The Most Influential ’80s Rock Music Genres
Breaking down the music of the ’80s into some of its key genres and styles is a great way to begin to get a handle on the decade’s wide array of sounds. Here’s a quick look at some of the era’s most prominent pop and rock music categories.
Without arena rock, ’80s music would have been a far different genre, and despite common attitudes to the contrary, probably not for the better. Despite its commercial nature, the ’80s blend of progressive rock, radio-friendly pop/rock with huge hooks, and hard rock became a deserved staple of the decade’s musical menu. Key artists include Journey, REO Speedwagon, Pat Benatar, .38 Special, and Night Ranger. And we’ll make the case for including Van Halen, as well, who made their last great album with David Lee Roth at the helm in 1984. (Note: Roth returned as lead singer for the group in 2012 and of this writing he’s still wailing away with the rest of the original lineup, including Eddie Van Halen’s son, Wolfgang, on bass.)
College rock (known as indie rock in the U.K., a term that eventually became popular in the U.S. as well), was defined by an impressive eclecticism bound by a simple commonality: Most of the bands were first discovered by and played on college radio stations. While most of the groups—R.E.M. and the Replacements, most notably—originally sat squarely outside the mainstream, the genre eventually became recognized as a pervasive ’80s style, i.e., U2. What links these bands regardless is a penchant for quirky, guitar-centered music that spotlights both melody and a punk rock-inspired independent spirit.
Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Dokken, Motley Crue, Poison, Skid Row: laugh now, but there was a time when these hair metal bands sold out arenas to the tune of tens of thousands of fans with hairdos Aqua-Netted to the stratosphere and bandanas choking off circulation to their knees. Sometimes called pop metal and glam metal almost interchangeably, the phenomenon of hair metal whittled heavy metal and hard rock down to a successful pop music formula. Along the way, the form drew advantageously from ’70s glam rock for its image but slathered on ’80s pop production at will to build a powerful mainstream audience.
Unless you lived in a cave in the middle of nowhere in 1982, it was impossible to escape John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane,” probably the best example of a genre that first emerged during the latter half of the ’70s. By the early 1980s, heartland rock was still going strong, deftly blending straightforward rock and roll with other popular American styles like country and folk. Tom Petty, Bob Seger, and Bruce Springsteen likewise excelled at writing compelling tunes spotlighting the joys and predicaments of every man and woman in the USA.
A sub-genre of college rock, jangle pop originated in the 1960s (think the Byrds and early Beatles), and was revived in the 1980s, picking up the prior decades’ folksy rhythms and melding them to a pop-ier, more offbeat post-punk sound. No doubt R.E.M. can be thought of as the originators from which artists like the Bangles, Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker, the Gin Blossoms, Hootie and the Blowfish, and the Refreshments took inspiration.
Perhaps the most recognizable ’80s music genre in terms of both name and sound, new wave helped generate many of the decade’s most memorable style elements as well. But more than anything, this pop music distillation of punk rock’s defiant spirit produced some top-notch guitar rock as well as a potent, keyboard-dominated sub-genre called synth pop (Devo, Gary Numan, Spandau Ballet).
Artists include the quirky throwback kitsch of the B-52s, the moody melodies of the Cars, the dance-style pop of Culture Club, the reggae-influenced tunes of The Police, and the super-slick radio hits of Duran Duran. Girls having fun was also the name of the New Wave game, as female artists like Cyndi Lauper not only asserted themselves as pop stylists of the highest order but as capable frontwomen (the Pretenders, the Motels, later-era Blondie) as well.
Although it featured more than a little overlap with both new wave and synth pop, the music category known as post-punk generally exhibited more outright experimentation than its genre relatives. Usually louder and more aggressive than new wave, post-punk often seemed more emotionally stormy and morose as well, as exemplified by obscure artists like Young Marble Giants as well as radio-favorites The Cure and Psychedelic Furs. Guitar and keyboards played heavy roles, along with esoteric lyrics and mannered vocals.