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11. Art and Music in the 1980s

Clayton Funk

Neo Pop Art

Ron English's "Cereal KIllers"
Ron English’s “Cereal Killers”

While the Neo Expressionists were causing everything from excitement to worry in the art world, there were other voices that were drawn to the escapism of television entertainment, in MTV, Movie Channels, and the wealth of media that could be had on cable television. In Visual art, Neo Pop art was filled with political protest and sometimes satire.

Compared to the Pop Art of the 1960s, with Oldenberg’s enlarged wedding rings and giant soft hamburgers, Neo Pop artists were preoccupied with protest images and a backlash to the conservative 1980s. This was also the time when Punk scenes splintered into New Wave, Grunge music, and more.  Images of protest in art and music influenced a savvy audience of college-aged generation X students, who took to the tools of philanthropy, marketing, and politics they had learned well and put them to work against the status quo.

The AIDS epidemic exploded at this time and the U.S. Federal government was largely unresponsive to the problem, so groups of young people sought to disrupt business as usual, but they did so systematically. Young people of the 1980s, particularly in the LGBTQ communities, organized large nonprofits, like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and Act Up. GMHC was a nonprofit that raised funding and established services for people with AIDS. The other arm of this movement was Act Up, whose strategy was very organized but its medium was disruption through social protest. The slogan “Silence=Death” (Silence equals Death) became folklore as they pasted their posters and stickers any place they would be seen. They disrupted official functions, chained themselves together as barriers and made a presence that is still remembered along with red lapel ribbons.

These urgent protests were also the starting ground for a new take on visual forms. The Act Up stickers were early forms of what is now called sticker graffiti. Human chains continue as a form of protest, but sometimes as performance art, and the red lapel ribbons of AIDS Awarness have been replicated many times over in Pink, Yellow, blue, and other colors, for other causes.

Kieth Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat were two important figures in what became known as Neo Pop Art because they drew images from Graffiti and hip-hop culture. Some considered them opportunists for capitalizing on and misrepresenting those cultures, while others considered their works as innovations that bridged gaps between forms from street culture and forms in the art world.

The Names Project and the AIDS Memorial Quilt were also forms deployed as a visual demonstration of social action. Its impact illustrated the massive numbers of people who had died of HIV and AIDS in just a few years. The quilt was one of the first of its kind. Individuals, and groups created quilt squares in memory of someone they knew who died of AIDS. Each square was sewn together into larger blocks and arranged on the Capital Mall in Washington, DC, to resemble a quilt covering the entire area. The visual impact of the quilt drew significant attention from the press and visualized the massive impact of AIDS to government officials, who had been largely unresponsive to calls for research funding. Artistically, The Names Project broke ground in the world of visual forms, because anyone could make a quilt block, whether they called themselves an artist, or not.

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The 1980s, like all decades, can be remembered for many different historical events. John Lennon (of the Beatles) was murdered in front of his Manhattan residence in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States, and the Challenger shuttle blew up shortly after takeoff. The Challenger tragedy, seen on television by millions over and again, left an imprint on the memory of people growing up in this decade similar to the one left by the assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s.

However, for many young people the most significant events (in terms of their day-to-day lives) in the 1980s were the technological advancements developed by the music industry. Music Television (MTV) was born in 1981 along with the inventions of the Walkman, the VCR, and boom box. These inventions are what reshaped the music of this era, and between MTV and the development of video games, the electronic world became far more visual.

MTV gave musical artists a new medium to promote their music with and to express themselves further. It also allowed audiences to heighten their experience of listening rather remarkably through visual imagery. MTV gave New Wave musicians from Europe such as the Eurythmics, the Police, and Duran Duran the opportunity to enter the U.S. market without embarking on risky, expensive tours. The fans often emulated the images found in the music videos. Madonna bracelets stacked to the elbows were “in” as was teased hair, and tons of makeup. The multi-media exposure helped artists such as Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Prince attain superstar status.

It was a time when dance-able Pop music and Techno sounds were fashionable as were hair bands and the beginnings of Rap. The technology of the 1980s also created a global effect on music, allowing it to reach into parts of the world that were impenetrable before. Musicians began to reach out and support humane causes around the world. Charity concerts such as Band Aid, Live Aid, and We Are The World were given to raise funds for those special causes.

Music became political again as Heavy Metal and Rap groups were formed. Speed Metal bands such as Metallica fought for justice, while Rap groups such as Public Enemy advocated Black nationalism. Technology was used to increase the volume of the music to a deafening level and to distort the sound and lyrics to a barely discernible point. Boom boxes became walking radio stations and turntables became instruments. The 80s can be best described as a time of rich musical exploration through its globalization given by the development of technology. New styles evolved from earlier ones, and entirely new genres of Rock were invented.

New Wave evolved from the Punk Rock of the 1970s. Country, which had been very important to the beginnings of Rock Music, asserted itself as genre to be reckoned with, and Hard Rock got harder and Heavy Metal emerged. In addition, Rap, which had begun in the 1970s, became widely popular and an entirely new genre of Rock, called “Alternative,” came on the scene.

We divide the music of the 1980s into the following types:

  1. Rap
  2. New Wave
  3. Country
  4. Super Stars
  5. Alternative
  6. Hard rock/Heavy Metal

Rap. As discussed in Chapter Nine, important 1980s rap groups we cover include the Sugarhill Gang, Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys, N.W.A., and others.

New Wave. By the end of the 1970s, major record labels had caught on to the energy and power of Punk Rock although many of them found the genre threatening. Hoping to harness that sound but to make it marketable and less threatening, the term New Wave was invented. New Wave music was considered progressive, different, heavily influenced by Punk, but also much more mainstream, pop oriented. Important New Wave groups and musicians include Blondie, the Go-Go’s, Elvis Costello, the Pretenders, Duran Duran, the Eurythmics, the Police, the Cars, and Culture Club.

Country. The controversy that we described in this area in the 1970s continued to rage in the 1980s, with some individuals and groups stressing “pure” country that closely followed traditional country music (George Strait) and others merging country and rock (Alabama).

Pop Superstars of the 1980s. Three individuals emerged during the 1980s who had such distinctive and diverse styles, and such incredible success and attention from the media that they defy categorization other than to call them superstars. They were, of course, Prince, Michael Jackson, and Madonna.

Alternative. Alternative is a category of rock that includes many post-punk, outside the mainstream bands in the 1980s and 1990s. It is difficult at best to describe it as a style, although certainly a healthy dose of creative rebellion, at least early on, is a main ingredient. In the 1980s, many alternative groups recorded for independent labels. In addition, their music, when it was played on the radio, was played on the “alternative” stations. Important alternative groups from the 1980s include The Cure, Depeche Mode, New Order, R.E.M., The Smiths, 10,000 Maniacs, and U2.

Hard Rock and Heavy Metal. Based on the work of bands such as Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith in the 1970s; Def Leppard, Kiss, Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses, Bon Jovi, and Metallica extended the genre in the 1980s and made it even more popular.

Page author: L.C. & C.F.

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A Quick and Dirty Guide to Art, Music, and Culture Copyright © 2016 by Clayton Funk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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