1980s: Music

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1980s: Music


One of the biggest music stories of the 1980s actually involved a television network. A specialized cable channel, MTV (which stands for Music Television) went on the air in 1981. The cable channel soon made the music video an essential element of selling a hit song. Almost singlehandedly, MTV made stars of Madonna (1958–), Michael Jackson (1958–), and the group Duran Duran. It helped bring rap music to the mainstream when it offered shows centered around this emerging musical form.

Rap music had been an underground musical form until the mid-1980s, but the band Run-DMC reached a mass audience with its first album in 1982. Its 1985 album King of Rock was an even bigger hit and helped make the band a regular feature on MTV. Other popular male rappers of the decade were LL Cool J (1969–) and Tone Loc (1966–); female rap artists included Salt-N-Pepa (1985–) and Queen Latifah (1970–). There were even white rappers such as the Beastie Boys. Even though many rappers and rap groups reached mainstream audiences, the controversy over the music of some groups, such as Public Enemy and 2 Live Crew (which was charged with obscenity), made it clear that rap music still had a dangerous edge.

The single best-known performer of the 1980s was Michael Jackson. His 1983 album Thriller, with its singles "Billie Jean" and "Beat It," made the former child star one of the richest performers in America and helped MTV establish itself. Jackson also helped pioneer trends in dance and dress. Other music sensations of the 1980s included Whitney Houston (1963–), who had seven consecutive number-one hits; Madonna, whose song "Material Girl" (1985) defined a generation of preteen girls who looked up to Madonna as an idol; Prince (1958–), an androgynous (showing both masculine and feminine tendencies) funk-rock player who had a smash hit with the album 1999 (1983) and a popular movie and album called Purple Rain (1984); and Bruce Springsteen (1949–), whose song "Born in the U.S.A." nearly became an alternative national anthem after its release in 1984. The popularity of several of these stars showed that both African Americans and women could easily reach the pinnacle of musical success.

Country music enjoyed a real resurgence in the 1980s, launching a number of new stars—Randy Travis (1959–), Ricky Skaggs (1954–), Reba McEntire (1955–), and Wynonna Judd (1964–) and Naomi Judd (1946–). Some older stars, such as Willie Nelson (1933–), Dolly Parton (1946–), George Jones (1931–), Waylon Jennings (1937–2002), and Merle Haggard (1937–), saw their careers revived. Several jazz musicians also reached mainstream audiences. Perhaps the best known were Sade (1959–), Wynton Marsalis (1961–), and Kenny G (1959–).

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