Rick James

The Power of Music: cultural influence throughout the decades

Music has always played a major role in people’s personal lives, but also in society as a whole. Starting from the 1960s, music has reflected the changes of each status quo in a more direct manner, alongside the technological developments and overall political and social climate. 

The impact of music in the 1960s

More specifically, the cultural upheaval of the 1960s was undoubtedly infused in the music of the time, which started to diversify more after 1963. Rock music dominated the charts, with new sub-genres such as surf rock and psychedelic rock breaking into the mainstream media. At the same time, many British rock and pop artists gained popularity in the United States, creating the so-called “British Invasion” phenomenon. It was mostly represented by the Beatles, who are thought to be the most influential band of the decade; other successful artists were The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Monkees, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys and others. 

The Power of Music: cultural influence throughout the decades - The Beatles
The Beatles, 1964 (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Apart from the new genres and sounds, music in the 60s was a way to express people’s opinions and to protest social injustice. This became known as Protest Music, with songs that had meaningful lyrics and a message to get across. This message was usually about freedom, world peace and love, linking Protest Music to the hippies. The “hippie” movement encouraged peaceful protests and the use of marijuana and other psychedelic drugs that supposedly enhanced the musical experience and promoted tranquillity and harmony during those stressful times of war and social problems. The relationship between music in the 60s and the hippies is interchangeable, which is proven by the anti-war lyrics and psychedelic elements of the songs.

1970s

The main sound of the 70s was disco music. Funky baselines, erotic lyrics and stylish outfits characterised the disco era, with artists like the Bee Gees and ABBA singing hits that are still popular. Although this genre was really well-received at first, the public soon realised that it was highly commercialised and mindless, resulting in disco music dying out by the end of the decade. Similar to disco music was funk, a genre that met a lot of success during the 70s and 80s, represented by James Brown, Parliament-Funkadelic, Kool and the Gang, Earth, Wind & Fire etc. Funk has groovy beats and a psychedelic feel, along with eccentric personas and costumes that made it appealing to the public, while also addressing social issues. Opposing the upbeat sound of funk and disco, there were still those who were frustrated with society, which led to the rise of punk rock music. The songs were filled with heavy guitar sequences, angry vocals and lyrics exposing social and political issues, with bands such as The Ramones, Sex Pistols and The Clash being the pioneers of a genre that equals revolution.

The Power of Music: cultural influence throughout the decades - ABBA
ABBA (Siegfried Pilz/United Archives, via Getty Images)
The Power of Music: cultural influence throughout the decades - Rick James
Rick James, 1970 (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
The Power of Music: cultural influence throughout the decades - The Clash
The Clash (Michael Putland/Getty Images)

1980s

The 70s were the perfect segway from the rebellious 60s to the glamorous 80s, as an unexpected period of prosperity and economic growth started in the late 1970s. It continued throughout the 1980s, making people turn towards consumerism and materialism.  Moreover, the development of technology caused a huge outbreak in the movie and music industry, with MTV making its debut in 1981, changing the music scene forever. Music videos were now a part of each song, making the appearance of the artists and the aesthetic of the video almost more important than the song itself. This focus on image caused the emergence of pop stars: quirky and unique artists that, apart from their vocals, became famous for their personality and public impression. The most iconic stars of the decade included Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince and David Bowie, who retain their pop icon place to this day. 

Equality and the 90s

At first, MTV only showed music videos of white artists, which made it difficult for artists of colour to become known to the public. After much backlash, MTV agreed to play music videos of black artists, with the first one being Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’. This paved the way for hip hop and rap music to break into the mainstream music scene, a new genre that emerged in the late 70s and was mostly represented by black artists. The lyrics of hip hop/rap mostly talk about the lives of black people and their culture, with a fun and rhythmic beat, using primarily sampled old records. Later on, hip hop would enter its Golden Era – the 1990s, where artists like Wu Tang Clan, 2Pac, Eric B & Rakim, Beastie Boys and others would rise to the popular scene.

The Power of Music: cultural influence throughout the decades - Eric and B Rakim
Eric B & Rakim (ERNIE PANICCIOLI PHOTOGRAPHY/COURTESY ERNIE PANICCIOLI PHOTOGRAPHY)

In conclusion…

The music industry has experienced various shifts according to the status quo and the global community as do all industries. The three decades mentioned, the 60s, the 70s and the 80s are considered milestones for the history of music. They still influence the mainstream, whether through samples, covers or simply inspiration for artists, like The Weeknd and Dua Lipa, who incorporate 80s elements to their music.

Written by Despina Zacharopoulou

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