1970s Push and 1980s Pull: Examining Social and Political Trends in Music

Branching off of the “Bohemian Rhapsody” topic is a closer look at pop and rock music of the 1970s and 1980s. Although the songs of these decades may appear to fall into a mutual “Oldies” category due to the differences in instruments and technology implemented, vocal tone qualities, and fashion choices made by the artists when compared to pop artists of the 2000s, there are several factors which distinguish 1970s music from 1980s music. But, what possibly could have contributed to so much change within ten short years of music history? Pop music, and even rock music in the form of New Wave in the 1970s, heavily emphasized lyrics of love. It focused more on the singer than on instrumental solos, and mostly stuck to the basic short form (or structure) of verse and chorus, rather than trying to get creative with each section of a musical piece, which could cause the piece to be lengthier. These characteristics seem pretty applicable to the music of any decade, right? Not so much. Just years beforehand in the 1960s, guitar solos flooded songs along with such controversial themes as sex, drugs, and politics alluding to race and war. Songs tended to be longer in this decade as well. It is no surprise that the increased musical freedom taken by artists in the 1960s paralleled the push for freedom in other areas of society, such as racial equality.

Ok, the ’60s were great, but, how does their analysis relate to the music of the 1970s? Well, music scholars have argued that the rebellious nature of Counterculture-esque music pushed musicians in the 1970s to scale back a bit, not only moving them to adopt the gentler image of loving over fighting in their lyrics, but, also gesturing them away from Rock and Roll roots by making nontraditional acoustical choices, such as using synthesizers over amplifiers. Though it is true that there was a push toward pop, soft rock, and a sort of passive independence from tradition, rather than a violent break from it in 1970s music, it seems that there was an equal pull away from this mellowness in 1980s music.

Music in the 1980s became less lyrical and more upbeat, moving back to virtuosity (or the showcasing of musical skill through acrobatic sounding runs and leaps) with traditional instrumental solos, replacing synthesizers once again. Amplifiers were brought back in style, though enhanced technology allowed for more distortion and chaos in sound than it did before. With the shift to cable channels and increased viewership of MTV music videos, music started becoming more about the image of the artist (hair, make-up, outfit, scenery, etc.) or the spectacle (the idea of putting on a big show) than about lyrics, melodies, or chord progressions. Artists, such as Madonna turned to shock value and sang once more about questionable moral subject matters, including religion and sex.

Several of the characteristics found in 1980s music seem reminiscent of 1960s music over 1970s music, but, why is that? It seems that whenever society swings or pushes to either extreme end of the political spectrum, there is an equal resistance pulling in the other direction. This push-pull pendulum may be reflected in the music of each decade. The emphasis on controversial lyrics, unstructured sections, and wild guitar solos in the 1960s along with the liberal ideals of the Counterculture drove people to make more conservative choices musically in the 1970s. Yet, the conservative musical choices made in the 1970s along with the rise of conservative sociopolitical trends in the 1980s once again pushed people to make more liberal choices musically. If we look to ’90s pop and rock music, we see a rise in Alternative songs, which generally tend to be more mellow than their ’80s Heavy Metal predecessors. All of this taken into consideration, do you think that music is in a constant push-pull state?

Below, you will find a clip of the 1970s Simon and Garfunkel song, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and a clip of the 1980s Bon Jovi song, “Livin’ On A Prayer.” Which differences do you hear between the two pieces that are indicative of the decades they come from, or do you think they are even comparable because they are not completely from the same genre?

You may click on the number of comments shown to leave a reply, or scroll to the VERY VERY bottom of the page (until you can’t scroll anymore) where it says, “Thoughts on 1970s Push and 1980s Pull…” Check out the “Help! What Do I Write About?” tab if you have questions about what to discuss musically, or even if you have writer’s block!

Works Cited:

BonJoviVEVO. “Bon Jovi-Livin’ On A Prayer.” YouTube. YouTube, 16 June 2009. Web. 23 June 2015.

Harrison, Thomas. Music of the 1980s. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2011. Web.

Moore, Allan F. Analyzing Popular Music. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Web.

SimonGarfunkelVEVO. “Simon & Garfunkel-Bridge Over Troubled Water (Audio).” YouTube. YouTube, 16 April 2013. Web. 22 June 2015.

2 thoughts on “1970s Push and 1980s Pull: Examining Social and Political Trends in Music

  1. Great article, I am not too educated on my history but from what I have researched and tried to skim through I feel that there definitley is a constant push and pull in music. I fell it corresponds with the era’s political, social, and technology advancement (to name a few). You did not mention the 60s but I feel the 60s and 70s should be bridged together. The 60s seems to be the start of rebellious acts, sexism, experimentation with drugs, war after war etc. While the 70s was somewhat of a response to the 60s, increasing political awareness more than it had already been started in the 60s. Therefore, the song “Bridge over Troubled Waters” by Simon and Garfunkel shows that kind of response and hopefulness for resolving issues that were being faced since the 60s. On the other hand, when observing the 80s it seemed to be the era of technological advancement such as personal computers which grew explosively, synthesizers, Musical Instrumental Digital Interface, etc. Therefore, when comparing “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Bridge over Troubled Waters” it is very evident the difference in sound and instrument. “Bridge over Troubled Waters” is more “pure” technology wise having the piano and vocals be the major attraction. Whereas “Livin’ on Prayer” shows way more technologically advanced instrumentation such as keyboard, talk box, and electric guitar, while still talking about similar struggles and hopes. All in all, I agree that there is a constant push and pull within varying musical eras and there are various components to it. So even if two eras may have the similar involvement in politics maybe it’s technology that changed between the eras.

    1980s was a fun time for music indeed…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very insightful response, Josie! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and an awesome 1980s music video, and for referring your friends to this site! You bring up a valid point about technology influencing the push-pull in music, spurred by such elements as the introduction of the talk-box in the 1980s. I think it is safe to say that right now, in 2015, we are in the push category, as splicing and fusing different genres of music together through computer editing (such as Electronic music with Classical music or New Age piano music) has pushed the envelope of previously keeping genres distinct from one another. Hope to hear more of your feedback soon!


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