The Evolution of Music: sex, androgyny and the death of disco in the 1980s

Simon Button

Hip-hop, dance music and the death of disco—discover the decade that was all about image, attitude and sexuality

If disco dominated the charts from the mid-1970s onwards, its death knell was sounded at decade’s end by Disco Demolition Night when a couple of radio station DJs, fed up with the genre’s popularity, detonated a huge stack of disco records between baseball games at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, inciting a pitch invasion and popularising the “Disco Sucks!” slogan.

From out of its ashes rose 1980s dance, with the likes of Irene Cara’s Fame and Michael Jackson’s Beat It fusing dance beats with rockier elements and Queen homaging Chic’s “Good Times” bass line for “Another One Bites The Dust”.

Queen got away with it, unlike the Sugarhill Gang—who had done an exact copy of Bernard Edwards’ fretwork on the 1979 hip-hop summer smash “Rapper’s Delight” and were subsequently sued by Edwards and Nile Rodgers.

"Beastie Boys faced claims of misogyny and inciting violence whilst earning multi-platinum record sales"

Stemming from African American and Latino communities in the Bronx, the rap-heavy hip-hop sound went mainstream in the 1980s with such successes as Grandmaster Flash’s The Message and Run-DMC’s It’s Like That, in the process making stars of LL Cool J and Salt-N-Pepa and introducing words like “bling” into the lingo. Meanwhile, Gangsta rap stars such as hard-hitting N.W.A. and the more tongue-in-cheek Beastie Boys faced claims of misogyny and inciting violence whilst earning multi-platinum record sales.

Chicago house music also produced its own raft of stars but mostly they were DJs and producers like Frankie Knuckles, Arthur Baker and Jellybean Benitez—the latter also dating a soon-to-be-massive singer and remixing tracks for her debut album.

The singer in question? None other than Madonna, who burst onto the charts in 1983 with infectious anthem “Holiday”, exposing her belly button and turning BOY TOY belts, fingerless gloves and hair rags into a fashion statement copied by wannabes around the globe.

Throughout the decade Her Madgesty had seven US number-one singles and six in the UK, plus three chart-topping albums on both sides of the pond, in the process causing a commotion with her “Like A Prayer” video and provocative advocacy for female sexuality.

On the accompanying album Madonna duetted with Prince—another single-named, sexually-charged pop-star who was tiny in stature but hugely successful throughout the 1980s. Other titans on the pop podium included Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen, Phil Collins both as a soloist and Genesis singer, a reinvigorated Tina Turner and, freed from the shackles of Wham! towards decade’s end, George Michael.


George Michael. Image via wiki commons 

Outselling them all, of course, was Michael Jackson, whose Thriller album would go on to become the biggest-selling long-player of all time with worldwide sales exceeding 66 million. His ever-changing face, pet chimp Bubbles and purchase of Neverland Ranch may have earned him the “Wacko Jacko” moniker in The Sun newspaper, but he was also The King Of Pop—selling out stadiums and notching up eight Stateside number ones to Madonna’s seven.

Somehow Jackson also found time to co-write “We Are The World” with Lionel Richie as America’s answer to Britain’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” for famine release. He didn’t, however, appear at Live Aid because, according to his press rep, he was “working round the clock in the studio."

By mid-decade, when Live Aid had us rocking all over the world, Britain’s Duran Duran were so huge in America they appeared on stage in Philadelphia rather than at Wembley Stadium. Simon Le Bon and co had also shed their New Romantic image for designer suits, fancy yachts and supermodel girlfriends.

"Culture Club’s Boy George played down any threat by saying he preferred a cuppa to sex"

Like the Duranies, Spandau Ballet started out as New Romantics—rubbing shoulder pads with Steve Strange and Japan’s David Sylvian in heavy make-up and “guy-liner” in homage to Bowie and Roxy Music and in reaction against the grunge of punk rock from the previous decade—before smartening up their image.

It was left to synth-poppers Phil Oakey of the Human League, Soft Cell’s Marc Almond and Annie Lennox of Eurythmics to keep the androgyny flag flying whilst Culture Club’s Boy George played down any threat by saying he preferred a cuppa to sex.


Annie Lennox. Image via wiki commons 

Pete Burns of Dead Or Alive fame was more in-your-face yet still scored a chart-topper with “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” in 1985 after partnering with then-fledgeling producers Stock Aitken Waterman. SAW went on to rule the charts for the rest of the decade thanks to collaborations with Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Rick Astley, Mel and Kim, Bananarama, even the Reynolds Girls whose “I’d Rather Jack” proved the Hit Factory could turn anyone into pop-stars.

Presenting an antidote to SAW’s chirpy sound were moody singer-songwriters Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman and Tanita Tikaram, but seeing out the decade as the last number-one single of the 1980s was “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” as re-recorded by Band Aid II—a line-up that included Kylie, Jason, Lisa Stansfield, Bros and Wet Wet Wet produced by, yes you’ve guessed it, Stock Aitken Waterman.

 

Read more: The Evolution of Music: 1970s

Read more: The Evolution of Music: 1960s

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