstViolin: A couple of huge New Wave hits were "Hungry Like the Wolf" by Duran Duran, and "Don't Stand So Close to Me" by The Police. Another good example is "Tainted Love" by Soft Cell.

New Wave is more of a synth-driven rock. The early 80s saw the introduction of the first real digital synthesizers and a lot of bands incorporated them into their sound. It isn't really disco, though. Some of it is edgier and darker. What it does share with disco and 70s rock is the predominant, strong melody lines that nearly disappeared in the 90s with the advent of grunge, and are only just now starting to come back.

U2 was sort of a hybrid New Wave for their first couple of albums, but did move away from it.

If you want to hear a good sampling of New Wave, check out the 1985 Live Aid videos online and listen to a lot of the British acts, in particular.

The 80s marked my teen years, so I'm partial to a lot of that music, and sonically, it's really held up. If you have Sirius Radio, check out 80s on 8 and listen to some of the selections there. You'll get a good idea of what New Wave is all about.

By musicshaman — On Sep 11, 2010

Do you know what I loved about New Wave? There were lasers at every single concert, or at least the ones I went to.

The flashy, seizure inducing lighting worked perfectly with the feel and beat of the music.

I don't know if they still do New Wave style concerts today, but if so, I bet the lighting is even cooler -- what with new technology and everything, the lighting effects must be killer!

By FirstViolin — On Sep 11, 2010

I had never heard of this before. So is new wave rock, or is new wave a more disco-eqsue type of thing?

What were some of the great, all time new wave hits?

By CopperPipe — On Sep 11, 2010

Wow, it's been a long time since I've thought about the whole new wave/electro thing.

Say what you will about new wave music, but eighties new wave dance was so rad -- at least at the time.

I really do think that the new wave of the 80s was pretty much the peak though -- I don't really have a lot of patience with these new, pseudo new-wave type bands. I think it was just a thing that you had to experience the first time around, in person, to really appreciate.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Musical Expert contributor, Tricia...
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