80s music
Photo: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Summer 1981 and the Start of ’80s Music

“’80s music” is often a short-hand for radio-friendly pop songs that are New Wavey, synthy, maybe a little goofy, a little overproduced, ridiculously catchy.

Recently, I was sitting with friends around a firepit, and I posed one of those unanswerable philosophical questions: When did ’80s music start?

My friend Bill took the literal route: ’80s music started on 1 January 1980. Obviously. But I bristled at that since the year 1980 featured too much 1970s-spillover. Kenny Rogers, Neil Diamond, the Captain and Tennille, Barry Manilow, and Anne Murray all had Top 40 hits during the year 1980 — as did Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, and even Frank Sinatra. Man, talk about a nutty year, that 1980!

I argued that, as far as pop culture goes, decades always take a little while to find their legs. However, my friend Steve made the opposite case — that the seeds for any musical era are planted in advance. He proposed “My Sharona” by the Knack as a prototypical “’80s song”, even though it was released in 1979.

We realized we needed to define some terms. When people talk about “’80s music”, they don’t simply mean songs released between 1 January 1980 and 31 December 1989; they’re really talking about a sound, a quality, a style. But what is that sound, exactly? After all, ’80s music showcased so many different genres — not just pop and rock, but heavy metal and glam metal and hip-hop and alternative rock and post-punk. I’d say that the 1980s musical quilt boasts more diversity than any other decade before or since. So boiling down “’80s music” to a standard set of characteristics should be next to impossible. It should be, but it isn’t.

As a general rule, many people use “’80s music” as a short-hand for radio-friendly pop songs, regardless of when the song was released. Take Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance”; when people say it “sounds like an ’80s song”, they don’t mean it sounds like it belongs on Joshua Tree or Welcome to the Jungle or Straight Outta Compton (even though those were all significant ’80s albums). They mean it’s a New Wavey, synthy, maybe a little goofy, maybe a little overproduced, ridiculously catchy pop-rock song.

Now, with this admittedly narrow but generally accepted definition in mind, let’s return to my firepit question: when did ’80s music start? Everyone could come up with their own answer. Here’s mine: ’80s music started 40 years ago, in the summer of 1981.

I’m not basing this on the reason you might think: the debut of MTV, on 1 August 1981. While nostalgia remembers that date as a watershed moment, the truth is that the music channel didn’t exactly come charging from the gate. When MTV debuted, it was only carried by a handful of cable operators. As a result, people in Los Angeles and New York couldn’t even watch it. Not only that, MTV premiered with — let’s say — a limited cache of videos. The first 25 videos ever played included one by a band called PhD, one by jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour and two by Rod Stewart. (Actually, that first day of MTVs existence was the Rod Stewart Show; the station played Stewart videos a whopping 16 times over the first 24 hours.) Bottom line, in the summer of 1981, no one could have foreseen the cultural juggernaut MTV would eventually become.

And I didn’t choose Summer 1981 as a turning point because I consider it a Golden Age, musically. Far from it. Music-wise, the Summer ‘81 was, by and large, a little meh. Think about it: Summer 1982 had “Eye of the Tiger” and “Don’t You Want Me”; Summer 1983 had “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and “Every Breath You Take”; Summer 1984 had “Dancing in the Dark” and “Sunglasses at Night” and all the Purple Rain songs. Summer ‘81 had “Hearts” by Marty Balin? “Elvira” by the Oak Ridge Boys? “It’s Now or Never” by John Schneider? (Not knocking any of those artists, necessarily, but exactly no one in the past 40 years included these songs on a “Hits of the ’80s” playlist.)

And yet, Summer 1981 did have some gems, classic songs that set the stage for the phenomenon known as ’80s music. Here are seven:

“Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes

A song about a starlet from the ’40s, originally recorded as a jazz number in the mid-’70s, became a massive New Wave hit in the early ’80s, thanks to a new arrangement and some eerie-but-cool synthesizers. While I wasn’t a fan at the time (hey, I was ten years old, in the thick of my Indiana Jones obsession), “Bette Davis Eyes” reigned as a number one song for nine weeks in the summer of 1981 and eventually won a Grammy for Record of the Year.

“Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie

This ballad that spent nine weeks at the top of the Billboard charts in 1981 from August to October represents a “passing of the torch” moment. Diana Ross, a smash solo act in the ’70s after breaking from her highly successful 60’s band, teams with Lionel Richie, lead singer of a highly successful ’70s band now poised to become a giant solo act in the ’80s. The popularity of “Endless Love” ultimately convinced Lionel to leave the Commodores and break out on his own in 1982. Good move, I’d say. From 1982-1986, Richie had 12 Top Ten singles, including four that went to number one.

“In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins

Like Lionel Richie, Phil Collins transitioned from the lead singer to a solo performer in 1981 (although Phil continued to sing with Genesis after that). However, unlike Lionel (whose star power sort of dimmed by the decade’s end), Phil continued to churn out hits throughout the ’80s. It’s incredible, really. Between his solo output and his soundtrack songs and his work with Genesis, there was pretty much never a time in the ’80s where you DIDN’T hear Ubiquitous Phil on the radio. And it all essentially started with “In the Air Tonight” — the first single from Face Value, Phil’s debut solo album. The crazy thing is, the song only reached 19 on the Billboard charts, but it has grown into one of his best-known and most-air-drummed songs. (The urban legend about the drowning friend certainly didn’t hurt.)

“The One That You Love” by Air Supply

Lest we forget how huge Air Supply was in the early ’80s. From 1980-1983, this Australian duo released a slew of Top Five singles from 1980-1983, including “Every Woman in the World”, “Making Love Out of Nothing at All”, and “The One That You Love” (their only number one hit, for just one week, in July 1981). True, the band pretty much only did one thing — earnest love songs — but they did it well, and the songs still hold up. Recently, I listened to an Air Supply playlist with my wife (a huge fan back in the day) during a long car ride, and I’m not ashamed to say we belted out every single song.

“Who’s Crying Now” by Journey

In July 1981, Journey released Escape, their seventh and most commercially successful studio album (behind 1988’s Greatest Hits). The band was already well into their musical… uh, journey by 1981. But this album blasted them into another stratosphere, thanks to “Who’s Crying Now”, “Open Arms”, and a little song called “Don’t Stop Believin'” (released November 1981). And here’s a “life’s-not-fair” fact: despite all their success and their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame status, Journey have never had a number one single. (Even Air Supply went to the top spot for a week!)

“You Make My Dreams” by Hall and Oates

In Summer 1981, Hall and Oates treated the world to this, their best song — not necessarily in terms of chart position (it only went to number five) — but in terms of glad-to-be-alive awesomeness. A few months earlier, “Kiss on My List” went to number one, while “Private Eyes” went to number one a few months later. Just a perfect song to celebrate any grand occasion — whether you’re Joseph Gordon-Levitt the morning after a night spent with Zooey Deschanel, or Joe Biden after his victory speech in November 2020. Hall and Oates is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band, with six platinum albums and six number one tunes, but “You Make My Dreams”, from Summer 1981, has sustained, 40 years later, as their signature song. To paraphrase its opening lyrics, what we want, this song’s got.

“Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield

If someone who knew nothing about ’80s music asked me to play for them the top five quintessential songs from the decade, “Jessie’s Girl” would have to be included. (I would probably also have to include it on a list of “Most Backstabbing Friends in Pop Songs”.) The song — which reached number one on the US Billboard charts in August 1981 — typifies what an ’80s song is, not just in terms of sound but also style. After all, the 1980s prioritized visuals along with music, and Rick Springfield was a soap opera star when “Jessie’s Girl” blew up. (Interestingly, even though “Jessie’s Girl” reigned as the number one song the day MTV launched, the TV-ready Springfield was nowhere to be found during MTV’s initial 24 hours on the air. I guess they had to make room for more Rod Stewart.)

In “Jessie’s Girl”, Rick Springfield says the feelings he has for his best friend’s girlfriend “ain’t hard to define”– but the same can’t be said for ’80s music. And it’s the elusiveness of ’80s music that makes it impossible to determine when the phenomenon “started”. Basically, when it comes to ’80s music, you know it when you hear it. When you hear these songs along with others from that summer, such as Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts”, Foreigner’s “Urgent”, and even Joey Scarbury’s “Theme from The Greatest American Hero“, you know you’ve been transported back to the glorious ’80s.

Summer 1981 songs provide a snapshot of what music was then and what it was going to be. But hey, that’s my opinion. Maybe the next time you’re sitting around a fire pit with friends, you can come up with your own theory of when ’80s music started. However, even though we may disagree when the ’80s started, I think all ’80s aficionados can agree on when the ’80s ended: never. Indeed, the magic of ’80s music — much like Diana and Lionel’s love — is endless.