The 1980s get picked on a lot, and to a degree that's understandable. Every decade starts looking goofy and dated in hindsight, and the fashions and pop culture milestones of each are often made fun of by later generations.
The '80s had plenty of excesses and fads we can all laugh at now, but unlike the preceding decades, it's often criticized as being a terrible period for music. Frankly, that is ridiculously untrue.
The 1980s were a "totally awesome" time for rock music in particular, despite what many people apparently believe. So why are those people mistaken, and on what do I base my defense of the musical contributions from the decade of shoulder pads and big hair?
Let's look at who started these "'80s sucked" rumors.
Sometimes one has to look at the folks who initially criticized something in order to understand why a belief becomes so firmly established years down the road. The decades immediately preceding the 1980s are commonly seen as a sort of golden age for music, and the Baby Boomers who grew up with the music of the 1960s and '70s as the soundtrack of their youth were starting to settle into middle age by the time the '80s rolled around.
We tend to love the music we grew up with; we identify with it, and it's very precious to many of us. For a lot of people, no music will ever be better than the stuff they were listening to between their adolescence and young adulthood. The flipside to bonding with the music of our youth is often a tendency to reject anything that radically departs from it.
5. Most people just don't like to leave their own musical comfort zone. I grew up in the 1980s, and almost from the get-go had many Baby Boomers tell me that the music my friends and I listened to was complete garbage, or that it would never live up to the music that came out ten or more years earlier. Of course we rejected that opinion, but it was pretty common to hear at the time.
4. Every decade has had its share of great music and terrible music. This should be a common-sense conclusion, but it's surprising how many people I talk to that seem to believe that the music of the 1980s was nothing but bad New Wave and hair metal, with a dab of stupid radio-pop thrown in for good measure. Conversely, the 1960s and '70s produced nothing but classic and eternal pop and rock music that is irrefutably superior to everything produced in the '80s.
First of all this is a completely subjective call. Secondly, the '80s was one of the most diverse decades in rock and pop history, producing many new genres of music. If anything, it was just as inventive a time period as the years prior to it, if not moreso.
Many people seem to fixate on '80s radio pop, as if that represented the entire musical landscape of the time. They also seem to conveniently forget that the '60s and '70s produced some phenomenally shitty music along with the good stuff. Such selective memory is necessary to fuel the silly idea that the whole decade was musically a wasteland, but it certainly isn't rooted in facts.
Yes, the '80s spawned some awful bands. It gave rise to crap like Milli Vanilli and Nelson, but the previous decade had its share of abominable junk like "Disco Duck." Sure, 1974 saw David Bowie release Diamond Dogs, but it also saw Terry Jacks release "Seasons in the Sun," so it's not as if any one decade has been without some musical low points. Good grief, the '70s gave us disco, that's gotta at least cancel out any outrage over New Wave in the next decade.
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3. Music in the '80s changed direction, and some people couldn't handle that. As sad as it is to realize, rock fans are not a universally open-minded group. It's distressing to realize that the same folks who rebelled against authority to the sound of rock and roll quickly rejected the next generation's attempt to do the same, because the younger crowd looked different and listened to different kinds of music than they had.
I still remember the long-haired, middle-aged hippie dad of one of my high-school pals hassling us for having colored hair and listening to Black Flag, and wondering if the old jerk's parents had liked their son growing his hair long. I think the '80s represented a challenge to a lot of rock fans who were getting older and more set in their ways.
It's unrealistic to think that rock music, or music in general, will always stay exactly the same and never evolve. To a lot of people that would've been perfectly happy to live forever in 1972 (admittedly a high point in rock music history), the fact that a younger generation was starting to turn away from the blues-rock that their parents embraced in favor of newer sounds and styles was probably pretty challenging. But their scorn never proved anything except that they possessed a closed-minded attitude about music. It's not as if Grand Funk Railroad or Moby Grape was going to rule music forever.
So some bands started using keyboards more, so what? The '80s also marked the debut of musicians like Stevie Ray Vaughan, who resurrected the type of blues-rock so many music fans were afraid was going to disappear. Those years were also the real launch decade for hip-hop, which despite criticisms from haters of the style, is one of the most important new genres to come out of the last several decades.
When people listening to the fake rebellion of artists like Bruce Springsteen are scared of a new kind of music, then that's about as rock and roll as it gets.
2. Radio hits weren't where it was at. Today, a lot of us take it for granted that a lot of great music doesn't get much radio play. Radio is an old-fashioned media format in many ways, along with the way huge record labels traditionally marketed a relatively small number of bands. Back in the 1980s, radio was still a huge way that music was discovered and promoted, as was the then-new music-video industry made insanely popular by MTV.
A lot of crappy one-hit-wonders were played on television and radio, often because they had one insipidly catchy tune and a novel image; that old style-over-substance thing. But that's nothing new -- terrible bands have been promoted primarily based on their image since the beginning of rock music, MTV just made it appear that there were suddenly more of them.
But the whole time that bands like Kajagoogoo flooded the airwaves and showed an eager world how to really fluff up a mullet, there was a whole lot going on in the underground music scene. There had always been a small underground of bands that never really touched mainstream success or popularity, but until the '80s it still usually took a major record label getting involved for those bands to do much of anything.
By the early '80s, a DIY punk-rock scene had created a network of small labels and other resources for bands that the big labels generally wouldn't touch. As a result the underground music scene really expanded, allowing bands of many different styles to reach and develop audiences, bands that probably never would've done much if left to the whims of MTV, mainstream radio and major record companies.
People living outside of major cities might be excused for not knowing that hardcore punk, thrash metal, goth, and many other important music scenes were not-so-quietly developing without much notice. Fortunately, growing up in Houston, I had access to record stores like The Record Exchange and Cactus Records, among others, so I discovered many bands to counteract the horrible effects of hearing Huey Lewis and the News on the radio.
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1. We wouldn't have had the "Alternative Music" of the '90s without the underground music of the '80s. For some reason, I've noticed that the same sorts of people who tend to dig the music from the '60s and '70s also tend to like a lot of the mainstream alternative rock of the '90s, while still thinking that the '80s sucked musically.
This is pretty lame when one considers that many of the breakthrough artists who got huge in the '90s were active bands from the '80s underground music scene. The Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Butthole Surfers come to mind, as do many others. Sonic Youth had been around through the '80s before scoring radio hits in the '90s, Nirvana's first album came out in '89, Slayer and Metallica both put out their best material in the 1980s before finding mainstream success in the following decade. The list would go on and on, but I'm not even going to try to make one.
My point is that the underground scene from the '80s produced a lot of the bands and new musical styles that became huge in the '90's. Strangely enough, while this carryover effect happened to a degree from the '70s into the '80s, the 1980s also got saddled with a bad hangover effect caused by older bands from the '60s and '70s trying to adapt to the rapidly changing music scene. There's probably no better example of that trend than Starship's "We Built This City," a musical turd that still litters the airwaves of oldies stations today.
There are legitimate reasons to make fun of every decade, and the 1980s are certainly no exception. But to continue saying the decade sucked for music is really just some people's way of saying that the music they grew up listening to was changing and that threatened them, or they were too lazy to dig for the good stuff.
And there was a lot of it.
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