The 1980s were a decade of confusion, hedonism and stasis. Rock was becoming stale and predictable, as class and economic structures became ever more rigid and capitalism ran rampant. Yet, just beyond the mass culture impulse to consume the same product over and over again lay a region of promise: that of the underground indie scene. To be fair, pop music reached a few new highs, but experimentation and rebellion were becoming rarer and rarer. The real breakthrough of the decade was the creation of hip-hop, a fairly limited genre, but a genuinely new one.
The few singer-songwriters and classic rock acts left from the 60s and early 70s really fizzled out in this era, following gaudy fashion and production trends and making some embarrassing LPs that were limp repetitions of things they’d done better. The dance and new wave scene from the end of the 70s turned into a club-oriented, electronic subculture of sorts. But its influences had already spread into the mainstream. Synth-pop and electronica groups struggled to innovate, while the major hits of the day began using programming, keyboards, reverb and lots of overdubs. Their arrangements drifted into more marketable and generally accessible forms; that is to say, boring easy listening music.
The decade was framed by conservatism, economic stagnation and staid political correctness. Poorer urban areas of American cities slowly descended into a tragic cycle of drug trafficking and dependence, in addition to an ineffective education system, while social programs turned a blind eye to the issue. This community was very steadfast, family-oriented, and faith-based. They were mostly African-American, with some Latin Americans as well, and they had been screwed by the white middle-class capitalist system. Their musical influences were the cultural traditions of jazz, R&B and gospel.
Residents of down-and-out New York districts began to form a new oral tradition, which was inspired (and sometimes even scored by) their 60s and 70s R&B and blues heroes. This turned into a new, highly rhythmic, lyrics-focused genre of music. It was defiant, relevant and hopeful; a signifier of struggle, status and personal stories. Its cultural influence and innovation would increase dramatically in the 90s, growing in status and importance to become the cultural juggernaut it is today. But once it was propagated by DJs, storytellers and artists like Grandmaster Flash, Run-D.M.C., Eric B. and Rakim, hip-hop truly began in the 1980s.
In a simultaneous cultural movement, the ubiquity and possibility of rock was also doing the genre some favors in the western world. Spurred on by the increasing availability of recording equipment and enthusiastic audiences (not to mention countless idols to aspire to), many youths began forming bands and self-managing and self-publicizing. They created homemade magazines that kept others abreast of events and shows, informed the public about new music, and generally created a do-it-yourself aesthetic. It will come as no shock that many of these bands were punk-based. Some of them even went farther, stretching the limits of the genre and creating hardcore punk (as well as countless other insignificant subgenres). Music was becoming a career choice with increasing popularity, and the continual growth of these scenes allowed it to become borderline profitable. Moreso, it was culturally important, distinguishing various American cities and giving them a personality and their own secret heroes. Channels of communication were not yet broad enough to spread the word nationally or internationally, and there was not yet a market for that.
As gentrification increased and more areas became economically stable and bustling with people, the cultural conversation started to include outsiders beyond the typical entertainment-industry centers of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Subcultures sprouted up in Minneapolis; Baltimore-D.C.; Austin; Oregon/Washington; Orange County; Atlanta; Florida; Nashville (a new vanguard of rockers among the country elite); and many other locations. This was happening all over the U.S. and U.K.; each subculture was self-sufficient and somewhat insular. A few bands happened to venture outside of their circles, and one or two were modestly successful. But it wasn’t until Georgia band R.E.M. stormed the Top 40 charts in the late 80s that indie rock became a force to be reckoned with.
Since fabulist pop was no longer appealing to rockers, hip-hop was an entirely different beast, and indie rock was localized and sometimes alienating, the only thing left to replace rock on the national scene was metal, which was finding its identity in the late 70s. It eventually started growing too grandiose and pompous for its own good, and fed into that self-gratifying trend of much popular 80s music, becoming a histrionic, overblown shadow of its former self. This was around 1989, when Guns ‘n’ Roses got widespread acclaim for rebooting the genre, so to speak. But the artistic death of “hair metal” was near, as a certain 90s band soon shattered its pretensions.
With rap commanding the attention of lower-class urban citizens, synth pop and metal attracting the middle-class, and indie rock forming into hermetic regional scenes, the musical experience of the public began to split according to ethnicity, income and region. This allowed pop hits of the day to succeed simply by attracting the lowest common denominator.
Just as rock music’s promise was starting to die out, it received perhaps its most vital creative tool – the music video. Typical of an 80s trademark, it was a commercial innovation, and eventually a marketing necessity. It was pioneered by cable channel Music Television (universally known as MTV), which played these short films around the clock while promoting new bands and music culture (at least it used to).
These short films aroused lots of attention, and had a creative arc similar to rock music itself. Early experimentation and guileless enthusiasm dominated in the 80s, resulting in many basic band performance clips interspersed with trippy artistic visions. This led into the even more surreal and postmodern 90s, with a creative renaissance equivalent to the innovation of 70s rock. Future big-shot film directors (David Fincher, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze) made their names and brands entirely based on portfolios of music videos.
In the 80s, countless singer/songwriters and solo acts also broke into the public eye. This trend, while seemingly innocuous, was most certainly a regression. After the expanded consciousness and advancement of the mid-60s through the late 70s, rock was back where it started in the 50s: a crass, ephemeral popularity contest, singles-driven and with everything smoothed out for public consumption. While the 70s was the decade of the auteur, in the 80s, faceless producers and mercenary ghostwriters began once again propelling vocal talent into the void, only for its appeal to wither weeks later so the process could begin again. That was certainly an acceptable tactic in the straight-laced, booming 50s, but it was a new era. That trick worked better the first time. Rock was now a recognized institution, and it didn’t have innovation, rebellion or freshness on its side anymore. To the contrary, it was rather pathetic and dour.
What’s more, the new class of rock titans were so frequently consumed by physical pleasure (and singing about the same) that they were ideologically and philosophically empty. They didn’t really stand for anything and they didn’t have any particularly interesting thoughts. Mainstream rock, once a haven for all kinds of creative visions, was becoming an oligarchy of who could shout the loudest and shock or mollify the most people. Pure sensationalism was king.
This shallowness extended to the technical side of things as well. When used in the 70s, synths and innovative technical trends were a new artistic direction with many possibilites, but as their novelty wore off, they began to be relied upon lazily out of sheer habit. People had always idolized lead singers and charismatic personalities, but the band as a group of talented, famous people was integral to 70s culture. The advent of the drum machine and sequencers (as well as advanced studio technology) allowed musicians to slowly erase the human factor in their songs. While by no means a bad thing in and of itself, this soon became a negative influence, with entire synthesized bands (and lots of mercenary studio musicians in it for the money) sometimes backing up one person and homogenizing the entire industry. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the individual were talented, but the 80s followed another example of the previous decade to its logical extreme. Labels had become increasingly more powerful, and as their business interests competed for more market share, their influence grew as well. Soon, after seeing the fun and hedonistic abandon glam rock stars had in the 70s, many talented people were getting signed purely for financial reasons without any artistic motivation. With mass production of tapes and the 8-track, as well as the advent of compact discs, the industry was more lucrative than ever before.
Baby boomers were jaded and mature now, and were advancing in their tastes. Being such an influential demographic, more music catered to them. And so crooning once again became popular in the public sphere, in the guise of modern pop music. Old traditional styles were reborn in a more trendy guise, with everyone from Hall and Oates to Huey Lewis and the News aping smooth jazz, Tin Pan Alley pop, and more.
In other areas of public concern, taboos of race and gender were being broken more frequently in society, and it wasn’t long before this new paradigm showed up in music. They had long been subtextual in rock and R&B, but they were growing more explicit by the day, as American popular culture in general began to explore them more closely. Some mainstream musical artists played into this, none more so than Prince, who was idolized, multitalented and not coincidentally, a sexually ambiguous African-American.
One day, Tipper Gore, wife of then-Senator Al Gore, happened upon some risque lyrics of his on her daughter’s copy of Purple Rain (specifically the song “Darling Nikki”). Apparently put off by an artist’s frank (if unrealistic) discussion of human intimacy, and convinced this was a growing trend, she organized a conservative offensive against lewd creative expression in the form of the Parents Music Resource Center, or PMRC. It aimed to censor and expurgate musical statements it deemed inappropriate, from sex and drugs to violence and foul language. The whole enterprise was inadequate, irritating and misguided, as well as misjudging and condescending to the “typical American family” and its values (which were no longer a set thing). There were Congressional hearings on the subject’s legality, during which many musicians testified inspiringly about the necessity of free expression. Rock culture was now old and played-out enough for its first generation to find out about the heinous things young people were doing and try to police them.
Overall, the 80s were a very conflicted, troubled decade for music. There were many bolts of inspiration striking, but for every good band, there were more and more bad ones cropping up to earn a buck and new, stifling trends forming to quash innovation. Metal was too bloated and formulaic to go anywhere, R&B was mostly played-out and too static to do anything, rap was starting to gain control of the public consciousness, and the underground was, well, underground. It seemed by 1990 that there was nowhere left for rock ‘n’ roll to go.