Were the 1980s the Last Decade of Truly Original Music?
By Wil Forbis
When you think of 1940s music what comes to mind? Probably Swing bands led by the likes of Harry James and Artie Shaw and soft singing crooners like Bing Crosby and Perry Como. What about the 50s? Well, that's the birth of rock and roll with hip-shaking Elvis and piano-thrashin' Little Richard. Rock and Roll evolved into Rock music during the 60s as the Beatles and Stones sculpted its sound, often inspired by psychedelics and other chemical aids. The 1970s featured two distinctive characteristics: the early 70s California mellow of the Eagles and James Taylor which was then was laid to waste by the arrival of punk in the form of the Sex Pistols and their cohorts.
This leads us up to the unmistakable sound of the 80s. If I were to apply one unifying term to the music of Michael Jackson, Madonna, the Thompson Twins and Journey it would be "shiny." There was something about this music that bedazzled the ears; it was rich in bells and whistles: dreamy guitars, sci-fi synthesizer tones and glass shattering snare pops. Sleek and ultra modern, it was less about assembling music from parts played on instruments and more about sequencing together various layers of sonic textures. Nowadays, when a song from the 80s comes on the radio, it is instantly identifiable to one's ears.
Skeptics among you may object to all this. Is it really true that each decade had its own distinct sound, a style that ends when the decade is over? For instance, did Swing actually die on Dec 31, 1949? Of course not; life isn't that simple. That said, it does seem like each decade possesses an identifying flavor. If that perception is merely an illusion, well, it's an illusion that works well enough for conversations such as this.
One could push back on the idea that each decade has but a single identifying sound (or, at most, two of three). Was everybody only listening to one type of music during the whole decade? The social justice warriors out there might even argue that what we identify as the "style" of a particular decade is really the sound of the dominant white culture. And there's truth to these points: the 40s may have been about swing bands but that decade also saw the rise of smaller combo jazz and the early R-n-B that would turn into Rock and Roll. Much of the glitzy New Wave of the 80s was already simmering in the 70s. Maybe humans have some cognitive bias that seeks to merge the diaspora of styles present in any decade into one.
That is all very likely... but, I also frequently come across the argument that the 80s were the last decade with a strongly identifiable sound. And it's an argument that feels true to me. Popular music has continued past the 80s, of course, but it often seems like a retro rehash of what came before. Ask someone to define the music of the 40s and 50s and the answers quickly come to mind: Swing and Rock and Roll respectively. Ask someone to define the music of this decade and you get a blank stare. Something has happened since the 80s, something that has fragmented music into competing parts, none of which can become dominant.
Letís look at the 90s. One might say that was the decade of grunge (though grunge fever was really petering around 1995 or so.) Grunge in its heyday certainly was what everyone was talking about, but it never really felt "new." It was more like slowed down Black Sabbath mixed with punk and garage rock---bands and genres from decades past. We could ignore grunge and turn to boy bands like the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC as contenders for the sound of the decade. But they clearly drew direct inspiration from 80s acts like New Kids of the Block.†
This trend continues into the 2000s. While writing this I was drawing a blank trying to come up with any artists of that era (the only one that immediately came to mind was J-Lo) so I did a Google search. Here are a few of the names that come up: Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, Usher, the Black Eye Peas, etc. Clearly the 2000s were a decade of hip-hop and R&B. And yet, it doesn't feel like the music of that decade was unified the way the music of the 40s-80s was. You got the sense that the majority of folks in those earlier eras were listening to music of the day but in the 2000s it became easier to check out of the mainstream and follow your own groove. (I spent much of the 2000s listening to alt-country and jazz.)
This fracturing of music is well commented on and can be traced to the arrival of the Internet. With Napster, and later Spotify and its ilk, people could listen to ever-more granular niches of music. Music became less of a unifying force in culture and more of a way of pursuing individuality. ("You're a fan of Post-Bop-EDM-Trance? Well I love House-Funk-Death-Metal-Crunk! We will never be friends!")
I should be clear here: I'm not knocking this new hyper-segmentation of available music. I think it's basically a good thing that people can chase ever-shrinking niches. But it does... how do I put this... damage our sense of community? (Can the exponential growth of musical niches be blamed for our increasingly uncivil society? Hmmm... it's probably a specific instance of a larger phenomenon.)
I think there may be something else going on here as well. Many of the people who pontificate on cultural trends are around my age: somewhere in the 40-50 range. We are, I suspect, inclined to be sensitive to the music of our teenage years (even music we didnít like at the time) and increasingly unaware of the music of the contemporary world. I could pontificate for hours of the subtle differences between the Thompson Twins and the Human League, I could engage in long emails describing the exact sonic nature of Def Leppard's Hysteria album (in fact, I recently did) but I could tell you very little about the differences between T.I. and T-Pain (one of them uses the funny voice thingy right?) I try to keep an open mind but it's easy for me to be both blind to a lot of current music and convinced that what music I do hear is actually derivative of the music of "my" era. This proclivity, combined with the genuine fracturing of the music world, makes it difficult for people in my age bracket to see a unifying sound in post-80s music.
We must, I think, concede that the days of musical decades that are complete units have fallen into the past. In modern internet time, days become weeks, weeks months and months years. Whole epochs swing by in a year or two. Good luck keeping up.
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Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.orgVisit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.