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The History and Influence of the New Wave Genre

I believe that music is a universal language; you are able to feel love, sorrow, joy, angst, and a plethora of other emotions. It is a medium that gives back to the listeners. I love all types of music, all types of genres, and all types of subgenres, but I do have my favorites. I want to touch on one of my favorite subgenres of music: New Wave.

What even is New Wave? The name might sound familiar. but let me explain to those who are unsure. New Wave is a genre of pop and rock music that spans across the late 1970s through the entirety of the 1980s. The genre sits in the middle between the aggressive, raw nature of punk and the money making, simplistic nature of corporate rock. There is no influence from blues, because it wanted to differentiate from other forms of rock music. New Wave music combines elements of different types of wave genres such as dark wave and synth wave, as well as art rock and funk.

Rhythm experimentation is extremely important to the sound of New Wave, as all the artists and bands of the genre wanted to test the waters on sound. Some of the most well known New Wave artists include Talking Heads, Duran Duran, DEVO, Blondie, Depeche Mode, The B-52s, The Police, New Order, The Psychedelic Furs, and The Cars. All these artists may have completely different discographies and individual stylistic choices, but all fall under New Wave- showing just how broad the genre can be!

New Wave came onto the scene back in the 1970s. The term “New Wave” was coined by critics who would refer to these bands and artists since they were new to the rock scene. The first use of the term “New Wave” was used in reference to the bands The Velvet Underground and New York Dolls. It is fascinating to note that a lot of inspiration for New Wave music came directly from Lou Reed of The Velvet Underground. You can truly see Reed’s influence in a lot of early 1980s New Wave.

A majority of the early New Wave acts came from the UK or New York City. In the UK, there was London- the center of punk rock, pub rock, folk rock, and glam rock. In New York City, you had funk, disco, progressive, and experimental rock. There was a period of time where most of the New Wave bands on the scene had originated from the UK. New Wave took inspiration from the stripped down rock and roll scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Los Angeles and Boston also had a few New Wave successes for themselves.

In the 1970s, the media was vehemently against the concept of punk rock to the point where they would slander and defame the genre, which made the music almost unmarketable in the US. Artists like The Police and Elvis Costello started appearing on the radio during the mid 1970s and had managed to combine the energy of punk rock and the sophisticated nature of progressive nature into their music. These artists automatically got lumped together into the genre of New Wave, since they were making critics happier than punk rock due to it being more commercialized.

New Wave was also the main reason for the influx of synth in pop and rock music and led to the creation of Synth Wave. One of the main reasons why is attributed to Joy Division’s lead singer, Ian Curtis. When Curtis sadly passed away, the rest of the members reformed into a group called New Order. New Order had keyboard and synth driven songs and a similar energy to their former band.

The genre inevitably became one of the biggest sounds of the 1980s. Multiple artists aligned with the genre made it to the top 40s pretty frequently, and MTV was filled to the brim with music videos from New Wave’s biggest stars. MTV had launched in August of 1981 and started playing more obscure pop and rock artists who fell into the category of New Wave.

New Wave had rejected the late 1960s and early1970s hippy and hard rock and embraced a new sense of rock and pop culture. New Wave and the artists who helped solidify the genre inspired rock, pop, and electronic music as it holds a lifelong legacy as one of the most influential genres of rock music. You can hear the influence in bands such as The Killers, Blur, The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Fitz and the Tantrums, and several others.

Electronic components to music are extremely common today, with the use of the keyboard almost universal in various genres of music. Some original New Wave artists are still making music and/or being remembered fondly. David Byrne of the Talking Heads has his own Broadway show that opened in 2019 called David Byrne’s American Utopia. Also, Duran Duran just released their most recent EP, Tonight United, in 2021. New Wave is still a loved and appreciated music genre with a massive cult following. If you are new to the scene of New Wave, here is an introductory playlist I’ve curated on Spotify to warm you up!

they/them. journalism and english major at the University of Denver. Fascinated by film, music, comedy and travel writing.
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