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|Cultural origins||Mid-to late 1970s, United Kingdom and United States|
|Derivative forms||Alternative dance, alternative rock, neo-psychedelia, indie pop|
New wave is a broad music genre that encompasses numerous pop/rock-oriented styles from the late 1970s and the 1980s. It was originally used as a catch-all for the music that emerged after punk rock, including punk itself, but may be viewed retrospectively as a more accessible counterpart of post-punk. Although new wave shared punk's DIY philosophy, the artists were more influenced by the lighter strains of 1960s pop while opposed to mainstream "corporate" rock, which they considered creatively stagnant, and the generally abrasive and political bents of punk rock.
Common characteristics of new wave music include a humorous or quirky pop approach, the use of electronic sounds, and a distinctive visual style featured in music videos and fashion. In the early 1980s, virtually every new pop/rock act – and particularly those that featured synthesizers in their sound – were tagged as "new wave". By the 2000s, critical consensus favored "new wave" to be an umbrella term that encompassed power pop, synth-pop, ska revival, and the softer strains of punk rock.
New wave peaked commercially in the late 1970s and the early 1980s with numerous major artists and an abundance of one-hit wonders. After MTV was launched in 1981, the network promoted new wave acts heavily on the channel, which gave the genre a boost in popularity. In the mid-1980s, new wave declined with the emergence of several "new" labels: New Romantic, New Pop, and New Music. Since the 1990s, new wave has enjoyed some resurgences after a rising nostalgia for several new wave-influenced artists.
New wave encompasses numerous pop-oriented styles from the late 1970s and the 1980s. It originally represented a break from the blues and rock & roll sounds of late-1960s to mid-1970s music. Common characteristics of new wave music include a humorous or quirky pop approach, the use of electronic sounds, and a distinctive visual style featured in music videos and fashion. According to Simon Reynolds, the music had a twitchy, agitated feel. New wave musicians often played choppy rhythm guitars with fast tempos, and keyboards were common, as were stop-start song structures and melodies. Reynolds noted that new wave vocalists sounded high-pitched, geeky and suburban.
Although new wave shared punk's DIY artistic philosophy, the artists were more influenced by the lighter strains of 1960s pop while opposed to mainstream "corporate" rock, which they considered creatively stagnant, and the generally abrasive and political bents of punk rock. In the early 1980s, new wave acts embraced a crossover of rock music with African and African-American styles. Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow, both acts with ties to former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, used Burundi-style drumming. Talking Heads album Remain in Light was marketed and positively reviewed as a breakthrough melding of new wave and African styles, although drummer Chris Frantz said that he found out about this supposed African influence after the fact. Second British Invasion acts were influenced by funk and disco.
The majority of American male new wave acts of the late 1970s were from Caucasian middle-class backgrounds. Scholar Theo Cateforis theorized that these acts intentionally presented these exaggerated nerdy tendencies associated with their "whiteness" to criticize it and/or to reflect their identity. A nervous, nerdy persona was a common characteristic of new wave fans as well as acts such as Talking Heads, Devo and Elvis Costello. This took the forms of robotic dancing, jittery high-pitched vocals and clothing fashions such as suits and big glasses that hid the body. This seemed radical to audiences accustomed to post-counterculture forms such as disco dancing and macho "cock rock" that had emphasized a "hang loose" philosophy, open sexuality and sexual bravado.
The "new wave" term is regarded as so loose and wide-ranging as to be "virtually meaningless", according to the New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock. It was originally used as a catch-all for the music that emerged after punk rock, including punk itself. The 1985 discography Who's New Wave in Music listed artists in over 130 separate categories. Reflecting its British origins, the 2004 study Popular Music Genres: An Introduction had one paragraph dedicated to 1970s new wave artists in its punk chapter in contrast to a 20-page chapter on early 1980s synth-pop. AllMusic offers that the term may be viewed retrospectively as a more accessible counterpart of post-punk.
As early as 1973, critics including Nick Kent and Dave Marsh were using the "new wave" tag to classify such New York-based groups as the Velvet Underground and New York Dolls. In the US, many of the first new wave groups were the not-so-punk acts associated with CBGB (e.g. Talking Heads, Mink DeVille and Blondie), as well as the proto-punk scene in Ohio, which included Devo, the electric eels, Rocket from the Tombs and Pere Ubu. Some important bands, such as Suicide and the Modern Lovers, debuted even earlier. CBGB owner Hilly Kristal, referring to the first show of the band Television at his club in March 1974, said, "I think of that as the beginning of new wave." Furthermore, many artists who would have originally been classified as punk were also termed new wave. A 1977 Phonogram Records compilation album of the same name (New Wave) features American artists including the Dead Boys, Ramones, Talking Heads and the Runaways.
Between 1976 and 1977, the terms "new wave" and "punk" were somewhat interchangeable. Music historian Vernon Joynson claimed that new wave emerged in the UK in late 1976, when many bands began disassociating themselves from punk. That year, the term gained currency when it appeared in UK punk fanzines such as Sniffin' Glue and newsagent music weeklies such as Melody Maker and New Musical Express. In November 1976, Caroline Coon used Malcolm McLaren's term "new wave" to designate music by bands not exactly punk, but related to the same musical scene. The mid-1970s British pub rock scene was ultimately the source of many of the most commercially successful new wave acts, such as Ian Dury, Nick Lowe, Eddie and the Hot Rods and Dr. Feelgood.
In the US, Sire Records chairman Seymour Stein, believing that the term "punk" would mean poor sales for Sire's acts who had frequently played the New York club CBGB, launched a "Don't Call It Punk" campaign designed to replace the term with "new wave". As radio consultants in the US had advised their clients that punk rock was a fad, they settled on the new term. Like the filmmakers of the French new wave movement (after whom the genre was named), new wave artists were anti-corporate and experimental (e.g. Ramones and Talking Heads). At first, most American writers used the term "new wave" exclusively in reference to British punk acts. Starting in December 1976, The New York Rocker, which was suspicious of the term "punk", became the first American journal to enthusiastically use the term, starting with British acts and later appropriating it to acts associated with the CBGB scene. Part of what attracted Stein and others to new wave was the music's stripped-back style and upbeat tempos, which they viewed as a much-needed return to the energetic rush of rock and roll and 1960s rock that had dwindled in the 1970s with the ascendance of overblown progressive rock and stadium spectacles.
"Post-punk" was coined to describe groups who were initially considered part of new wave but were more ambitious, serious and challenging, as well as being darker and less pop-oriented.[according to whom?] Some of these groups would later adopt synths. While punk rock wielded a major influence on the popular music scene in the UK, in the US it remained a fixture of the underground. In the UK, some post-punk music developments became mainstream.
Current critical thought discrs new wave as a genre, deriding it as a marketing ploy to soft-sell punk, a meaningless umbrella term covering bands too diverse to be considered alike. Powerpop, synth-pop, ska revival, art school novelties and rebranded pub rockers were all sold as "New Wave."
—Music critic David Smay writing in 2001
By the end of 1977, "new wave" had replaced "punk" as the definition for new underground music in the UK. In early 1978, XTC released the single "This Is Pop" as a direct response to tags such as "new wave". Songwriter Andy Partridge later stated of bands such as themselves who were given those labels, "Let's be honest about this. This is pop, what we're playing. ... don't try to give it any fancy new names, or any words that you've made up, because it's blatantly just pop music. We were a new pop group. That's all."
In the early 1980s, new wave gradually lost its associations to punk in popular perception. Writing in 1989, music critic Bill Flanagan said, "Bit by bit the last traces of Punk were drained from New Wave, as New Wave went from meaning Talking Heads to meaning the Cars to Squeeze to Duran Duran to, finally, Wham!" Virtually every new pop/rock act – and particularly those that featured synthesizers in their sound – were tagged as "new wave" during this time. Starting around 1983, the US music industry preferred the more generic term "New Music", used to categorize "new" movements like New Pop and New Romanticism. In Britain, journalists and music critics largely abandoned "new wave" and "new music" in favor of subgenre terms such as "synth-pop".
New wave was much more closely tied to punk, and came and went more quickly in the UK (and in the rest of Western Europe) than in the US. At the time punk began, it was a major phenomenon in the UK and a minor one in the US. Thus when new wave acts started getting noticed in the US, punk meant little to the mainstream audience and it was common for rock clubs and discos to play British dance mixes and videos between live sets by American guitar acts. By the 2000s, critical consensus favored "new wave" to be an umbrella term that encompassed power pop, synth-pop, ska revival, and the softer strains of punk rock.
In the summer of 1977 both Time and Newsweek wrote favorable lead stories on the "punk/new wave" movement. Acts associated with the movement received little or no radio airplay or music industry support. Small scenes developed in major cities. Continuing into the next year, public support remained limited to select elements of the artistic, bohemian and intellectual population, as arena rock and disco dominated the charts.
Starting in late 1978 and continuing into 1979, acts associated with punk and acts that mixed punk with other genres began to make chart appearances and receive airplay on rock stations and rock discos. Blondie, Talking Heads, the Police and the Cars charted during this period. "My Sharona", a single from the Knack, was Billboard magazine's number one single of 1979. The success of "My Sharona", combined with the fact that new wave albums were much cheaper to produce during a time when the music industry was in its worst slump in decades, prompted record companies to sign new wave groups. New wave music scenes developed in Ohio and the college town of Athens, Georgia, with legendary bands such as the B-52s and R.E.M.. 1980 saw brief forays into new wave-styled music by non-new wave artists Billy Joel, Donna Summer and Linda Ronstadt.
An African-American "new wave" of sorts also arose in the US in the late 1970s and early 1980s, driven, as AllMusic points out, by "drum machines, synthesizers and programming [becoming] common studio tools." Following the musically stripped-down approach of Stevie Wonder and Parliament-Funkadelic, post-disco explored a more electronic and experimental side of African-American music by incorporating an eclectic range of styles, e.g. Jamaican music, electronic art music, jazz, blues and, in the latter years, European and Japanese synthesizer music. Stretching the boundaries of disco music, post-disco took many forms, some entirely rhythm and blues-based (NYC boogie), some post-punk–based (alternative dance), underground club culture-centered (Chicago house with its own style of dance called jacking) and futurism–leaning (Detroit techno). Embracing new wave music (synth-pop) proper was proven to be influential, as Afrika Bambaataa ("Renegades of Funk") and Arthur Baker point out, on both underground and mainstream black dance music (electro, dance-rock, Minneapolis sound).
Early in 1980, influential radio consultant Lee Abrams wrote a memo saying that, with a few exceptions, "we're not going to be seeing many of the new wave circuit acts happening very big over here (referring to America). As a movement, we don't expect it to have much influence." Lee Ferguson, a consultant to KWST, said in an interview that Los Angeles radio stations were banning disc jockeys from using the term and noted, "Most of the people who call music new wave are the ones looking for a way not to play it." Despite the success of Devo's socially critical but widely misperceived song "Whip It", second albums by artists who had successful debut albums, along with newly signed artists, failed to sell, and radio pulled most new wave programming.
The arrival of MTV in 1981 ushered in new wave's most successful era in the US. British artists, unlike many of their American counterparts, had learned how to use the music video early on. Several British acts on independent labels were able to outmarket and outsell American artists on major labels. Journalists labeled this phenomenon a "Second British Invasion". MTV continued its heavy rotation of videos by new wave-oriented acts until 1987, when it changed to a heavy metal and rock dominated format.
In a December 1982 Gallup poll, 14% of teenagers rated new wave as their favorite type of music, making it the third most popular. New wave had its greatest popularity on the West Coast. Unlike other genres, race was not a factor in the popularity of new wave music, according to the poll. Urban contemporary radio stations were the first to play dance-oriented new wave artists such as the B-52's, Culture Club, Duran Duran and ABC.
New wave soundtracks were used in mainstream Brat Pack films such as Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club, as well as in the low-budget hit Valley Girl. John Hughes, the director of several of these films, was enthralled with British new wave music and placed songs from acts such as the Psychedelic Furs, Simple Minds, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Echo and the Bunnymen in his films, helping to keep new wave in the mainstream. Several of these songs remain standards of the era. Critics described the MTV acts of the period as shallow or vapid. Homophobic slurs were used to describe some of the new wave musicians. Despite the criticism, the danceable quality of the music and the quirky fashion sense associated with new wave artists appealed to audiences.
As late as 1989, bands such as Love and Rockets debuted on the charts with a look and sound that would have landed them clearly within the new wave genre 10 years earlier, and the B-52's reached their greatest success in 1990.
In September 1988, Billboard launched its Modern Rock chart. While the acts on the chart reflected a wide variety of stylistic influences, new wave's legacy remained in the large influx of acts from Great Britain and acts that were popular in rock discos, as well as the chart's name, which reflected how new wave had been marketed as "modern". New wave's indie spirit would be crucial to the development of college rock and grunge/alternative rock in the latter half of the 1980s and beyond.
New wave died out after the mid-1980s, knocked out by guitar-driven rock reacting against new wave. In the aftermath of grunge, the British music press launched a campaign to promote the new wave of new wave. This campaign involved overtly punk and new wave-influenced acts such as Elastica, but it was eclipsed by Britpop. During that decade, the synthesizer-heavy dance sounds of British and European new wave acts influenced various incarnations of Euro disco and trance.
During the 2000s, a number of acts emerged that mined a diversity of new wave and post-punk influences. These acts were sometimes labeled "New New Wave". AllMusic notes that the emergence of these acts "led journalists and music fans to talk about a post-punk/new wave revival", while arguing that it was "really more analogous to a continuum, one that could be traced back as early as the mid-'80s".
During the mid-2000s, new rave combined new wave with elements from several other genres, such as indie rock and electro house, and added aesthetic elements archetypal of a rave, such as light shows and glow sticks.
As disco waned in the late 70s, so did Chic's album sales. But its influence lingered on as new wave, rap and dance-pop bands found inspiration in Chic's club anthems
For a while in 1976 and 1977 the terms punk and new wave were largely interchangeable. By 1978, things were beginning to change, although the dividing line between punk and new wave was never very clear.
[T]echno was a music that attempted to dislocate and deterritorialize itself, in looking to European electronic music, to new musical forms and technologies and 'western' futurist political theory. However, techno was not a rejection of an African American heritage but an attempt to engage with and consider the 'full meaning of black identity.' Atkins in particular adopted and adapted what was viewed by some as the most 'white' of 'white music'[;] Cosgrove seemed more than a little surprised that Visage, Depeche Mode and the Human League could be the inspiration for techno.
Just as Italo-disco had, new wave caught on with African American audiences in Detroit nowhere else in the United States. One could hear new wave's offbeat and eclectic ingredients working themselves out in Detroit's early electronic dance records, where groups like Human League, B-52s, and Visage were reconciled with Eurodisco, the Midwestern funk of George Clinton, Zapp, the Ohio Players, and, subconsciously, the soul of Motown.
A critic looks back at her teenage fan days in the Philippines and Los Angeles