Among people who care about, or at least listen to music, the argument is eternal; were the eighties a vast wasteland, or among the greatest periods of the rock and roll era?
The answer, of course, is “neither”.
Music – specifically, genres of music – conform only loosely with calendar decades. But there are most definitely eras in music, periods when popular music had dynamics that acted differently on each other, to help create music that was more – or, often, less – memorable.
And in American/Western popular music in the past fifty-five or so years, the two main dynamics have been the style and relative dynamism of “White Music” and “Black Music”. The different styles of “White” music (starting with country, rockabilly and folk) and “Black” music (R and B, Blues, Jazz, early Rock and Roll) have spent the past sixty years (as regards the rock and roll era) mixing and mingling and, occasionally, returning to their neutral corners; each of those movements affected popular music; generally, the parts of popular music that were the most dynamic and interesting were the parts where “White” and “Black” styles mixed and mingled the most, a place that’s changed, or even flashed into and out of existence, from time to time throughout the past fifty or sixty years.
So, with an aim toward retiring the whole, age-old, misleading “what decade is better” meme, let’s look at how popular music has really ebbed and flowed; in cycles of 5-7 years driven by events, rather than in ten year cycles driven by the calendar.
By the way, I’m only looking at mass-market popular music, here. Keep your observations on the vitality of Finnish Zombie Metal to yourselves.
Era: Pre-Rock and Roll (1948-1953)
- Events: World War II ends; veterans start creating the “baby boom”.
- White Music: Traditional pop music, with some light jazz/big band overtones. Peggy Lee, the Lettermen and other traditional, factory pop prevail.
- Black Music: R and B, and the first “rock and roll” – still heavily blues based – starts percolating. Very few mainstream white artists copied it (although the likes of Pat Boone did, in fact, start to cover R and B in a very “cleaned-up” form)
- Results: Largely-forgotten music, either because it was outside traditional marketing (black) or just pretty forgettable (white).
Era: Early Rock and Roll (1954-1958)
- Events: With the Eisenhower era in full bloom, and the Greatest Generation becoming established and running a very stable, prosperous ship, kids – including the nascent “Baby Boom” – were developing the spare time and disposable money to develop a “youth culture” with – for the first time – it’s own music.
- Black Music: R and B morphed into what white kids recognized (and can still recognize) as “rock and roll”, as the likes of Chuck Berry started overtly influencing white artists…
- White Music: …like Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and so on, who brought black music to a white mass audience (and opened up the white mass-market audience for black artists’ own work) for the first time.
- Results: The first golden age of Rock and Roll, caused by the mixing and mingling of white and black music and the first “youth” culture in history.
The Brill Building Era (1958-1962)
- Events: The world got a little crazier, with the Soviets launching Sputnik and the Cold War threatening for the first time to reach out and touch Americans at home. The Eisenhower era ends in a recession.
- White Music: After Elvis is drafted (the legend goes), white popular music re-trenched into its pre-1953 pattern, with sanitized pop artists like Fabian, Bobby Rydell and the like performing very traditional pop (with very well-scrubbed R’nB overtones).
- Black Music: Back underground! A new generation of black performers – James Brown, Sam Cooke – as well as the Motown label, were just getting started.
- Results: Largely-forgettable pop music, memorable more for its novelty acts than its hits.
The Golden Age of the 45 (1962-1968)
- Events: Youth culture metastasized as the boomers went to high school, then college.
- White Music: The Beach Boys dragged pop back from its nadir. Bob Dylan makes folk music a big business. The Beatles re-packaged R’nB, the Rolling Stones put blues on the Top Forty, and suddenly “Black” music was the mainstream…
- Black Music: …even when performedy by black artists. Jimi Hendrix puts the blues on the Top Forty, and Motown and Stax/Volt bring R’nB to a mass audience.
- Results: Black and white music cross-pollinate, spawning the most creative period yet in popular music.
The Album Age (1968-1972)
- Events: The protest movement begets the “Summer of Love”, which begat the descent of (the most-publicized part of) boomer “youth culture” into navel-gazing, self-referential irrelevance.
- White Music: Awash in drugs and self-referential navel-gazing, white music splinters into shades of ultra-white (the singer-songwriter genre with its sublime and ridiculous extremes), drug-induced-stupid (the Doors), art-rock (sublime examples like The Who, ridiculous ones like Emerson Lake and Palmer) and blues-influenced music (Cream, Led Zeppelin) that would eventually morph into “metal”.
- Black Music: As Hendrix drugs himself into irrelevance, Motown and Stax/Volt pulls away from crossover with white music, creating a golden age of R’nB – the peak of Motown and Stax/Volt’s sales, influence and creativity, with the likes of Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Otis Redding the Stylistics and others driving the agenda.
- Results: As the boomer “youth culture” splintered, so did music as a whole, as black and white music both fragmented into niches that would reflect their audiences, and be reflected in their genres.
The Malaise Era (1973-1979)
- Events: As western civilization tried to commit suicide, music became both more escapist and more fragmented.
- White Music: Escapist pop both loud (glitter rock, Bachmann-Turner Overdrive, Boston, Foreigner), not so loud (America, Captain and Tenille, Fleetwood Mac) and inane (Alan O’Day, Rupert Holmes, the Starland Vocal Band) dominated the Top40 charts. The only real sources of dynamism, besides the punk/new-wave breakout that started in the early seventies and peaked in about ’77, was the loved/hated cross-pollination…
- Black Music: …with black/gay disco music, itself a product of R and B’s collapse into excess.
- Results: The golden age of the Big Rock Star, the Top Forty Hit, and the homogenization of radio.
The Alternative Era (1980-1986)
- Events: Ronald Reagan engaged the Soviets and put the “F*** Yeah!” back into “America”. The malaise lifted. American culture got a new lease on life.
- White Music: The splintering of punk and new wave, as well as a rapid plummet in the cost of technology, brought an unprecedented wave of creativity. The seventies pop establishment was pushed aside; artists like Dire Straits, Talking Heads, The Cars, the Police and Tom Petty, fringey underground figures in 1978, dominated the charts by 1982. Pop, Rock and R’nB mixed and matched and interbred in a thousand different styles. One of the best R’nB/Dance Rock bands was six Australians; one of the best rock and roll bands of the era…
- Black Music: …was also one of the best and most influential R’nB bands of the era, with two black guys, two white guys and two white women led by a 5’4″ black guy from Minneapolis blurring the lines between rock, pop and R’nB so adeptly that huge swathes of the pop audience stopped keeping track. The first big rap hit was performed by three white guys from Brooklyn; the next, by a couple of black guys who looped a white band who got started by dressing up the the blues and R’nB in glitter-rock clothes.
- Results: The best, most creative era in pop music since Sergeant Pepper, a time when black and white and pop and rock and dance and metal and everything in-between mixed and matched and interbred and just plain made things fun.
The Style-Over-Substance Era (1987-1992)
- Events: The Berlin Wall fell. History ended.
- White Music: Hair metal supplanted the variants of new wave, synth-pop, roots/heartland rock and power pop that had dominated the charts during the Reagan administration. Grunge came, grumped about, and flamed out in a depressive “poof”.
- Black Music: Black music morphed into primarily hip-hop, and ceded rock to the white boys. And with the likes of Public Enemy, NWA and the DOC, became a hell of a lot more interesting than the white music of the era.
- Results: Unbelieveably dull. Seriously. “Kill Me” dull.
The Return Of The Seventies (1993-2000)
- Events: With history all over, people could focus on having fun. Unfortunately, if you judge by the music of the era, they failed.
- White Music: In the pre-Ipod, pre-Napster era, white music returned to the seventies. From the boy bands (N*SYNC, Backstreet boys) to pop-rock (Alanis Morissette, Gin Blossoms), “safe” was the word.
- Black Music: R and B and hip-hop became almost inseparably intertwined – and almost-insufferably dull. The inventiveness of Public Enemy and the wry combativeness of NWA was replaced with the dull, thudding thuggishness of…well, just about everything in the genre.
- Results: Rock and roll was dead. Pop music was largely no more interesting, in general, than it had been between 1957 and 1963.
The IPod Era (2000-Present)
- Events: History started again.
- White And Black Music: Everything is available for free. While major label music is safer and more constrained than ever, technology promises (and so far it’s just a promise) to let musicians outflank the major-label system.
- Results: Damned if I know.
So as we see, there really are no “decades” in popular music, merely cycles of 4-7 years. The best of those cycles – 1954-1958, 1962-1968 and 1980-1986 – were times when the usual divides between “white” and “black”, and “underground” and “mass market” got scrambled beyond conventional recognition.
The other times? Business as usual.
That should settle that question once and for all.