Topic in Focus: The Music of the 1980s

Big hair, bright colors, leg warmers. Cold War, Thatcher, Reaganomics. There was a lot going on in the ’80s, and perhaps not all of it was for the best, but at least there was good music.

If you grew up thinking the ’80s were the opposite of cool, now’s the time to learn a few things about this iconic and influential era. Everything comes back, and in the case of ’80s music, the innovations of the era have never truly left. Or if you feel as if you’ve only just emerged from that decade, you’ll be delighted to find a wide range of scholarship on the artists, styles, and trends that defined it. From development in music technology that transformed and defined the decade’s sounds to artists who are still revered today, the 1980s were a foundational era for electronic music, hip-hop, and the independent record label and a transformational era for rock music and popular music.

Explore this topic through the free-to-view chapters below. You can also explore a range of other topics, artists, and countries previously in focus on the Bloomsbury Music and Sound platform on our featured content archive page.

Black and White group portrait of British band Duran Duran, London, 1981
British band Duran Duran, London, 1981. (Image: Michael Putland, Getty Images)

Duran Duran and New Wave

As the ’70s gave way to the ’80s, New Wave became the new thing. Broadly encompassing varying elements of popular music, New Wave featured synthesizers and other electronic sounds and an overall lighter approach than the punk rock that preceded it. The ’70s had also been the era of glam rock, with musical acts like Roxy Music and David Bowie incorporating bold costuming in their hair, makeup, shoes, and clothing, such that the artists had strong visual signatures in addition to musical ones. What was simmering in the ’70s came to a frothy boil in the ’80s. In the first two years of the new decade, the New Romantics, a fashion movement originating in London nightclubs, came to the fore. The quirky, bold fashion of the New Romantics was a natural progression of the previous decade’s glam rockers. Bowie and Roxy Music inspired Japan, and Japan and Roxy Music inspired a young Duran Duran, and by the spring of 1982, Duran Duran had released ‘Rio’.

Why was ‘Rio’ so successful? In "Why Rio Matters" from Annie Zaleski’s Duran Duran’s Rio, the author explains that cinematic music videos (and the rise of MTV), a successful headliner tour, and an intangible coolness were all factors. Why was ‘Rio’ important? It ushered in the fresh, experimental sound of New Wave to an audience receptive to the fun, upbeat tracks. Duran Duran were certainly a product of their time. Other acts had laid the groundwork and Duran Duran carried the torch into the next era of rock music. ‘Rio’ went on to spend 129 weeks on the US Billboard album charts.

Read Annie Zaleski’s chapter, "Why Rio Matters".

Composer and electronic musician Wendy Carlos at work in her New York City recording studio, 1979
Composer and electronic musician Wendy Carlos, New York, 1979. (Image: Leonard M. DeLessio/Corbis, Getty Images)

Electronic Music

The 1980s saw a revolution in the form of electronic music. In her chapter in Modern Records, Maverick Methods, Samantha Bennett discusses the electronic instruments that featured largely in the music landscape: the LinnDrum Machine, the MIDI (which enabled multiple systems to connect), sequencers, and samplers. The synthesizer in particular may be the most distinctive electronic instrument of the era and one still crucial to music made today.

The synthesizer is an electronic instrument, typically operated through a keyboard, that creates a variety of sounds. Some artists, like Wendy Carlos, became well known for their mastering of the synthesizer. Importantly, samplers could be used in conjunction with synthesizers or sequencers, allowing the sampling for which rap is well known to flourish. Public Enemy’s ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’ (1988) and The Beastie Boys’ Dust Brothers-produced ‘Paul’s Boutique’ (1989) are two examples of records almost entirely constructed from samples.’ Introducing electronic music complicated music for the better, enabling intricate production and editing, as well as new sounds, rhythms, and instrumentations.

Read Samantha Bennett's chapter, "The Sound of Technology: Machines and Formats That Transformed Mid–Late 1980s Popular Music".

Group portrait of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, 1980
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, New York, 1980. (Image: Anthony Barboza, Getty Images)
Portrait of Producer Sylvia Robinson in her office, 1983
Producer Sylvia Robinson, New York, 1983. (Image: Michael Ochs Archives, Getty Images)

Hip-Hop and Conscious Rap Music

From 1979 to 1987, Hip-Hop largely remained authentic to its countercultural roots in challenges manifested in the urban landscape of the late twentieth century.

In 1982, ‘conscious’ rap music came into prominence when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released ‘The Message’ through Sugar Hill Records, co-owned by the innovative producer Sylvia Robinson. J.B. Peterson explains the term ‘conscious,’ as referring to an artist’s lyrical realization of the various social forces at play in the poor and working-class environments from which many rappers hail and from where the music and culture of Hip Hop originated. ‘The Message’ was a powerful response to, and commentary on, inner-city conditions in America. Since then, the subgenre of conscious rap music has continued to produce some of the most inspired songs for the enlightenment and uplift of Black and brown people including Run–D.M.C.’s ‘Proud to Be Black’; KRS-One’s ‘Self-Destruction,’ ‘Why Is That?’, and ‘Black Cop’; and Public Enemy’s ‘Can’t Truss It,’ ‘Shut ‘Em Down’, and ‘911 Is a Joke’.

From the late 1980s, rap and rappers began to take center stage as Hip-Hop exploded onto the mainstream platform of American popular culture. The extraordinary musical production and lyrical content of rap songs artistically eclipsed most of the other primary elements of the culture.

Read James B. Peterson's chapter, "Defining Rap".

Shop front of Rough Trade Records, London, 1984
Rough Trade Records, London, 1984. (Image: David Corio/Redferns, Getty Images)

The Independent Label

In their chapter from Popular Music in the Post Digital Age, authors Patryk Galuszka and Katarzyna M. Wyrzykowska define the broadly applied term ‘independent’ as it pertains to record labels and artists as those who distribute their records through distributors not affiliated with major record companies. Any artist who distributes through a major record label owes a portion of their profits to the label, but the power and connections of the label almost always ensure greater and more predictable sales.

The independent label first came about in the 1980s. To distribute music without ties to a major record label gave the impression of a group more in-tune with what audiences wanted, a group with better ethics and aesthetics, musician- and worker-centered, that eschewed the bureaucracy and corporatism of a major label. The challenge, of course, is to succeed in a capitalist environment as a small, ethically minded or ideologically pure, label. The 1980s saw the pinnacle of independent labels’ success, although many would-be indies were plagued by poor business management and a challenging landscape. By the 1990s, in order to succeed, the smaller, independent labels often found themselves absorbed by or in partnership with the major record labels. Today, record labels continue to experiment with different ways of distributing music, balancing costs, and maintaining the line between their ideals and the means to succeed.

Read Patryk Galuszka and Katarzyna M. Wyrzykowska's chapter, "Rethinking Independence: What Does ‘Independent Record Label’ Mean Today?".

Michael Jackson performing Thriller, Madison Square Garden, New York, 1988
Michael Jackson performing Thriller, Madison Square Garden, New York, 1988. (Image: George De Sota/Redferns)

Michael Jackson and the Music Video

It is arguably the most famous music video of all time. One that broke the mould of its format. It has been recreated, its choreography rehashed and repeated, countless times. Uploaded to YouTube in 2009, decades after its 1983 premiere, the official version has over 800 million views. It is, of course, Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’ At 14 minutes long, it is a short film and unlike any other music video of the time. There is a story within a story, complete with narrative arc, a cast of characters, and complex costuming. To this day, donning a red leather jacket and single white glove effectively recalls the image of Michael Jackson. Though he didn’t wear the single glove in this video, Jackson’s silhouette is distinctive and recognizable in slim pants that hit above the ankle, white socks, and understated black loafers. The costume is both fashion and function, allowing Jackson to dance with precision and to display his moves to their advantage. In other videos, Jackson made a white fedora and two-tone patent leather shoes iconic. But the ‘Thriller’ video is not iconic for its memorable outfits or choreography alone. In form and style, it was both innovative and risky, but Jackson pulled it off, where few would have tried and even fewer been successful.

In his chapter "Television Vaudeville" in Money for Nothing, Saul Austerlitz describes how ‘Thriller,’ emerging at the end of 1983, took the ambiguity at the heart of portrayals of Jackson and made them the centerpiece of what was then the largest, most expensive music video ever made. The fourteen-minute video starred Jackson in his own horror film, one that played up the confusion inherent in his persona. Was he a bland nice guy—boyfriend material? Or was there a threatening wacko lurking within? In raising these doubts, Jackson was toying with a nation of white record buyers and MTV watchers, simultaneously telling them not to fear him as a black man and raising doubts about his own trustworthiness.

Read Saul Austerlitz's chapter, "Television Vaudeville".

Kate Bush in concert, Paris, 1979
Kate Bush in concert, Paris, 1979. (Image: URLI/Gamma-Rapho, Getty Images)
Madonna on stage in Chicago, 1987
Madonna on stage in Chicago, 1987. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Kate Bush and Madonna as Auteurs

Both Kate Bush and Madonna have a status that has been fairly rare for women in the popular music world. In the 1980s, Kate Bush opened the way for female performers who would not be limited by the gender constraints of rock or pop. In that same decade, Madonna redefined what it meant to be a pop star and, in the process, changed the appearance, sound, and intentionality of modern popular music.

In her chapter "Feminism, Gender and Popular Music" in The Bloomsbury Handbook of Feminism and Religion, Alison Stone discusses the game-changing success of Madonna and Bush as that of auteurs: artists who, while collaborating on their music with many other people, have exercised as much overall control over the process and its products as possible. The two artists have done this in different ways: Bush has retained control over songwriting, recording and production, while Madonna’s authorship has been more focussed in areas such as performance, image changes and promotion and constructing star personae, as well as her significant musical input.

Read Alison Stone's chapter, "Feminism, Gender and Popular Music", here.

In "The Female Voice" (Beyond and Before: Progressive Rock Across Time and Genre), Hegarty and Halliwell draw attention to Bush's video and dance realizations in the 1980s. She contributed centrally to the videos, creating detailed storyboards for singles such as ‘Army Dreamers’ (1980) and directing videos for singles taken from her later albums. ‘Wuthering Heights’ compresses Emily Brontë’s 1847 gothic novel into a five-minute dramatic ‘songscape’ in which Bush plays Catherine Earnshaw. When questioned on a BBC Nationwide special, Kate Bush on Tour (1980), about what she might do next after two albums and a successful tour, the twenty-one-year-old Bush responded, ‘I haven’t really begun yet. I’ve begun on one level, but that’s all gone now so you begin again.’

Read Hegarty and Halliwell's chapter, "The Female Voice".