Music history of the United States (1980s to the present)

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Music of the United States
History (Timeline) Ethnicities
to 1900 African American
1900-1940 Native American: Inuit and Hawaiian
40s and 50s Latin: Tejano and Puerto Rican
60s and 70s Cajun and Creole
80s to the present Other immigrants: Irish and Scottish
Genres (Samples): Classical - Hip hop - Rock - Pop - Folk
Awards Grammy Awards, Country Music Awards
Charts Billboard Music Chart
Festivals New Orleans Jazz Festival, Lollapalooza, Lilith Fair, Ozzfest, Woodstock Festival, Monterey Jazz Festival
Media Spin, Rolling Stone, Vibe, Downbeat, Source, MTV, VH1
National anthem "The Star-Spangled Banner" and forty-nine state songs
Local music
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The 1980s saw New Wave entering the year as the single biggest mainstream market, with heavy metal, punk rock and hardcore punk, and hip hop achieving increased crossover success. With the demise of punk rock, a new generation of punk-influenced genres arose, including Gothic rock, post-punk, alternative rock, emo and thrash metal. Hip hop underwent its first diversification, with Miami bass, Chicago hip house, Washington DC go go, Detroit ghettotech, Los Angeles electroclash and the golden age of old school hip hop in New York City. House music developed in Chicago, techno music developed in Detroit which also saw the flowering of the Detroit Sound in gospel. This helped inspire the greatest crossover success of Christian Contemporary Music (CCM), as well as the Miami Sound of Cuban pop.

In the beginning of the 1990s, formulaic metal bands dominated the charts until 1991, when G Funk gangsta rap, led by Dr. Dre, and Seattle-born grunge music, led by Nirvana, knocked metal off the charts. Both genres were full of energy at the beginning of the decade, with grunge reacting against the perceived superficiality of recent rock trends, and Dr. Dre's Death Row Records stable of artists proudly placing the West Coast on the hip hop map. Both genres died out, however, both in the matter of the few months later in the decade. In its place arose a variety of brief, minor trends that failed to catch on. In rock, third wave of ska and pop punk bands, British techno music, funk metal, nu metal, riot grrl, alternative rock and industrial rock achieved sporadic success. Hip hop saw the East Coast reassert its primacy, and other cities, including Atlanta, Saint Louis, Detroit and New Orleans became major centers of commercial hip hop. Alternative hip hop also flourished into the next millennium, when it accompanied the much-hyped garage rock revival and a massive pop interest in teen idol boy bands and divas, many with a Latin flourish.



The American music industry of the very early 1980s was in a state of flux, which Reebee Garofolo claims reflects the state of American society, in turmoil with the election of Ronald Reagan (p. 353). Disco, the most popular style of the late 1970s, was dead, and the once vibrant field of punk rock was fractured, producing offshoots like New Wave music. The term New Wave was used very loosely, describing a vast range of styles from the arty punk of Elvis Costello to the Talking Heads and the New Romantics; this vagueness temporarily threw the "marketing categories of the music industry" into "disarray" (Garofolo, 353). The record industry itself suffered a recession during this period, a feat which many had thought impossible during the early 1970s, when the industry's profits had risen phenomenally quickly. Between 1978 and 1979, sales within the United States dropped by 11% (Garofolo, 354).

New Wave's main-stream popularity was brief. By 1984 (1984 in music), hair metal, long a dormant part of the Los Angeles music scene, started its reign on the charts. Led by hypermasculine bands like Quiet Riot (Metal Health), Van Halen (Van Halen) and Mötley Crüe (Shout at the Devil), hair metal reached its popular peak in the late 1980s with Def Leppard's Pyromania. Guns n' Roses' Appetite for Destruction burst onto the scene late in the decade, and launched a new, short-lived era of more machoistic posturing and harsh, critical lyrics, mixed with the occasional ballad and virtuosic riff.

Black music in the 1980s focused on two developments. A smooth, ballad-oriented pop-soul evolved and dominated the pop charts, especially in the early part of the decade. Lionel Richie (Can't Slow Down), Michael Jackson (Thriller), Whitney Houston (Whitney Houston) and Prince (Purple Rain) exemplified this field. The other major development in black music was the rise of hip hop as a commercial force.

Hip hop

Hip hop began its course to mainstream popularity with occasional fringe success in the early 80s -- Kurtis Blow (Kurtis Blow) and LL Cool J (Radio) introduced the sound to white listeners, while Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force ("Planet Rock") and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five ("The Message") innovated new methods in MCing and DJing. Distinct regional variations including Miami bass, LA electro hop, DC go go and Chicago hip house became popular locally and influenced later artists. Of these, bass artists like 2 Live Crew (2 Live Crew Is What We Are) became most famous for sexually explicit lyrics and controversy, while hip house has proven enormously influential on the then developing house music scene and would go on to influence much of electronica and techno.

Punk rock

In the 1980s, punk music began incorporating reggae, ska and other international influences, while heavy metal diversified in the wake of the success of hair metal. Thrash, death and power metal emerged. Pop bands like U2 (The Joshua Tree) and post-punk bands like R.E.M. (Murmur) also led an interest in the alternative rock scene. All around the country, pop- and hard rock-oriented bands evolving in a state of popular dismissal but critical acclaim had developed a unique sound. Bands like the Pixies (Doolittle) and Hüsker Dü (New Day Rising) made only minor waves on the charts, but fomented a serious revolution in music. A new generation of listeners hated the bombastic, corporate sterility of formulaic hair metal bands, and reacted against them.

Other genres

The 1980s also saw intense diversification in salsa music, which added Latin rap, jazz and other influences. Cuban songo influenced the form, and helped lead to a period of Cuban salsa dominating the genre. Popular salsa from the United States during the 80s including salsa romantica and Miami Sound performers.

1980s gospel was marked by a slick, pop form of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), most influentially performed by artists like Amy Grant, as well as both traditional and radical singers and choirs, including Kirk Franklin and the Sounds of Blackness. The Detroit Sound of gospel arose during the 80s and remained current in the 90s, dominated by The Winans and The Clarks.

Klezmer music took two different directions during the 1980s. Perennial favorites The Klezmatics, alongside artists like the Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band and Brave Old World, radically reinvented the genre, adding influences from around the world. Another movement, based primarily in Europe, brought klezmer back to its traditional roots.

In 1983, R. Carlos Nakai, a Navajo-Ute, released Changes, a multi-platinum album that launched a revival in the Native American flute. Combined with sounds of nature and ambient electronics, this set the stage for the modern incarnation of New Age music. Three years later, a tradition of Navajo spoken word poetry began with John Trudell's Aka Graffiti Man.

In 1981, David Byrne and Brian Eno released My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which defined what came to be known as world music by fusing African and Arab vocals over trance-like dance beats. A year later, Peter Gabriel launched WOMAD in Britain; the festival has since become a world music showcase and launched the careers of artists like Youssou N'Dour. In 1986, Paul Simon's blockbuster Graceland made world music briefly mainstream, bringing in South African artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Mahlathini & the Mahotella Queens. In 1989, David Byrne and Peter Gabriel founded record labels (Luaka Bop and RealWorld, respectively) that soon dominated the field.


Missing image

The result of hair metal's decline was the grunge explosion in the early 1990s. By 1992 (1992 in music), hair metal bands were massively unpopular as grunge groups like Nirvana (Nevermind), Pearl Jam (Ten) and Alice in Chains (Dirt) dominated the charts. Their success lasted only a few years, however, as bands found it difficult to maintain their "alternative" sound after going mainstream.

In addition, former N.W.A. member Dr. Dre (The Chronic) brought gangsta rap to pop audiences. By the mid-90s, alternative rock groups had died out among mainstream listeners, and gangsta rap took over. The middle of the decade also saw a boom in electronic music's (sometimes referred to generically as "electronica") popularity. Despite the fact that Detroit originally developed techno and Chicago developed house both in the mid-1980s, these forms remained largely underground and unknown in their country of origin. Electronic music genres were popularized primarily in Britain through the acid house, rave of the late 1980s and early 1990s and were later reinterpreted and "re-exported" back into the United States. Electronica's many permutations achieved some mainstream success throughout the last half of the decade. Bubblegum pop like the Spice Girls also returned after a decade of more-or-less dormancy during the period of hair metal and grunge, both highly opposed to clean, slick and shiny content.

Gangsta rap in the 1980s had focused on the two coasts originally, with West Coast pioneers like Ice-T ("6 N Da Mornin'") and Too $hort (Born to Mack) and East Coast artists like Schoolly D (Saturday Night - The Album) achieving fame among blacks and mainstream success being limited to hardcore groups like N.W.A. (Straight Outta Compton), politically controversial groups like Public Enemy (It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back) and fledgling alternative hip hop groups like De La Soul (3 Feet High and Rising). East Coast rappers like Slick Rick (The Great Adventures of Slick Rick) had defined that coast's sound in the late 80s, and it had been far and away the center for hip hop until Dr. Dre's The Chronic put the West Coast on the hip hop map. Boasting a radio-friendly G funk sound, based primarily off funk samples, West Coast rap soon became the dominant sound among pop audiences with rappers like Snoop Doggy Dogg (Doggystyle) and Tupac Shakur (Me Against the World) achieving mainstream success. East Coast rappers like Notorious B.I.G. (Ready to Die) and Nas (Illmatic) tended to be more well-received critically, but were consistently unable to match the West Coast in pop sales. The rivalry between the two coasts came to a head by 1996 (1996 in music), when the deaths of Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur rocked the world of hip hop. With West Coast head Suge Knight imprisoned (unrelated to the murders) and East Coast quickly becoming dominated by Puff Daddy's releases aimed at purely pop audiences, rap music splintered. A new generation of southern rappers like OutKast (ATLiens) and Goodie Mob (Soul Food) emerged from Atlanta, as well as vibrant scenes in St. Louis and New Orleans. The Fugees (The Score) also fused hip hop sounds with dub, dancehall and reggae, popular Jamaican forms, to great mainstream success. East Coast rap's reputation among critics during its popular domination by watered-down pop acts like Puff Daddy (No Way Out) and Mase (Harlem World) was saved by the Wu Tang Clan (Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)), DMX (And Then There Was X), Busta Rhymes (The Coming) and other rappers that used a distinctively East Coast sound without catering to mainstream markets. On the West Coast, a period of relatively poor sales for Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg and the imprisonment of Suge Knight, led to the subsequent collapse of Death Row Records and a drought in mainstream popularity. In the late part of the decade, Eminem (The Marshall Mathers LP) emerged as one of the country's biggest stars. The Missouri-born rapper achieved success early in his career with radio-friendly hooks and pop beats; he quickly became the first white rapper to cross over to mainstream audiences without losing his critical viability.

Alanis Morissette also reached popularity during this point, giving rise to the singer-songwriter traditions of predecessors Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman. Her album Jagged Little Pill became one of the most popular albums of the decade. Following her success included other popular female performers including Fiona Apple and Jewel.

 became one of the most popular artists of the decade, selling over 30 million copies of her breakthrough album .
Alanis Morissette became one of the most popular artists of the decade, selling over 30 million copies of her breakthrough album Jagged Little Pill.

Other 90s trends

Power pop bands like Weezer (The Blue Album), jam bands like Phish (A Picture of Nectar) and punk-pop and skacore groups like Green Day (Dookie) and Sublime (Sublime) rose to some prominence, with late punk and ska bands achieving the most mainstream success. No Doubt (Tragic Kingdom), Rancid (...And Out Come the Wolves) and similar bands released blockbuster albums in the middle of the decade.

Soul music, languishing since the popular demise of Michael Jackson and Prince some ten years earlier, re-emerged with a return to the sounds of early 70s soul; Lauryn Hill (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill), Erykah Badu (Baduizm) and D'Angelo (Voodoo) spearheaded this movement. In hard rock, multiple trends developed.

Thrash metal, invented in the late 80s by bands like Metallica (Kill 'Em All), achieved some mainstream success before mutating into nu metal (such as System of a Down (Toxicity)) in the middle of the decade. Rapcore bands (that mix hip hop and metal) also emerged; Limp Bizkit (Significant Other) and Korn (Peachy) were the most popular, drawing heavily upon early pioneers in the field like Pantera (A Vulgar Display of Power), Faith No More (Angel Dust) and Anthrax (Among the Living). The 1990s also saw a boom in funk metal bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers (Californication) and female singer-songwriters like Tori Amos (Boys for Pele), relying on late 80s pioneers like Tracy Chapman (Tracy Chapman) and P.J. Harvey (Rid of Me).

Another major musical style of the 1990s was pop-country groups, beginning with honky tonk crooners like Clint Black (Killin' Time), Alan Jackson (A Lot About Livin' (And a Little 'Bout Love)) and Garth Brooks (Ropin' the Wind), the sound exploded into mainstream audiences with the crossover success of Shania Twain (Come on Over), the Dixie Chicks (Fly), Faith Hill (Breathe) and other female singers in the middle of the decade.

Verdell Primeaux and Johnny Mike released Sacred Path: Healing Songs of the Native American Church, an influential album that fused Peyote Songs with electronic backwashes and other modern flourishes. In 1994, part Mohawk Robbie Robertson (of The Band) put together the soundtrack for a documentary as part of an exploration of his Native American heritage. The resulting album, Music for the Native Americans, was extremely popular and has proven itself influential, bringing Native American artists to some segments of mainstream audiences.


Since the turn of the millennium, two major developments in American popular music have occurred. The dominance of bubblegum pop like 'N Sync (No Strings Attached) and Backstreet Boys (Backstreets Back) continued from the 90s, and also grew to include Latin stars like Shakira (Laundy Service), Ricky Martin (Sound Loaded) and Christina Aguilera (Christina Aguilera). In addition to these slick sounds, a growing number of domestic and foreign garage rock bands have achieved notable success, including The Strokes (Is This It?) and the White Stripes (White Blood Cells).


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