The major events and trends in popular music during the 1980s
Written by MarkCarney on 27th May 2016
This article includes an overview of the major events and trends in popular music during the 1980s.
The 1980s saw the emergence of dance music and new wave. As disco fell out of fashion in the decade’s early years, genres such as post-disco, Italo disco, Euro disco and dance-pop became more popular. Rock music continued to enjoy a wide audience. Soft rock, glam metal, thrash metal, shred guitar characterized by heavy distortion, pinch harmonics and whammy bar abuse became very popular. Adult contemporary, quiet storm, and smooth jazz gained popularity. In the late 1980s, glam metal became the largest, most commercially successful brand of music in the United States and worldwide.
The 1980s are commonly remembered for an increase in the use of digital recording, associated with the usage of synthesisers, with synth-pop music and other electronic genres featuring non-traditional instruments increasing in popularity. Also during this decade, several major electronic genres were developed, including electro, techno, house, freestyle and Eurodance, rising in prominence during the 1990s and beyond. Throughout the decade, R&B, hip hop and urban genres were becoming commonplace, particularly in the inner-city areas of large, metropolitan cities; rap was especially successful in the latter part of the decade, with the advent of the golden age of hip hop. These urban genres—particularly rap and hip hop—would continue their rise in popularity through the 1990s and 2000s.
A 2010 survey conducted by the digital broadcaster Music Choice, which polled over 11,000 European participants, revealed that the 1980s is the most favored tune decade of the last 50 years.
The 1980s saw the reinvention of Michael Jackson the superstardom of Prince and the emergence of Madonna, and Whitney Houston, —who were all the among most successful musicians during this time. Their videos became a permanent fixture on MTV and gained a worldwide mass audience. Michael Jackson was the first African American artist to have his music video aired on MTV in heavy rotation, Donna Summer was the first African American female artist to do the same. Michael Jackson’s Thriller album from 1982 is the best-selling album of all time; it is cited as selling as many as 110 million copies worldwide. Being the biggest selling album of that decade, it sold 20 million albums in the US and an additional 5 million worldwide. He was the one biggest star of the 1980s. Madonna was the most successful female artist of the decade. Her third studio album, True Blue, became the best-selling female album of the 1980s. Other Madonna albums from the decade include Like a Virgin which became one of the best selling albums of all-time and Like a Prayer, which was called “as close to art as pop music gets” by Rolling Stone. Madonna made music videos a marketing tool and was among the first to make them an art form. Many of her songs topped the Charts around the world, such as: “Like a Virgin”, “Papa Don’t Preach”, “La Isla Bonita” and “Like a Prayer”. After her Like a Prayer album release in 1989, Madonna was named artist of the decade by a number of magazines and awards. Whitney Houston became one of the best selling female artist of the decade selling 15 millions albums in the US, behind Madonna and Barbra Streisand. Her eponymous debut studio album Whitney Houston became the best-selling debut album by a female artist, and her sophomore album became the first by a female debut at no. 1 in the history of Billboard 200 and she was the first and the only artist to chart seven consecutive number-one songs on the Billboard 100. By 1980, the prominent disco genre, largely dependent on orchestras, had become heavily unfavoured, replaced by a lighter synthpop production, which subsequently fuelled dance music. In the latter half of the 1980s, teen pop experienced its first wave, with bands and artists including Exposé, Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, New Edition, Stacey Q, The Bangles, New Kids on the Block, Madonna, George Michael, Laura Branigan, Boy George and others becoming teen idols.
Prominent American urban pop acts of the 1980s include Tina Turner, Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Donna Summer, Whitney Houston and Diana Ross. African American artists like Lionel Richie and Prince went on to become some of the decade’s biggest pop stars. Their commercial albums included 1999, Purple Rain, and Sign “O” the Times by Prince and Lionel Richie, Can’t Slow Down and Dancing on the Ceiling by Richie. Prince was the decade’s most prolific artist, not just by virtue of being the top charting artist in the US and worldwide. He was responsible for artists such as Vanity 6, for whom he wrote the dance chart topping “Nasty Girl”. Morris Day and the Time, he wrote the top 20 “Jungle Love” for. Sheila E., he wrote the top 10 smash “The Glamorous Life”, and # 11 “A Love Bizarre” with, as well as Wendy & Lisa and Apollonia 6. He wrote “I Feel for You” for Chaka Khan # 3 pop hit, #1 on the R & B chart; which won him a Grammy for best R & B song. “Sugar Walls” for Sheena Easton, as well as doing a duet The Look, both top 10 hits; and “Manic Monday” #2 pop hit, for the Bangles. Artists that covered his music inlcuded Tom Jones, who brought his version of the song “Kiss”, into the top 40 for the second time in the decade. Melissa Morgan brought her cover of “Do Me Baby” to the top of the R & B charts in 1986. Other notable artists that covered Prince, during the 1980s were The Pointer Sisters and Cyndi Lauper. He also won an Academy Award for the song “Purple Rain”. In 1989, Irish singer Sinead O’Connor would record a cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U”, which would become the biggest song of the year worldwide, in the new decade to follow.
Bruce Springsteen’s Born In the USA, AC/DC’s Back in Black, Def Leppard’s Hysteria, and Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet were some of the decades biggest selling albums on the Billboard Top 200 chart.
During the mid-1980s American pop singer Cyndi Lauper was considered the “Voice of the MTV Generation of ’80s” and so different visual style that made the world for teens. Her first two albums She’s So Unusual (1984) and True Colors (1986) were critically and commercially successful, spawning the hits, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”, “Time After Time”, “She Bop”, “All Through the Night”, “The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough”, “True Colors” and “Change of Heart”.
Several British artists made the successful transition to pop during the 1980s and saw great commercial success, such as David Bowie, Phil Collins, John Lennon, Billy Ocean and Paul McCartney. Many British pop bands also dominated the American charts in the early 1980s. Many of them became popular due to their constant exposure on MTV, these bands included The Human League, Culture Club, Duran Duran, and Wham!. Between the four, they have had 9 U.S. number ones with hits like “Don’t You Want Me Baby”, “Karma Chameleon”, “The Reflex” and “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” In the later part of the decade Rick Astley, George Michael as a solo artist, Terence Trent D’Arby, and Fine Young Cannibals all found chart success.
At the beginning of the 1980’s Australian artist like Olivia Newton-John, Men at Work, Air Supply and AC/DC all had chart success, later in the decade INXS scored hits.
American artists such as Michael Jackson, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Kool & the Gang, The Pointer Sisters, Billy Joel, Hall & Oates, Prince, Kenny Rogers and John Mellencamp then known as Johnny Cougar, ruled the charts throughout the decade in the US. Prince, Madonna, MJ and Springsteen along with U2, Dire Straits, Phil Collins, The Police, Queen, The Rolling Stones, Elton John and The Eurythmics achieved tremendous success worldwide.
Contemporary R&B originated in the 1980s, when musicians started adding disco-like beats, high-tech production, and elements of hip hop, soul and funk to rhythm and blues, making it more danceable and modern. The top mainstream R&B artists of 1980s included Michael Jackson, Prince, Jermaine Jackson, James Ingram, The S.O.S. Band, Stevie Wonder, Kool & the Gang, Jeffrey Osborne, Smokey Robinson, Rick James, Diana Ross, Lionel Richie, Earth, Wind & Fire, New Edition, Evelyn King, Marvin Gaye, The Jets, DeBarge, Midnight Star, Club Nouveau, Stephanie Mills, Jody Watley, Rockwell, Rene and Angela, and Freddie Jackson.
In the mid-1980s, many of the recordings by artists Luther Vandross, Freddie Jackson, Sade, Anita Baker, Teddy Pendergrass, Peabo Bryson and others became known as quiet storm. The term had originated with Smokey Robinson’s 1975 album A Quiet Storm. Quiet storm has been described as “R&B’s answer to soft rock and adult contemporary—while it was primarily intended for black audiences, quiet storm had the same understated dynamics, relaxed tempos and rhythms, and romantic sentiment.”
Tina Turner made a huge comeback during the mid 1980s, while Donna Summer, Diana Ross, The Pointer Sisters and Irene Cara had success on the pop charts first half of the decade. Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and Jody Watley had it in the second half of the decade. Richard J. Ripani wrote that Janet Jackson’s third studio album Control (1986) was “important to the development of R&B for a number of reasons”, as she and her producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, “crafted a new sound that fuses the rhythmic elements of funk and disco, along with heavy doses of synthesizers, percussion, sound effects, and a rap music sensibility.” Ripani wrote that “the success of Control led to the incorporation of stylistic traits of rap over the next few years, and Janet Jackson was to continue to be one of the leaders in that development.” That same year, Teddy Riley began producing R&B recordings that included hip hop influences. This combination of R&B style and hip hop rhythms was termed new jack swing, and was applied to artists such as Bobby Brown, Keith Sweat, MC Hammer, Boyz ll Men, Guy, Jodeci, and Bell Biv DeVoe.
Michael Jackson remained a prominent figure in the genre in the late 1980s, following the release of his album Bad (1987) which sold 6 million copies in the US in the 80s, and went on to sell more than 30 million copies worldwide. Janet Jackson’s 1989 album Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 continued the development of contemporary R&B into the 1990s, as the album’s title track “Rhythm Nation” made “use of elements from across the R&B spectrum, including use of a sample loop, triplet swing, rapped vocal parts and blues notes.” The release of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 became the only album in history to produce number one hits on the Billboard Charts Hot 100 in three separate calendar years—”Miss You Much” in 1989, “Escapade” and “Black Cat” in 1990, and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” in 1991—and the only album in the history of the Hot 100 to have seven top 5 hit singles.
In the 1980s, dance music records made using only electronic instruments became increasingly popular, largely influenced from the Electronic music of Kraftwerk and 1970s disco music. Such music was originally born of and popularized via regional nightclub scenes in the 1980s, and became the predominant type of music played in discothèques as well as the rave scene.
House music is a style of electronic dance music which originated in Chicago, Illinois, USA in the early 1980s. House music was strongly influenced by elements of soul- and funk-infused varieties of disco. Club play from pioneering DJs like Ron Hardy and Lil Louis, local dance music record shops, and the popular Hot Mix 5 shows on radio station WBMX-FM helped popularize house music in Chicago and among visiting DJs & producers from Detroit. Trax Records and DJ International Records, local labels with wider distribution, helped popularize house music outside of Chicago. It eventually reached Europe before becoming infused in mainstream pop & dance music worldwide during the 1990s.
It has been widely cited that the initial blueprint for Techno was developed during the mid-1980s in Detroit, Michigan, by Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May (the so-called “Belleville Three”), and Eddie Fowlkes, all of whom attended school together at Belleville High, near Detroit. Though initially conceived as party music that was played on daily mixed radio programs and played at parties given by cliquish, Detroit high school clubs, it has grown to be a global phenomenon.
Some of the most successful post-punk bands at the beginning of the decade, such as Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Psychedelic Furs, also continued their success during the 1980s. Members of Bauhaus and Joy Division explored new stylistic territory as Love and Rockets and New Order respectively.
The second generation of British post-punk bands that broke through in the early 1980s, including The Smiths, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Cure, The Fall, The Pop Group, The Mekons, Echo and the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes, tended to move away from dark sonic landscapes.
Even though The Police’s first hit song “Roxanne” was written by Sting in 1978 (reaching number 12 in the UK Charts that year), the song continued to grow in popularity in the 1980s along with the band, and it helped define the sound and repertoire of The Police, one of the biggest bands of the 1980s globally. Even though The Police had their roots in post punk, their eventual success and mega-stardom came from being able to pack the biggest stadium rock venues such as Wembley, the Oakland Coliseum and the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro. Aside from U2, they are the only other band with post punk origins to go on and achieve the kind of global success they did, with their music transforming along the way into their own brand and style of music – Sting’s songwriting and voice becoming legendary, along with drummer Stewart Copeland and his widely respected, complex drumming skills and Andy Summer’s masterful guitar interspersing with Sting and Stewart – helping them gain an informal but widely accepted recognition as the “Biggest Band in The World” during their 1983-1984 Synchronicity Tour, garnering them a nomination for 5 Grammy Awards and taking 3 at the 1984 Grammy Awards.
Ireland’s U2 incorporated elements of religious imagery together with political commentary into their often anthemic music, and by the late 1980s had become one of the biggest bands in the world.
Although many post-punk bands continued to record and perform, it declined as a movement in the mid-1980s as acts disbanded or moved off to explore other musical areas, but it has continued to influence the development of rock music and has been seen as a major element in the creation of the alternative rock movement.
New wave music
The arrival of MTV in 1981 would usher in new wave’s most successful era. British artists, unlike many of their American counterparts, had learned how to use the music video early on. Several British acts signed to independent labels were able to outmarket and outsell American artists that were signed with major labels. Journalists labelled this phenomenon a “Second British Invasion”.
In the fall of 1982, “I Ran (So Far Away)” by A Flock of Seagulls entered the Billboard Top Ten, arguably the first successful song that owed almost everything to video. They would be followed by bands like Duran Duran whose glossy videos would come to symbolize the power of MTV Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” gently poked fun at MTV which had helped make them international rock stars. In 1983, 30% of the record sales were from British acts. 18 of the top 40 and 6 of the top 10 singles on July 18 were by British artists. Overall record sales would rise by 10% from 1982. Newsweek magazine featured Annie Lennox and Boy George on the cover of one of its issues while Rolling Stone Magazine would release an England Swings issue. In April 1984 40 of the top 100 singles were from British acts while 8 of the top 10 singles in a May 1985 survey were of British origin. Veteran music journalist Simon Reynolds theorized that similar to the first British Invasion the use of black American influences by the British acts helped to spur success. Commentators in the mainstream media credited MTV and the British acts with bringing colour and energy to back to pop music while rock journalists were generally hostile to the phenomenon because they felt it represented image over content. MTV continued its heavy rotation of videos by new wave-oriented acts until 1987, when it changed to a heavy metal and rock dominated format.
New Romanticism emerged as part of the new wave music movement in London’s nightclub including Billy’s and The Blitz Club towards the end of the 1970s. Influenced by David Bowie and Roxy Music, it developed glam rock fashions, gaining its name from the frilly fop shirts of early Romanticism. New Romantic music often made extensive use of synthesisers. Pioneers included Visage and Ultravox and among the commercially most successful acts associated with the movement were Adam and the Ants, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. By about 1983 the original movement had dissolved, with surviving acts dropping most of the fashion elements to pursue mainstream careers. Other new romantic artists included Classix Nouveaux, A Flock of Seagulls, Gary Numan, Japan, Landscape, Thompson Twins, Soft Cell, ABC, The Teardrop Explodes, Yazoo and Talk Talk.
Phil Collins had three UK number one singles in the 80s, seven US number one singles, another with Genesis, and when his work with Genesis, his work with other artists, as well as his solo career is totalled, Collins had more top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart during the 1980s than any other artist. His former Genesis colleague, Peter Gabriel, also had a very successful solo career, which included a US number one single and three top ten UK hits (including a duet with Kate Bush). Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford also enjoyed several UK and US hits with his project Mike + The Mechanics, which included a US number one single. David Bowie saw much greater commercial success in the 1980s than he had in the previous decade, scoring four UK number one singles, including “Let’s Dance” which proved to be his biggest ever hit. He had a total of ten UK top ten hits during the decade, two in collaboration with other artists.
Boy George and his band Culture Club had great success in both the UK and US charts with major hits like “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me”, “Time (Clock of the Heart)” and “Karma Chameleon”. As well as Boy George having his own UK number one with his cover of Breads “Everything I Own”, he is considered a major icon of this era. Liverpool band Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s initially controversial dance-pop gave them three consecutive UK number ones in 1984, until they faded away in the mid-1980s. Dead or Alive, also from Liverpool, was another popular dance pop band in the mid-1980s. It was fronted by lead singer Pete Burns. Probably the most successful British pop band of the era were the duo Wham! with an unusual mix of disco, soul, ballads and even rap, who had eleven top ten hits in the UK, six of them number ones, between 1982 and 1986. George Michael released his debut solo album, Faith in 1987, and would go on to have seven UK number one singles. The 1985 concert Live Aid held at Wembley Stadium would see some of the biggest British artists of the era perform, with Queen stealing the show.
Bonnie Tyler had major hits with “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “Holding Out for a Hero”, while Robert Palmer’s had two iconic music videos for “Addicted to Love” and “Simply Irresistible”. The Bee Gees 1987 single “You Win Again” reached number one, making them first group to score a UK #1 hit in each of three decades: the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Other British artists who achieved success in the pop charts in the 80s included Paul McCartney, Elton John, Culture Club, The Fixx, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, Kate Bush, Billy Idol, Paul Young, Elvis Costello, Simple Minds, Billy Ocean, Tears for Fears, UB40, Madness and Sade.
In 1988 Irish singer Enya achieved a breakthrough in her career with the album Watermark which sold over eleven million copies worldwide and helped launch Enya’s successful career as a leading new-age, Celtic, World singer. Dutch band Tambourine received some notoriety in The Netherlands and Belgium toward the end of the decade.
Synthpop emerged from new wave, producing a form of pop music that followed electronic rock pioneers in the 1970s like Kraftwerk, Jean Michel Jarre, and Tangerine Dream, in which the synthesizer is the dominant musical instrument. The sounds of synthesizers came to dominate the pop music of the early 1980s as well as replacing disco in dance clubs in Europe.
Other successful synthpop artists of this era included Pet Shop Boys, Alphaville, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, New Order, Gary Numan, The Human League, Thomas Dolby, Yazoo, Art of Noise, Heaven 17, A Flock of Seagulls, OMD, Japan, Thompson Twins, Visage, Ultravox, Kajagoogoo, Eurythmics, a-ha, Telex, Real Life, Erasure, Camouflage, London Boys, Modern Talking, Bananarama, Yellow Magic Orchestra, among others.