Styles & Forms | Eighties Pop Singer-Songwriters

In the 1980s, the crossover ideal – not just between black and white music, but between rock and pop, and adults and kids – ruled the airwaves. Even the previously personal and introspective singer-songwriters were forced to adjust, and to dilute their piano-based romantic ballads with uptempo, full-band, dance-friendly songs.

The brassy soul-pop nostalgia of New Yorker Billy Joel’s 1983 hits, such as ‘Uptown Girl’ and ‘Tell Her About It’, were perhaps the ultimate examples of such crossover music. Nevertheless, those that managed to pull this balance off most successfully were an extremely varied bunch in style and approach, reminding us that, even in pop’s most conservative periods, those artists with the most singular vision are those who tend to truly define their times.

English Eccentrics

Kent’s Kate Bush became a superstar at the age of just 20 with her hysterical pop adaptation of ‘Wuthering Heights’ in 1978, and proceeded to illuminate the 1980s with a succession of increasingly adventurous and challenging pop concepts. On the one hand, her expressions of intense, freewheeling sexuality and gift for pseudo-classical melody made her a mainstream pin-up and hit-maker. On the other, her spooky, theatrical takes on subjects as wide-ranging as nuclear war (‘Breathing’) and the plight of aboriginal people (‘The Dreaming’) – plus her reclusive nature and often bizarre visual sense – gave her cult appeal and critical acclaim. Towards the end of the 1980s, she worked with the former Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel, a pioneer of globally attuned pop intellectualism. Gabriel’s work incorporated elements of everything from synth-pop to African tribal rhythms, was often vividly political (particularly on the anti-apartheid anthem ‘Biko’), and achieved a perfect compromise with dance-rock and the video age in 1986’s ‘Sledgehammer’.

No Band Required

The man who took over Gabriel’s lead role in prog-rockers-turned-adult-popsters Genesis spearheaded a wave of singer-songwriters who easily transcended their roots in massively successful bands. Former child actor and drummer Phil Collins fused musicianly adult pop, the huge funky sound of Earth, Wind and Fire’s brass section, the pop nostalgia pastiche typified by his cover of The Supremes’ ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ and maudlin lyrics inspired by his marital problems to become one of the decade’s most reliable unit-shifters. Collins’s definitive brand of well-crafted divorce pop also made him a byword for blandness, according to the critics. A former member of the Motown funk band The Commodores, Lionel Richie was also critically dismissed while he delighted mature pop fans. This cardiganed creator of mawkish pop balladry and light dance-pop defined a particular brand of pop-soul crossover, influenced as much by mainstream country as by R&B.

Two other Englishmen who split era-defining pop groups before going on to even greater success were Gordon ‘Sting’ Sumner and George Michael. The former Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou had already left his north London Greek-Cypriot community far behind with teen-pop titans Wham!, in tandem with childhood friend Andrew Ridgeley. But 1987’s Faith immediately redefined the pop prodigy as a more...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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