Louis Armstrong was this for jazz music. He made the trumpet into one of the central instruments of jazz and changed the paradigm of jazz performers from bands to solo artists, and while he wasn't the first to use scatting as a vocal style, he undoubtedly helped popularize it. He was also one of the first African-American musicians to cross over with white listeners, and among the first musicians to make heavy use of recordings of his own music to improve his performances.
In the summer of 1927, Ralph Peer, a Record Producer for the Victor Talking Machine Company, took a two-month trip through several cities in the southern US in order to record regional styles of music. At his stop in Bristol, Tennessee in the heart of Appalachia, nineteen local artists and groups, including Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, recorded seventy-six songs in a series of sessions that have been described since as the "Big Bang" of Country Music. While they weren't the first recordings of the regional "hillbilly music" of Appalachia, the Bristol sessions marked the moment at which it came to the attention of record labels and mainstream culture.
Rock & Roll in general set off a revolution in American (and by extension global) popular music and youth culture, and not just in terms of the genres and subgenres it influenced. Virtually the entire modern image of '50s youth culture, from the fashion to the slang to the cars, was derived from the rock scene, largely because of how it codified the very idea of the "teenager" as a separate age group. After the rise of rock, popular music as a whole skewed much younger than it did before, as record labels focused on the purchasing power of teenagers. On radio, the "hit parade" format, in which hit songs were played live on the radio by the station's house band and singers, died out as these musicians found themselves unable to convincingly cover rock songs. And in the cultural/political arena, its Hotter and Sexier image compared to the jazz, big bands, and crooners of the '40s and early '50s raised the bar for what Teen Idols could get away with, while the great many black artists within the genre did the same with African American culture in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement.
As far as individual rock & roll musicians go...
Chuck Berry is often cited as the musician who gave the genre — and, by extension, generations' worth of rock music — its sound and image of teen rebellion, good times, and showmanship. He brought the Epic Riff into rock by showcasing a guitar style that, even after Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, would barely sound out of place today, while his songwriting popularized the use of three-minute pop songs as a medium for storytelling.
Elvis Presley's dance moves, broadcast nationally on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1957 (albeit censored; they could only show him above the waist), brought the nascent sexual revolution into American homes for the first time. As the first white rock & roll artist to become successful, Elvis also helped break the genre out of the Minority Show Ghetto and establish that it had universal appeal among both white and black listeners. Sadly, even though Elvis himself routinely paid homage and respect to the black artists who inspired him, his success would produce an obsession by record labels with finding "the next Elvis" (i.e. the next white rock & roll star) that wound up whitewashing the genre in the ensuing years.
Elvis' sideman Scotty Moore, meanwhile, codified the idea of the lead guitarist as The Lancer in a rock band. Before him, the soloist and the frontman were usually the same person (i.e. Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins), and was just as likely to be a piano player (i.e. Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles). While there would still be some piano men in rock as late as The '70s with Elton John, Scotty Moore made the guitar into the genre's defining musical instrument.
In 1959, a songwriter from Detroit named Berry Gordy founded Motown Records and forever changed the landscape of African-American music. Motown, Gordy, the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team, and the vast stable of musicians under the label's umbrella spent the whole of The '60s perfecting a poppy style of soul music known as the "Motown Sound" that brought black music to mainstream America without it being co-opted as rock had been. Virtually every genre of American music with roots in the black community that developed after The '60s, from funk to R&B to Hip-Hop, takes at least some influence from Motown. Furthermore, Gordy, as a black man whose success came amidst the tumult of the Civil Rights Movement, insisted on carefully crafting and polishing the image of his singers in order for them to serve as not only celebrities, but ambassadors of the African-American community to white America... and in doing so, codified the template for the modern Idol Singer, an idea that would later flow far beyondAmerican shores.
Upon their breakthrough in 1963, the impact of The Beatles upon pop culture was like a nuclear bomb.
They were hardly the only, or even the first, worthy or notable British rock musicians. However, their success as the first ones to cross The Pond in a lasting way, turning rock into a truly international phenomenon as opposed to one specifically rooted in the United States, kicked off The British Invasion as a whole host of other British rock bands, most famously The Rolling Stones and The Who, poured into the US and broke the dominance (dating back to The Roaring '20s but reaching its zenith postwar) that the Americans then held over global pop culture. The impact of "Beatlemania" stretches beyond music or even pop culture in general, with many historians seeing it, together with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, as one of the turning points upon which the famed sociocultural shifts of The '60s truly began to take off — phenomena that the band's individual members were often very much a part of themselves.
Musically, they and other British Invasion bands marked the point at which rock began to see itself as truly separate from pop. Before, rock & roll, especially in the early '60s when the genre was taken over by label-backed Teen Idols, had been dominated by professional songwriters as pop had been (and still is), but the Beatles broke from that, writing all of the music that they recorded and performed. After the Beatles, rock bands were expected to write their own songs if they were to be taken seriously. They are also the origin of the idea that a "real" band plays their own instruments. Finally, they also helped make the album more than just a collection of singles on one record, but a singular, coherent piece of music in its own right, launching the "album era" of music that would last until the mid-2000s. Before, pop music was focused on singles while albums were the domain of classical, jazz, film soundtracks and original cast recordings. Which album in particular is most influential is debatable, but the consensus opinion seems to settle on a run of three albums — 1965's Rubber Soul, 1966's Revolver, and 1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band — for the numerous innovations they introduced to rock music and the many subgenres they laid the foundation for. The seismic shift that the Beatles and other British Invasion bands brought to pop and rock was such that, for decades, the year 1963 was considered by radio programmers to be the dividing line between "oldies" and modern music.
Finally, The Beatles' impact on the business of music should not be understated. Obviously, as a runaway success, they made a lot of money for EMI... but it was more than that. Before 1963, recording music was a very collaborative effort: the songwriter would write the song, the singer would perform it, the backup singers would add to it, the instrumentalists would play underneath it, the recording engineer would mix & master it, the label would release it, and finally the profits would be split six ways. The Beatles did away with half of this Production Posse by writing, singing, playing and self-backing all of it themselves, leaving Record Producer George Martin (the Fifth Beatle) as the only person to contribute to the track in a creative capacity. The label would then release it, and split the profit six ways: one to the Fab Four, one to Martin... and the remaining four to themselves. For some reason, EMI liked how much larger their profit margins were, and the "plays their own instruments / writes their own songs / only gets paid for 25% of what they actually do" model of music has persisted to this day. The fact that the Music Industry is a financial juggernaut can, for good or ill, be laid quite directly at the feet of The Beatles.
Phil Spector was the first modern Record Producer and the first true auteur in pop music, controlling every aspect of the production of his songs from the writing to the choice of session musicians to the instruments to the recording process. Inspired by Richard Wagner, he popularized the "Wall of Sound" production technique, using distortion, echo, and reverb to combine sounds and lend pop songs a big, orchestral feel, essentially turning the studio itself into a musical instrument. Notably, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys considered Spector, and not other rock musicians (not even the Beatles), to be his main influence — and rival — as a studio artist. Sadly, his innovations in recording would also be matched by his pioneering the stereotype of the Producer From Hell due to his notoriously erratic behavior, which eventually drove him into seclusion in The '80s.
Bob Dylan's 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, especially "Like a Rolling Stone". Bob's early output in general has often been cited as a major influence in bringing true art and poetry into pop music writing. It can't be a coincidence that his rising popularity in the first half of The '60s coincided with something of a move away from the once-ubiquitous "hot cars and fast women" thematics of '50s rock & roll, as people started listening to songs like "Blowing in the Wind" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" instead.
Dylan was also on the receiving end of this. He was invited by The Byrds to see them perform their version of "Mr. Tambourine Man", and, as David Crosby put it, the very next day he went out and hired an electric band.
The Beach Boys' 1966 album Pet Sounds has been credited with setting the stage for virtually every trend in rock music after 1965, most notably (and immediately) the rise of Psychedelic Rock in the late '60s but also Progressive Rock in the '70s all the way up to Indie Pop and Emo Music in the 21st century. Furthermore, while not the first Concept Album (and not exactly narrative), it was an inspiration for Paul McCartney to make Sgt. Pepper, a similarly influential album, into one. Pet Sounds marked the start of a Friendly Rivalry between the Beach Boys and the Beatles, or at least Brian Wilson and McCartney, as they began to engage in a constant process of trying to one-up the other, in the process producing some great music — ask almost any rock critic what the greatest album of all time is, and they'll answer either Sgt. Pepper or Pet Sounds.
Eric Clapton's short, but legendary stint with John Mayall and The Bluesbreakers produced only one album in 1966, formally titled Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton but often called simply "Beano". The album is credited to be the first album to feature modern rock guitar. Eric Clapton was the first guy to dare to crank up his amp and take his space. Many people say Jimi Hendrix was the first modern rock guitar player, but he got his inspiration from hearing this album.
That's not to minimize Hendrix's own influence, though. He was a major pioneer in using amplifier feedback, distortion, and stereophonic phasing effects to enhance the sound of his riffs beyond just making them louder, an idea that many Noise Rock and Electronic Music artists would later run with, while also leaving a deep mark on R&B and funk in his synthesis of African-American music with contemporary rock sounds.
The Velvet Underground's 1967 début, The Velvet Underground & Nico, didn't have an immediate impact on rock music, but its impact in hindsight was undeniable. Brian Eno's famous quip that only about a thousand people bought the album, but every one of them started a band, doesn't seem very far off when one considers the huge number of genres that it inspired.
The Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967 is known to history as the moment when the "Summer of Love" began and "The '60s", or at least the Hollywood History version thereof, fully came into its own. It launched the American careers of '60s rock legends like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and The Who, many of whom were trailblazers in their own right, while also marking the first public demonstration of the Moog synthesizer. Its greatest influence, however, stretches far beyond that late '60s moment of pop culture. While Woodstock is often remembered as the birthplace of the modern music festival, in truth its organizers took inspiration from Monterey, with its mix of big-name headliners and bands from regional scenes all playing on the same stages over the course of three days. Even the PA system that Abe Jacob built for the festival became the standard for later ones, such that it was referred to as the "Monterey sound system". The festival culture of today is largely a refinement of what Monterey first set out and accomplished.
Modern reggae was codified and catapulted to mainstream attention by two bands, Toots and the Maytals and Bob Marley and the Wailers. Toots and the Maytals, on their 1968 single "Do the Reggay", are generally held to have coined the genre's name, while Marley turned reggae into a phenomenon outside Jamaica, helping to transform a small island nation into a global epicenter of world music and black culture as reggae influence crept into everything from Punk Rock to Hip-Hop.
The Doors proved that you could write and perform pop songs about much more existential subjects than teenage romance or pop music itself, and kids would buy them. After that, it became impossible to write off all popular music as a disposable, meaningless fad.
David Bowie. Let's put it this way: it would perhaps be easier to list the genres, especially in rock music, that he didn't leave an impact on. Alan Light, writing for The Hollywood Reporter, stated that "[s]ince his arrival at the dawn of the 1970s, every new movement that followed punk, new wave, hip-hop, electronic, Goth, grunge, industrial bore his stamp in some way." This article by Joe Lynch for Billboard, which calls him "the most influential rock star", goes into more detail.
As one of the first major musicians to come out as bisexual, he carved out a space for openly queer musicians in mainstream culture, many of whom would be influenced by him. For decades, Bowie's larger-than-life persona became the standard that many "gay icons", both male and female, would imitate and be compared to, especially for those who didn't come up through Broadway or specifically cultivate lesbian fanbases.
His style would also herald the Music Video era of The '80s, with artists like Madonna and Depeche Mode citing him as an influence on their own styles. By eagerly collaborating with former disco producers like Nile Rodgers whose careers had flatlined after the collapse of that genre (more on that below), he is often credited with saving a place for dance music in mainstream culture. Late in the decade, his band Tin Machine left its mark on grunge and Alternative Rock, its stripped-down style known to have influenced Pearl Jam when they were recording Ten.
He was also extremely prescient on the future of music in the internet age. In 1997, he became the first major musician to seek out royalties from streaming, which would become the dominant means of listening to music in the 2010s. A quote of his from 2002, predicting that in the future music would be like running water or electricity in its ubiquity and that live performances would replace album sales as the dominant revenue stream for musicians, would later be widely circulated as services like Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music took over the music world.
On August 11, 1973, Clive Campbell, aka DJ Kool Herc, was supplying the entertainment at his sister's back-to-school party at the rec center at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, The Bronx, an apartment complex now recognized as the birthplace of Hip-Hop. There, Herc used record scratching to extend the "break" of the songs he was playing so that the partygoers could dance longer, and during the extended dancing, he and his friend Coke La Rock would punctuate the music with slang phrases and Shout-Outs to some of their friends. At that party, Herc and La Rock assembled three of what would later be called the four foundational elements of hip-hop — DJing, rapping (or MCing), and breakdancingnote The fourth was graffiti, which doesn't have a musical component, and even then the flyers created for the party were done in a faux-graffiti style — into one musical package.
On their 1974 New Sound AlbumAutobahn, Kraftwerk abandoned not only the Krautrock scene but rock instrumentation altogether, embracing a sound made entirely with electronic instruments and computers. In doing so, they invented Electronic Music, which would come to dominate pop music to this very day. For bringing synthesizers into the mainstream, they have been compared to the Beatles in terms of the sheer impact they had on pop music, their influence stretching from Synth-Pop to Hip-Hop to Techno to New Wave Music to Post-Punk — and that's just the genres that came of age in The '80s.
In the mid-1970s, Australian Music saw three major events which influenced the genre for years to come:
The establishment of the "pub rock" scene, where bands such as AC/DC, Cold Chisel and Midnight Oil, among others, cut their teeth. It could be argued that the very venues many of the bands played in (pubs), had a major influence on the evolution of their music and sound. The venues were more often than not small and the crowds alcohol-fuelled were there for the experience rather than to see a "name band". Thus, an emphasis on simple, rhythm-based songs grew. With the sound in many of the rooms far from ideal for live music, an emphasis on a very loud snare and kick-drum and driving bass-guitar grew. Guitarists tended to rely on simple, repetitive riffs, rather than more complex solos or counter-melodies. This might explain why, even in studios and larger arenas and stadiums, many of the bands who originated in pubs relied on an exaggerated drum sound and fairly simple musical arrangements.
Harry Vanda and George Young from the 60s Easybeats, having failed to make it big in the UK, returned home with a huge library of unreleased songs and established the Albert's Recording Studios, the closest thing Australia ever had to a hit factory.
The introduction of color television to Australia in 1975, and with it, iconic music show Countdown, which helped publicise many acts nation wide.
The '70s saw at least three major turning points for Punk Rock in rapid succession, starting with its birth and following through with its growth across the US and overseas before culminating in its reinvention.
However, it was only when punk reached the UK that it became what we now know as "punk". The Sex Pistols pioneered virtually all of the genre's trappings, from the aggressive, countercultural attitude of the music to the archetypal fashion and image of the culture (in particular bringing the fashions of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's SEX boutique to mainstream attention, McLaren having been their manager) to how they acted on and off the stage. While the bands playing at CBGB and those inspired by them created punk as a musical style, the Sex Pistols made it into a movement; virtually the entire stereotype of The Quincy Punk is based on things that they did as musicians and public figures. Furthermore, around that time, a number of British Heavy Metal musicians discovered punk and liked what they heard, leading to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, described in more detail below.
If punk was born in New York and raised in London, then it had its coming of age in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.. Black Flag, a band that was based in Los Angeles but reached the peak of its success after the DC musician Henry Rollins joined in 1981, led a new wave of punk bands playing a louder, faster, and angrier sound that came to be known as Hardcore Punk. Their influence reinvigorated a genre that was seen as having grown stagnant through commercialization (many first-wave punk musicians having moved on to artsier Post-Punk and poppier New Wave Music by the early '80s), while establishing all of the traits of punk that the Sex Pistols hadn't already laid down, in particular the DIY aesthetic, independence from major record labels (many punk bands followed Black Flag frontman Greg Ginn's lead and created their own labels to distribute their records themselves), and left-wing anti-authoritarian lyrics and politics. In doing so, they pulled American punk out of the art-school niche that it had existed in, turning it into an explicitly working-class genre of music that spurned commercialization and the major record labels. Most punk bands since can claim their lineage from Black Flag in one way or another, be it directly or through the many subgenres that grew out of hardcore. To quote Mike O'Flaherty, writing for The Baffler:
"The suburban L.A. hardcore kids surpassed their Hollywood godfathers and -mothers by making punk accessible for the first time to people outside of a "hip", style-conscious milieu. ... This enabled the music to rapidly break out of the bohemian ghetto, where most American punk had previously been confined, and travel to D.C., Boston and the Midwest. The first full-fledged L.A. hardcore records appeared in 1980; a mere two years later dozens of bands, such as D.C.s Void, Michigans Negative Approach, and Bostons SS Decontrol, were releasing records that surpassed most of the L.A. originators in stylistic daring and sonic extremism."
Not a band or an album, but a film: the release of Saturday Night Fever in 1977 was this for the disco genre. While disco had started breaking into the mainstream as early as '74, with "The Hustle" by Van McCoy in '75 often cited as the first unambiguous disco hit, Fever turned it into a phenomenon that ruled the pop music landscape in the late '70s. Unfortunately, this sudden explosion was quickly met with backlash, which is described in more detail a few entries down.
On the night of July 13, 1977, a lightning strike at an electrical substation set off a chain of Disaster Dominoes that ended with New York City being plunged into darkness, resulting in riots and looting across the city that night and into the next day. Among the items stolen included large amounts of DJ equipment from electronics stores, and as a result, the 1977 blackout is often held (such as by DJ Grandmaster Caz) to be a seminal moment in the history of Hip-Hop. A generation of aspiring DJs got their hands on turntables, mixing boards, speakers, and other equipment as a result of the riots, leading to a creative explosion in the late '70s.
The New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the late '70s and early '80s marked the point at which it became clear that metal (which seemed to be on its way out before then due to oversaturation) wasn't just a passing fad. NWOBHM bands like Motörhead, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden, with their fusion of Black Sabbath-style metal with the energy of punk, codified a loud and fast sound that remains, to this day, one of the traits most commonly associated with metal in popular culture, especially as metal scenes outside the UK took those influences and turned them Up to Eleven. If one album could be said to have left the most impact, then Judas Priest's 1978 album Stained Class is probably the most popular candidate, with Joe Divita of Loudwirereferring to it as "when [metal] got its drivers license." Musically, it marked the moment when metal fully broke from the Blues Rock and Progressive Rock influences that characterized the genre for much of the '70s and became something else entirely, while in terms of style, it was also around this time that the band embraced the Hell-Bent for Leather trope that would become a calling card of '80s metal.
On the same day (February 10, 1978) that Judas Priest released Stained Class, Van Halen released their self-titled debut album. Right out of the gate, Eddie Van Halen's eighty-second, album-opening guitar solo was the "Eruption" heard 'round the world. Shredding was born, and rock guitarists became virtuosos in their own right. While the style fell out of favor in mainstream rock in the early 1990s, it's still a major element of various metal and progressive rock scenes worldwide. Furthermore, their specific blend of Southern Rock and Heavy Metal was also massively influential, to the point that Todd in the Shadows has said that most '80s Hard Rock was predicated on the blueprint they laid down on their debut album. Between them, Van Halen and Judas Priest essentially wrote the book for Hair Metal.
"Disco Demolition Night", a promotion held on July 12, 1979 at Chicago's Comiskey Park during a double-header between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers, is remembered to history as "the night that disco died". The gimmick was that people would be admitted to the stadium for just 98 cents if they brought a disco record with them, and during the break between the two games, local rock DJ and Shock Jock Steve Dahl would blow up all those records in the middle of the field. Needless to say, most of the people in Comiskey Park that night weren't there for baseball, and when Dahl detonated the crate full of records, the event turned into a riot. The whole affair signaling a turning point in a growing pop culture backlash against disco, one whose long-term effects reached beyond just that one genre; dance music in general all but vanished from the American charts by the end of the year and went back underground, and the boundary between the "white" and "black" pop music worlds (which had grown blurry since the rise of Motown) hardened, with only a few artists successfully crossing it and attaining mainstream success among both white and black listeners.
The 1979 single "Rapper's Delight" by The Sugarhill Gang was one of the first Hip-Hop songs to achieve mainstream success, selling over two million copies in the United States alone, and helping to pave the way for the entire popularity of the genre of hip-hop. Without "Rapper's Delight," the entire world of rap music as it is known now may not have ever existed.
In 1980, two albums came out that radically changed the landscape of not only New Wave Music, but also popular music as a whole: Peter Gabriel's third Self-Titled Album and Remain in Light by Talking Heads. The albums earned considerable acclaim and public attention for their ability to combine the seemingly disparate genres of rock and African folk music (South African in the case of Gabriel and Nigerian Afrobeat for Talking Heads) and increased awareness of nonwhite, non-Western music to such an extent that it prompted popular music to become looser and more open to "ethnic" influences, sparking the brief but influential worldbeat boom. This effect was particularly noticeable on New Wave Music, which transformed from mechanically rigid to looser and more free-form in the brief period of time before Synth-Pop took over.
Conversely, the controversy surrounding the release of Paul Simon's Graceland in 1986 may have been the leading contributor to the end of the worldbeat boom. While initially lauded for its similar blend of Folk Rock and South African folk music, it quickly attracted controversy once it was learned that Simon had actively traveled to South Africa to work on the album— at the height of a United Nations-instituted media boycott against the nation in protest of apartheid. The Unfortunate Implications of Simon's decision quickly became apparent, with him being accused of both supporting apartheid and perpetuating cultural appropriationnote despite him having actively collaborated with South African musicians to ensure that he was properly acknowledging their culture instead of shallowly stealing it, accusations he'd end up fighting for the remainder of his career. The controversy surrounding Graceland seemed to give worldbeat a bad taste in people's mouths; by 1990, worldbeat had been relegated to a fairly niche genre, with Talking Heads' 1988 album Naked being the last major breath of the boom.
"Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll." With those six words, MTV made its debut on August 1, 1981 and forever changed the landscape of popular music and culture, their influence being such that an entire generation of young people has been referred to, in all seriousness, as the "MTV Generation", a term that the network quickly embraced. The rise of MTV swept aside the cornball pop music of The '70s and, for better or worse, created an environment in pop where style was as important as substance, with entire genres ranging from New Wave Music and Hair Metal in The '80s to bubblegum pop in The '90s thriving due to the exposure they received through MTV. Since, in the early '80s, shows like Top of the Pops had given the British music industry a head start over the Americans in making music videos, MTV oversaw what has been called a second British Invasion in pop music in the '80s by giving a platform to British Synth-Pop and new wave musicians in order to fill airtime, bringing those genres into the American heartland. Even as they started to undergo their much-ballyhooed Network Decay in The '90s, MTV still left a mark on pop culture through both groundbreaking animated series like Beavis and Butt-Head, Daria, and Liquid Television and pioneering Reality TV shows like The Real World and Road Rules.
Michael Jackson and Madonna revolutionized pop music in The '80s, such that, when people call them the King and Queen of Pop, it's fair to say that it's not an exaggeration.
Michael Jackson brought R&B into the mainstream by making it fun, poppy, and danceable. His music videos and dance moves were pop culture touchstones that played a pivotal role in the rise of the aforementioned MTV and in changing the expectations for pop stars, who were now expected to be well-groomed, conventionally attractive, and good dancers in addition to good singers. Furthermore, as the first black superstar musician in decades, and one who used his celebrity status to draw attention to issues of diversity and civil rights, Michael served as a major influence on countless black pop musicians, not least of all being his sister Janet. The video for "Thriller" in particular has often been cited as among the greatest and most influential music videos of all time, elevating the medium beyond just filmed concert performances designed to promote the songs into an attraction in its own right, often taking the form of short films. One could use "Thriller" as a dividing line in the history of pop music, with everything that came afterwards bearing its influence, and as the point where the "MTV era" truly kicked off in earnest.
Madonna, meanwhile, was the first female musician that one could credibly call a rock star on the level of Elvis Presley or Mick Jagger in terms of her A-list celebrity status. She would be a dominant influence on other women in pop music, especially dance-pop, for decades to come, even after the rise of adult alternative singer-songwriters in The '90s as a backlash against her style. Her highly sexualized style and image, and more importantly her control over it, also played a pivotal role in breaking down taboos around female sexuality, which not only codified the template for the Ms. Fanservice pop diva but reverberated well beyond music and into the broader culture and politics, especially with the rise of third-wave feminism. Even in live performance technology, she left an impact; cordless microphone headsets, now a staple of pop stars that allows them to sing and dance simultaneously without worrying about having to stand close enough to the microphone, became known as "Madonna mics" after she popularized them. In the words of Tony Sclafani, who compared her influence to that of The Beatles:
"It's worth noting that before Madonna, most music mega-stars were guy rockers; after her, almost all would be female singers ... When the Beatles hit America, they changed the paradigm of performer from solo act to band. Madonna changed it back — with an emphasis on the female."
And between them, their influence effectively ended the dominance of rock over American pop music, which had endured from The '50s through The '70s, and helped to revive dance music as a mainstream force after the collapse of disco. While rock would still thrive for a long time to come, it would be just one of many genres competing in the pop sphere, as Contemporary R&B, Hip-Hop, Electronic Music, and other genres all rose to carve out their own places in the music landscape.
The Golden Age of Hip Hop, a time lasting from roughly the mid-'80s to the early '90s (the exact years depending on who's telling the story), was the first and greatest turning point for Hip-Hop music as a whole. This time period not only saw rap's popularity expand far beyond its roots in the New York City area, it also introduced a large array of sub-genres that showed that rap could be more than just party music, and that it could carry strong messages and themes. Rolling Stone referred to the time period as one "when it seemed that every new single reinvented the genre", such that it would probably be easier to list which singles and records didn't leave a profound impact.
However, if there were ever an Elvis for the Golden Age of hip-hop, then it would probably be RunD.M.C. as the band that put the genre on the mainstream map. Their self-titled debut in 1984 was the first hip-hop album to go gold, King of Rock in 1985 was the first to go platinum, and Raising Hell in 1986 was the first to go multi-platinum. They were the first hip-hop act nominated for a Grammy Award, the first to have their videos played on MTV, and the first to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone. Furthermore, they also left a deep mark creatively, codifying a more aggressive sound, the "street" fashion of hip-hop (eschewing the over-the-top fashion of early rappers in favor of tracksuits, baggy jeans, and sneakers), and the relationship between the rapper and the DJ.
LL Cool J was probably the most influential solo rapper of the Golden Age, often credited with advancing the lyricism of hip-hop in particular. His tough, boastful style of delivery was a major influence on the rappers of the Golden Age and beyond, overturning the rapping styles of the "old school" of the late '70s and early '80s. His 1985 debut album Radio was also one of a trilogy of albums, together with Run-D.M.C.'s Raising Hell and the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill the following year, by Record ProducerRick Rubin that helped pull the genre away from the funk and disco influences of The '70s and in a more minimalist, rock-influenced direction, one that influenced everything from Hardcore Hip Hop to producers like Timbaland and the Neptunes.
The debut album of Boogie Down Productions (composed of KRS-One, D-Nice, and Scott La Rock), 1987's Criminal Minded, offered up vivid depictions of life growing up in the ghettoes of the South Bronx, serving as an important progenitor to Gangsta Rap. It also helped set off one of hip-hop's first great feuds, the Bridge Wars between BDP and the Juice Crew over the birthplace of hip-hop (BDP's native South Bronx versus the Juice Crew's Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City). The murder of Scott La Rock in a shooting five months after the release of Criminal Minded, meanwhile, also led the remaining members to become pioneers in Conscious Hip Hop on their 1988 follow-up By Any Means Necessary, with KRS-One starting the Stop the Violence Movement.
Public Enemy took the militancy of the Political Rap of the time and brought it into the mainstream. Their 1988 breakthrough It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back helped set off a wave of Afrocentric hip-hop about urban oppression and institutional racism, and had a strong hand in shaping the confrontational politics of the genre as a whole.
And in that regard, what Public Enemy didn't do on Nation of Millions, N.W.A. did when they released Straight Outta Compton a few months later, codifying the tropes of Gangsta Rap. Furthermore, the Los Angeles rap group was the first major hip-hop act to come from outside New York, not only laying the seeds for the East Coast/West Coast rivalry of The '90s but marking a turning point in the growth of rap scenes across America and the world. Four years later, former N.W.A. member Dr. Dre became a Breakup Breakout with his 1992 album The Chronic, which revolutionized hip-hop again by defining a specifically West Coast brand of such characterized by a smooth, laid-back "G-funk" sound interpolated from '70s Parliament-Funkadelic tracks. Dre's production on The Chronic would make him one of the most influential and in-demand hip-hop Record Producers of The '90s, a legacy that would be cemented by his work on Snoop Dogg's debut album Doggystyle the following year. After The Chronic, gangsta rap took over, and there was no looking back.
While the rest of the hip-hop world was turning in an increasingly Darker and Edgier direction, De La Soul's 1989 album 3 Feet High and Rising helped pioneer Alternative Hip Hop. Called a "hippie" group at the time due to their Lighter and Softer sound, their more goofy and upbeat style (including popularizing the "skit" on rap albums) helped carve out a space for less aggressive material.
An exact moment for when the Golden Age ended, meanwhile, is the subject of debate, but one of the earliest cited is the 1991 court case Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. in 1991, which killed sampling as a hip-hop production technique for a decade as the music samples that many hip-hop producers made heavy use of before then suddenly became prohibitively expensive. While it's usually agreed that the Golden Age was over by 1993 when Gangsta Rap had fully taken over the genre, this legal decision marked the beginning of the end, leading to a heavy change in the sound of hip-hop as more beats were interpolated from older songs (with many producers often putting their own twists on them, as seen with the rise of G-funk) rather than directly sampled from them.
Picture a Boy Band. If you're American, you're probably picturing a group of five handsome young men, one of them a heartthrob (and possibly The Leader), one an edgy tough guy, one a cutie, one a cool "older brother" figure, and one a shy guy, singing light rock and/or R&B-inflected tunes about romance as a Vocal Tag Team while showing off their synchronized dance moves in their concerts and videos. Congratulations, you're probably picturing New Kids on the Block, the boy band that wrote the book for every one that followed. While New Edition did this formula firstnote New Kids were, in fact, put together by Maurice Starr, the same producer who discovered New Edition, in the hopes of creating a white counterpart to them, New Kids managed to avoid getting pigeonholed as a "black" band and become a mainstream breakout success.
Across The Pond from the Golden Age rappers of the Bronx, London Posse were the group that gave British hip-hop its own unique voice. While hip-hop had reached the UK early in the '80s, most of its homegrown rappers were performing with put-on American accents and imitating the genre's superstars from New York. When London Posse recorded "Money Mad" in 1988, however, they did so in their native British accents while incorporating greater reggae influences in their sound (as befitting the roots of much of the UK's black community in the Caribbean), creating a distinctly British style of rap music separate from anything coming out of the US.
The "Class of '89" in Country Music, a group of musicians led by Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, and Clint Black who had their mainstream breakthroughs in 1989, pulled the genre mainstream away from the pop influences that had been dominant in The '80s and towards a sound that combined older country styles with modern production while spurning pop crossovers. Their success brought country, once dismissed as limited to the rural South and West, to national attention as listeners across the US and beyond started buying country records and driving sales into the stratosphere, transforming Nashville from a regional center of the music industry to a global one. Their fashion, dominated by cowboy hats and pressed suits, was also highly influential, to the point that "hat act" came to be a derogatory term to describe many Follow the Leader male country artists in The '90s.
Milli Vanilli's fall from grace in 1990, when it was revealed that the band's two "singers" not only lip-synced at concerts but never actually sang on their records to begin with, not only destroyed the duo's popularity, but marked a turning point in American pop music away from the dance-pop of The '80s and towards adult alternative singer-songwriters who sang live and played their own instruments. The similar downfall of Michael Bolton for plagiarizing lyrics in 1994, which dealt a similar blow to the crooners of adult contemporary, only completed the process.
Nirvana's 1991 breakthrough album Nevermind sent a shockwave through American popular music.
Within rock music, not only did it finish off the remnants of Hair Metal, it was the album that kicked off the Alternative Rock revolution of The '90s, as Grunge, Alternative Metal, Pop Punk, and a slew of other subgenres were all able to achieve mainstream breakthroughs in Nirvana's wake. In fact, Nevermind's impact, staking out the year 1991 as a dividing line for rock music not unlike how The Beatles' debut did the same for 1963, has caused a problem for classic rock DJs and radio programmers: while the rock music of The '60s through The '80s exists in such a continuum that it all fits fairly well onto the same classic rock stations, the alternative rock of the early '90s, despite now being old enough to call "classic rock", marks such a radical departure that it sticks out like a sore thumb next to bands from just five years prior.
It also had a surprising impact on Country Music, as this article by Steve Leftridge for PopMatters explains. Not all rock fans and listeners embraced the rise of alternative, with fans of the Arena Rock and Hair Metal of The '80s feeling especially left out, and furthermore, a lot of the producers and session musicians who made their names in more traditional rock sounds suddenly found that their talents didn't translate well to alternative. On the other hand, Nashville, seat of a country music industry that was built on tradition and catering to nostalgia, was more than happy to bring these old-fashioned rockers on board.
Seo Taiji & Boys, over the course of four albums from 1992 to '96, made Korean Pop Music into what we now know as "K-pop", hybridizing traditional Korean ballads and folk music with hip-hop, rock, synthesizers, and English-language lyrics. Furthermore, as one of the first A-list bands to emerge in the wake of South Korea's democratization and liberalization in 1988, they played a pivotal role in breaking down barriers of censorship and ending the stranglehold that the television networks had on what music became popular, as Taiji, who owned his own record label, used his power to promote the band's music himself, push back against state Media Watchdogs, and bring underground artists and genres (most notably Korean metal, Taiji having previously been the frontman of the band Sinawe) into the mainstream. In doing so, Taiji pioneered the business model of modern K-pop, in which the record labels wield most of the power — an influence that became especially apparent after one of the band's members, Yang Hyun-suk, went on to found YG Entertainment, which became one of K-pop's Big Three record labels.
A pair of 1993 albums, Modern Life is Rubbish by Blur and the self-titled debut of Suede, hold a similar status in the UK as Nevermind in the US as the albums that codified Britpop, the genre that would quickly emerge as the sound of '90s "Cool Britannia". Rooted in '80s indie rock and fusing numerous styles of British rock and pop from decades past into one flag-waving "good times" package, they marked a Lighter and Softerpushback against American-style grunge.
When Jonathan Davis screamed out "are you RRREADDDYYYYYY???" on "Blind", the leadoff track from Korn's 1994 self-titled debut album, it marked the beginning of the Nu Metal era. Korn's blend of downtuned guitars, Hip-Hop fashion sense, and angsty, introspective lyrics about subjects like bullying, sexual assault, parental abuse, and suicide would help put Heavy Metal back in the spotlight in the latter half of The '90s, rejecting the theatrics that had characterized '80s metal in favor of emotion and raw aggression of a sort not too dissimilar to contemporary grunge (albeit substantially louder and angrier). While nu-metal endured a heavy backlash from metal enthusiasts in the early-mid '00s, its influences continue to live on within metal as a whole, even if mainly through bands that were responding to it.
In 1996, the American music mainstream was dominated by all things "alternative", be it grunge and Alternative Metal bands like Soundgarden, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Live or singer-songwriters like Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette, and Fiona Apple, and had little room for light, fluffy dance-pop. Neither did the British music mainstream, at the time in the midst of the peak of Britpop. And then came the Spice Girls, who carve out a new place for unapologetic, larger-than-life bubblegum pop music, spearheading a revival of such in the late '90s and early '00s and a wave of girl groups, boy bands, and idol singers on both sides of the Pond eager to mimic their success. In the long term, their use of "girl power" as their motto also marked the moment at which feminist messaging (albeit in a very scrubbed-down, Lighter and Softer form) first began to seriously enter teen pop. The aforementioned female singer-songwriters had teenage fans, to be sure, but the cores of their fanbases were made up of college students and twentysomethings; the Spice Girls, on the other hand, played to crowds composed primarily of adolescents and teenagers.
At the time of its release, Weezer's 1996 album Pinkerton was a critical and commercial flop that sent Rivers Cuomo into a Creator Breakdown over its poor reception, but in just a few short years, it would be Vindicated by History in a major way. While Emo Music has roots going back to the Washington, D.C. punk scene in The '80s before spreading nationally through the underground in the early '90s, Pinkerton was where the tropes of what emo became in the 2000s fully crystallized. Numerous later emo bands have cited Pinkerton (and, to a lesser extent, Weezer's self-titled debut in 1994, known retroactively as The Blue Album) as a direct inspiration for their sound, such that some critics have called Weezer the most influential rock band of the late '90s.
The Gangsta Rap era ended in disaster in the span of six months in late 1996 and early '97, when The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur were both gunned down, triggering a backlash against the dark lyrical subject matter of gangsta rap that had just been made Harsher in Hindsight. Soon after, Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs released his hit album No Way Out, and suddenly Glam Rap became the dominant form of "urban" music on the radio for the rest of the decade and the start of the next.
Shania Twain's 1997 smash hit album Come On Over did this for Country Music, especially for female artists. In the aforementioned Steve Leftridge article on how the rise of grunge caused country to absorb the remnants of Classic Rock in the US, Leftridge points to Come On Over as the point where the convergence was completed, having been produced by the legendary '80s rock/metal producer (and Shania's husband) Robert John "Mutt" Lange and mixing unmistakable country sounds with unapologetic classic rock influences. Furthermore, Shania's personal style also marked a sea change for female country musicians. While there had been attractive women in country who had flaunted their sex appeal before (most famously Dolly Parton), Shania was unquestionably the genre's Ms. Fanservice in a way that none of them had ever been, wearing revealing outfits (especially her frequently bared midriff) that up to that point had been more associated with pop divas than country singers. Since then, overtly sexy female country artists like Carrie Underwood, Kellie Pickler, and Maren Morris have not been nearly so unusual.
On June 1, 1999, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker launched Napster, a peer-to-peer file-sharing service that dragged the music industry kicking and screaming into the information age. File-sharing became the bête noire of record labels worldwide, causing sales and revenues to plummet over the course of the 2000s as listeners rejected paying inflated prices for albums composed of a few hit singles surrounded by filler (even though it was technically considered bootlegging), especially after numerous copycat services (Kazaa, LimeWire, BitTorrent, etc.) flooded in to fill the gap left by Napster after it was shut down by an RIAA lawsuit in 2002. To this day, album sales have never returned to their peak in their '90s, with the rise of Napster held to mark the beginning of the end for the "album era" of music, and only after the music industry fully embraced digital downloads and streaming as new revenue sources in the 2010s did its profits start to recover.
Before he broke out as a rapper in his own right, West was a Record Producer. His work on Jay-Z's 2001 album The Blueprint helped popularize a sound influenced by soul music in hip-hop beats, while also helping to revive sampling in rap music. Before, hip-hop had been dominated by the "Timbaland sound", an electronic-influenced sound defined by looped beats and digital keyboards.
His 2004 debut album The College Dropout changed rap music in the '00s by decisively breaking the influence of Gangsta Rap. Even after the deaths of Biggie and Tupac discredited the more hard-edged material and pushed hip-hop in a Lighter and Softer direction, Glam Rap still drew heavily from that well, with the rowdy parties, gorgeous women, fast cars, and flashy jewelry featured in the songs always strongly implied (and often stated) to be paid for by criminal activity. West, however, carved out a place for more introspective and emotional material that explored subjects like religion, family, sexuality, injustice, and the struggles of everyday life as opposed to hustling, paving the way for everybody from Kendrick Lamar to J Cole to Childish Gambino to The Weeknd to Macklemore. West's impact was best evidenced in 2007, when his album Graduationwent head-to-head with 50 Cent's album Curtis — and decisively trounced the competition.
And what West didn't do on The College Dropout, he did on his 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak. Not only did it build upon the aforementioned introspection that West was famous for at that point, its experimental sparse, electronic sound and heavy use of Auto-Tune caused him to compare it to New Wave Music. At the time, the album caused a Broken Base for being far outside what many people defined as rap music, but it was soon Vindicated by History once its sound came to define hip-hop in the late '00s and early '10s, most notably with the rise of Drake.
As outlined in this article from Saving Country Music, the backlash against the Dixie Chicks in 2003 following Natalie Maines' anti-war comments at a London concert had a major impact not just on Country Music (and not just in terms of the genre's culture and politics), but also, tangentially, on rock music. At the time, the Dixie Chicks were arguably the biggest act in country playing "traditional" country sounds, writing their own music and playing acoustic instruments like the banjo, the fiddle, the mandolin, and the guitar. Meanwhile, Toby Keith, who symbolized an Arena Rock approach to country with loud, electric instruments and production, often positioned himself as the Spiritual Antithesis to the Chicks in both his politics and his sound, and he saw his career take off just as the Chicks crashed and burned. The result was that country and rock music saw their sounds and influences essentially flip in the late '00s and early '10s; while country became slick, polished, and boisterous, culminating in the rise of "bro-country" in the mid-'10s, rock music (especially after the fall of Post-Grunge) saw the rise of acoustic bands like Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, and the Avett Brothers that were more influenced by Folk Music and Indie Pop.
In the early 2000s, artists in the UK fused hip-hop, Drum and Bass, and House Music into a new genre, known as grime. While it had been percolating in the underground early in the decade, the release of Dizzie Rascal's Boy in da Corner in 2003 marked grime's mainstream breakthrough as the first major rap scene from outside the US to gain global attention.
Almost from the moment of her mainstream breakthrough in 2008, music journalists and fans pegged Lady Gaga as a potentially revolutionary force within pop music, and while it can sometimes be difficult to discern the reality from the hype of her fanbase, few will argue that this prediction wasn't borne out in some manner over the next decade. Even as sounds and trends changed with time and her own career had its ups and downs, her shadow loomed long over the pop music landscape of the 2010s. Hayden Manners, writing for Nylon, said that pop music in the 21st century can be divided into "Before Gaga (BG) and After Gaga (AG)" periods, such was the magnitude of the changes she brought to the genre.
The most immediate impact that Gaga had was to lead the charge in the late '00s on a revival of Synth-Pop, but in the long term, she's also been credited with raising the standards of artistry within pop music, a genre that, in 2008, had long been seen as Guilty Pleasures at best and a musical wasteland at worst. After Gaga hit it big, music critics could no longer dismiss pop or pretend to be above it, and as such, her rise is often credited with the mainstream breakthrough of "poptimism", a greater esteem for pop within the music world (a movement that had already been bubbling for much of the '00s as part of a growing backlash against the music press' preoccupation with rock music). After Gaga, pop stars were seen as auteurs just like rock stars were — an image that the flamboyant Gaga actively cultivated for herself right out of the gate. The 2018 remake of A Star is Born, which starred Gaga, heavily mined this shift for its narrative arc, as Gaga's character Ally eclipses Bradley Cooper's aging rock legend Jackson Maine in terms of stardom.
She also played a key role in mainstreaming "gay idols", which had an impact far beyond music that stretched into the broader culture and politics. While many pop stars in the past have had LGBT Fanbases, Gaga openly flaunted her camp and bisexuality, playing to her queer fans in a way that not even Madonna could've gotten away with twenty years prior. In doing so, she also codified the pop singer as activist, breaking from the apolitical image of mainstream pop stars in the '90s and '00s and using her music and stardom as a platform to discuss social and cultural issues — an attitude that even many of the artists who pushed back against her electropop sound (described in more detail below) would embrace in some form or another.
If Lana set the groundwork for this style, then Lorde brought it into the mainstream with her 2013 debut Pure Heroine, particularly the lead-off single "Royals". While she wasn't the biggest hitmaker, her hushed vocals, use of minor key, and goth-inflected lyrics and image (which included direct criticism of the made-for-the-nightclub dance-pop trends of the time) proved massively influential on pop music in the 2010s, most notably with the female alt-pop singers like Halsey, Alessia Cara, Charli XCX, and Billie Eilish who followed in her wake. Even the ascent of Trap Music into the mainstream can arguably be pinned on Lorde opening the door for darker subject matter. Todd in the Shadows, while reviewing Halsey's song "Without Me", joked that, as a fan of the larger-than-life Idol Singers who Lorde displaced, he should probably hate her legacy as much as fans of Hair Metal hate that of Kurt Cobain.
The rise of social media and the changing mindsets/increase in political participation of young music consumers have led to artists becoming more politically charged, either in their work or their publicity during the mid-to-late 2010s. As noted by this Pitchfork article, a few important milestones include:
While 2008 set the stage with a series of political upheavals note the Arab Spring uprisings, the Wall-Street Occupy Movement, and the struggles to pass LGBTQ+ protections and same-sex marriage legislation, it was the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin that incited outrage within the African-American community. This incident, along with a series of exposed cases of police brutality against the black community, prompted D'Angelo to release his album Black Messiah much earlier than planned as well as inspired Kendrick Lamar for his album of racial empowerment To Pimp a Butterfly. Both of these albums received critical and commercial success. This in turn bled into pop music through hip-hop / R&B crossover artists, such as Beyoncé releasing Lemonade (2016) and her sister Solange releasing her own album A Seat at the Table, both of which tackled racism and police brutality.
LGBTQ+ artists and songs also saw great stride. Starting with the mainstream embracing Kacey Musgraves's song "Follow Your Arrow" after its rejection by country radio, launching her career as a pop-country star. A slew of queer artists note Tegan & Sara, Against Me!, Frank Ocean, Sam Smith, Troye Sivan and Lil Nas X that would have been rejected or heavily controlled by record labels found an audience through other alternative means to market their work and propel their music careers.
Gender bias and discrimination was brought to the spotlight with Kesha's lengthy and ultimately failed battle against her producer Dr. Luke (amplified due to its proximity to the Me Too movement), causing Kesha to release her critically acclaimed and commercially successful album Rainbow. Taylor Swift directly cited Kesha as a major inspiration to go forward with her own harassment countersuit - an event that led to Swift being named by Time magazine among the 2017 People of the Year as a Silence Breaker.
In spite of being part of a genre previously considered to be disposable, pop artists began to speak out more about social issues. Notable artists include: Demi Lovato, Zayn Malik, Cardi B and Ariana Grande (after the 2017 bombing at her Manchester concert). This in turn made artists who previously kept quiet about their political leanings note Most notably Usher, Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber becoming more vocal in order to protect their images and reputations.
Speaking of Trap Music, Swedish rapper Yung Lean is often credited with inventing what would become known as "SoundCloud rap", a movement that would sweep across the Hip-Hop landscape in the latter half of the 2010s. Mixing hip-hop, the aesthetics of vaporwave, and downbeat lyrics and tone inspired by Emo Music, and then sharing the results on the music website SoundCloud, Yung Lean laid down most of the tropes of the genre on his 2013 mixtape Unknown Death 2002. While Yung Lean's own career was short-circuited by drug addiction leading to hospitalization, within a few years his style had turned into a movement that many compared to Punk Rock in its rejection of traditional hip-hop form, breaking into the mainstream in a big way in 2017.
BTS turned K-pop from a continental phenomenon into a truly global one. While the Korean Wave of popular culture had already swept across much of Asia during the Turn of the Millennium, it never broke through in the West (outside of Korean immigrant communities and novelty hits like "Gangnam Style") until BTS kicked down the door in the late '10s, bringing with it a surge of K-pop bands hitting American shores. A big part of this was how they popularized a looser, more "Western-style" Boy Band ideal within K-pop, with BTS' members allowed and encouraged to write their own songs, live independent lives, and discuss social and cultural issues in an effort to make them more approachable for fans, breaking from the rigid model that past K-pop groups had been crafted around.