Looking at rock music in the 80s through the lens of its key subgenres is an interesting way to look back on the various sounds that came out of rock music in the decade. Here’s a look at some of 80s rock’s more well-known subgenres.
Without arena rock, rock music from the 80s would have sounded very different. Despite opinions to the contrary, it unlikely would have been better. The decade’s blend of hard rock, pop/rock, and progressive rock made up the staple of the 80s rock sound. Major artists in this subgenre include Night Ranger, 38 Special, Pat Benatar, REO Speedwagon, and Journey. Van Halen can also be included- they made their last superb record in 1984, with David Lee Roth on vocals.
If you were around in 1982, it’s impossible that you weren’t repeatedly exposed to Jack and Diane from John Mellencamp. It’s probably the finest example from a subgenre that first reared its head in the late 70s. Heartland rock remained popular in the early part of the 80s with its blending of rock and roll with such American styles as folk and country. Popular singer-songwriters in this subgenre include Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, and Tom Petty, with their songs that appealed to the everyman of the good old U.S. of A.
The likes of Skid Row, Poison, Motley Crue, Dokken, Deff Leppard, and Bon Jovi used to sell out arenas with thousands of fans turning up with bandanas and Aqua-netted hairdos. Also known as glam metal and pop metal, this hugely successful subgenre managed to find, and time and again repeat, the formula for pop-rock music. It may have heavily borrowed from 70s glam rock in terms of its image, but it built its mainstream audience through 80s pop production.
Termed indie music in the UK, (a term which is now also used in the U.S.), college rock was eclectic while having one main thing in common. The majority of the acts were discovered by, and heard on, college radio. While the majority of groups, such as the Replacements and R.E.M., didn’t fit into the mainstream, the subgenre fought its way to recognition as a pervasive 80s style e.g. U2. These bands also have in common a love of guitar-centric and quirky music that emphasises a combination of melody and a spirit inspired by the punk movement.
This is essentially a subgenre of a subgenre, thanks to its relationship to college rock. It began in the 60s with early Beatles and the Byrds. However, it made a comeback in the 80s, reminiscent of folky rhythms of decades gone by and combining them with a more offbeat post-punk style that produced a more pop-tier sound. R.E.M. influenced a number of bands in this subgenre, such as the Refreshments, Hootie and the Blowfish, the Gin Blossoms, Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven, and the Bangles, as well as many other acts around the globe.
While it greatly overlapped with synth pop and new wave, post-punk undoubtedly showcased a more experimental style of music. Typically, harsher and louder than new wave, post-punk was more morose and stormy, illustrated by commercial favours like Psychedelic Furs and The Cure, as well as such obscure acts like Young Marble Giants. Keyboards and guitars featured heavily, as did mannered vocals and esoteric lyrics.