Disco was always clearly, unambiguously the most important musical genre of the 1970’s and its vast mainstream success both undeniable and significant. The 1980’s, by contrast, don’t really have that kind of easy-to-point-to genre dominance – the story of music in the 1980’s is one of fragmentation, and that fragmentation into smaller and smaller sub-genres continues to this day. Monolithic blocks of “genre” like rock, disco, soul, funk, or punk give way to smaller sub-genres which in turn develop into their own thing.
Punk fragmented relatively quickly into new wave and post-punk. Disco became Hi-N-R-G and, more generally, dance music. Dance and Hi-N-R-G themselves would split down towards the end of the decade with the emergence of house music and its own endless list of sub-genres. Hip-hop emerged from Bronx block parties into the mainstream in the 80’s with disco influence clearly visible at least in the early days, and the development of affordable electronic percussion can be felt in styles as diverse as rap and synth-pop. The emergence of new genres like goth draw their roots from already fragmented genres, in this case post-punk and – to some extent – psychedelia, while also having a clear overlap with the whole New Romantic movement, itself a newly emergent form. Basically it’s all a bit of a mess, and that’s even without mentioning the most crucial development of the 80’s – music television.
Because music television – not just in the form of MTV, though obviously that has cultural dominance – does help to tie a lot of the decade together. Of course nobody is going to deny the importance of MTV, but before its impact was felt The Tube launched in 1982 in the UK and is arguably the best music programme Britain ever had. It was live, it paid fealty to established acts but, most importantly, it also allowed emerging acts to appear and get national exposure as well. It was a breath of fresh air after the relatively staid Old Grey Whistle Test which, despite its best efforts and some really great performances, always had something of the geography teacher about it. It could be good but it could never be cool. The Tube could, and was.
It was also a programme which was able to stand in contrast to the Establishment of Top Of The Pops because it looked “authentic”. Which is to say it was actual bands actually performing actual songs, rather than a collection of people lip-synching or just playing music videos to a rent-a-crowd, as Top Of The Pops was. Even when they did have pop stars on – Madonna graced the studio, and so did Tina Turner – they were still giving real performances and not just miming along to backing tracks.
And there were other contenders. Rapido emerged in 1988 with a distinctly European flavour thanks to French host Antoine de Caunes but was another show that took the time to cover emerging acts as well as established one. Then there was The Hitman And Her, which was shit in almost every regard but at least made an effort to do something different (going around a selection of increasingly bleak-looking suburban nightclubs in the desperate hope of obligating the local population into having fun, or at least “fun”). In 1986 The Chart Show arrived with a new concept – no presenters at all, just computerised on-screen graphics. And this was a full year before MTV launched in Europe. When MTV did arrive it did so with “Money For Nothing” as the first song broadcast, as “Video Killed The Radio Star” by The Buggles has been for MTV in America, and it was of course an instant success, but it would be a mistake to think of MTV as the only outlet for the visual presentation of music, while still acknowledging what an important event its arrival was.
Of course in America MTV launched six years earlier than The Chart Show, in 1981. Originally available in just in New York City, it didn’t take long for the concept to catch on and it became a huge cultural phenomenon very quickly. That’s at least partly due to the sheer excellence of the branding – that flag-on-the-moon logo is still iconic even today, but it was also clearly fulfilling a demand which existed but had little to satiate it. Other TV music programmes existed – Soul Train continued its massive run throughout the 80’s, Showtime At The Apollo started an equally staggering run in 1987 (it went off the air in 2008), and even the existence of a show like Fame demonstrated the hunger that existed for music (on) television. Fame as a show would have been inconceivable in the 1970’s – it would have been inconceivable for the 80’s not to have had a show like that.
Still, one of the effects of MTV on America was clear – it gave an easy way in to the US market for UK bands who might otherwise have struggled to get exposure. The path was there and conditions were ripe. American music was at a bit of a loose end – the disco backlash was undermining its commercial success as a genre even as the Long Seventies extended into the Eighties but nothing much arrived to replace it – new wave and post-punk were trendy and critically well regarded but they mostly didn’t shift units in the same way, and the rock music of the time simply looked dull. The way was open for new acts to step forward and MTV was the ideal conduit.
Thus the Second British Invasion descended. A host of new acts – often New Romantic, and almost always with glossy, high-production-values videos arrived on American shores and audiences ate them up. Duran Duran, Culture Club, Billy Idol and dozens more all found exposure and chart success thanks to images and videos that put them front and centre of the American record-buying public thanks to MTV’s hunger for readily-available content. It wasn’t just the new acts that benefited though – old-timey British acts like Queen, Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart and Elton John all found their popularity boosted. In the case of many of these acts it was just as well – the 80’s are creatively a barren desert for many of them, commercial success replacing music that was actually worth listening to.
After producing one of the best albums of his career in 1980 (Scary Monsters) David Bowie went into a decade-long artistic slump that wouldn’t be properly reversed until the mid-90’s. Stevie Wonder, a man who produced some of the most interesting and compelling music of the 60’s and 70’s, was reduced to the saccharine, trite sentimentality of “I Just Called To Say I Love You”. McCartney’s output is almost universally bland. Say what you like about the ersatz, faux-aspirational gloss of a Spandau Ballet video, at least the new acts had freshness going for them. The rock aristocracy had almost nothing to offer, so it’s scarcely a surprise that the newcomers found a space to thrive in, even while the old-timers were still racking up absurdly impressive sales that in no way reflected the actual quality of the music they were producing. And it wasn’t just British stars. Tina Turner ditched Ike, made a huge comeback, and became one of the decade’s biggest stars – deservedly so, since she’s awesome – but anyone claiming the parping, flatulent synths on “Simply The Best” are in some way superior to “Nutbush City Limits” or “Proud Mary” needs their head examined.
This does, however, bring up another important feature of the 80’s – the rise of women in popular music. Looking at the songs so far covered in this series it’s blisteringly clear how big the gender imbalance is. Of the thirty songs covered so far, just eight are by female artists (or women fronting groups, like Debbie Harry). And that’s pretty representative of the charts – the Number 2 position was, for the majority of the time in the 60’s and 70’s, filled by male artists. But just look how things shift in the 80’s. Four and a half of the ten tracks covered are by female artists (the half being “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”). That’s very nearly parity! And that’s true of the decade – there was a huge explosion of female acts getting major chart success.
The biggest female star is, of course, Madonna, and her cultural dominance is often spoken of but it’s easy to forget just how big a star she was. This is very nearly Michael Jackson-level we’re talking about. She’s bigger than Prince. And certainly bigger than any other straightforward pop star, but that’s also an important point. Madonna is, first and foremost, a pop star. She’s got the dance moves, the looks, the tunes and the attitude to make it first and foremost in the world of pop, despite how explict she beomces. She’s leveraging her image in a way that’s absolutely consistent with the decade but she does it bigger, better and bolder than almost anyone else – again, only Michael Jackson and “Thriller” can really be said to outpace her. Madonna’s imperial phase – essentially all of the 80’s from “Holiday” onwards – is just a relentless slew of hit single after hit single. Eventually the endless string of controversies would catch up and overwhelm her in the 90’s (remember the Sex book, anyone?) but even when she actively embraced controversy as a means of shifting units – “Like A Prayer”, most memorably – she did it with style and flash and nobody could touch her. Pespi dropped her over “Like A Prayer”? Who cares! Certainly not her – the single was the biggest of 1989 and the album of the same name topped the charts globally and received universal critical praise. Madonna isn’t solely responsible for the rise of female acts in the 80’s – artists like Kate Bush already had careers well underway by the time she came along – but she’s absolutely emblematic of it and the host of other female artists that arrive during the 80’s occupy a space Madonna helped carve out.
It doesn’t really end well for the 80’s though. All of the biggest innovations of the decade, from the growth in female artists to the rise of the New Romantics, from the arrival of the video to the launch of MTV, happen early on. The New Romantic movement doesn’t really last any longer than its fun younger brother, glam, timing out around the three-year mark and, like glam, most of the artists associated with the genre wouldn’t survive its collapse. Most of the biggest new artists to break through – Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson – get their careers off to a huge start in the first half of the decade and are already well established by the time the end of the decade rolls around. Thriller was released in 1982. Purple Rain was 1984. So was Like A Virgin. Even Brothers In Arms was 1985, the biggest selling UK album in the 80’s.
In America the rise of rap and hip-hop in the second half of the decade helps to offset this – N.W.A released Straight Outta Compton in 1988 and Public Enemy’s landmark It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back was released the same year. However 1988 also, sadly, gave us Hangin’ Tough by New Kids Of The Block and that’s far more indicative of how the decade comes to an end, especially in the UK. Just as disco’s passing left the door open for the Second British Invasion in the US, the passing of synth-pop and the New Romantics left the door open in the UK – but what they were mostly replaced by was either nostalgia cash-ins or manufactured pop stars of the blandest variety. British Boy band Bros were somehow even more worthless than NKOTB and admittedly an easy target to single out, but it didn’t stop their rampant chart success. And while it’s easy to defend Kylie Minogue now, back then she was just another mediocre soap star in a sea of other mediocre soap stars hoping to launch a quickie cash-in pop career with sterile, written-to-order trash or corny revivals of songs like “The Loco-motion”. Stock, Aitken and Waterman were the pioneers – if that’s the right word, and it definitely isn’t – of this approach and churned out assembly-line pop product regularly delivered and ready to be consumed, thrown away and replaced by something basically identical. Kylie was able, eventually, to escape that market and make a pop career for herself after a flirtation with more adult-oriented music, but the likes of Jason Donovan, Rick Astley, Pepsi & Shirley, Sinitta and a host of others never would – Kylie is very much the exception that proves the rule. And that’s how the decade ends. Badly.
Saying that, it should be made clear, it’s not that there were no big hitters that arrived in the latter half of the decade but they also don’t tend to go anywhere. Guns’n’Roses gave the world an Appetite For Destruction in 1987 and had a mammoth hit with it but it doesn’t spark a huge upsurge in hair metal, which was already running out of steam. Whitney Houston, too, takes off in the second half of the decade, but there’s always been space for diva-music in the hit parade and though her success will eventually become unparalleled it also doesn’t lead to a wave of wobbly-voiced chanteuses rocketing up the charts.
The reaction to all of this – what will eventually fill the void – is the upsurge in “alternative” music, the roots of which can already be seen with the momentum behind bands like U2 or the Critics’ Darling R.E.M., who both spent the 80’s developing and growing fanbases largely away from the mainstream charts before capitalising on that approach and becoming bona fide successes. U2 broke through first with The Joshua Tree in 1987 (a rare exception to the latter half of the decade not producing anything that goes somewhere), and R.E.M. would follow suit in 1991 with Out Of Time, spearheading a movement which would become one of the key stories of the 90’s, before Nirvana arrive and conquer all. But the success of those bands, and the many that followed in their wake, absolutely have their roots in this decade and so, while there’s little to get venomously excited about at the top of the charts as the 80’s bow out there’s reason to be hopeful that things are about to improve. That’s going to be the story of the next ten songs, though, but now it’s time to leave the 80’s behind, with all its eyeliner, mopey synths, charmingly-dated videos and fashion nightmares. The 80’s found a way forward from the monolith of disco.
Now it’s time to see just what was birthed from that.