Few cultural forces are more powerful than music. Over the past 50 years, music has inspired fans and made artists into rock stars. It has served as the soundtrack for movies and cultural revolutions. It has compelled the masses to dance, beatbox, headbang, and mosh. It has enlightened, enriched, and enraged. Music has thrilled young people, terrified parents, and triggered congressional investigations. It's been used as a force for unification and it's been wielded as a weapon for social justice. Music has articulated frustrations, expressed hopes and disappointments, and informed mainstream America about the realities of communities and subcultures that they might otherwise never have experienced.
Over the years, music has become far more personal. Once shackled to the choices and tastes of radio DJs they would never meet, listeners now have almost total control over what they hear and when they hear it. New technologies also have affected the way music is made and produced. Once held firmly in the grip of record labels that viewed artists as dollar-generating commodities, musicians today have direct access to fans who hang on their every word and note.
Music pours out of jukeboxes, pulses through earbuds, roars through walls of speakers at concerts, and drifts out of bars, restaurants, and clubs, beckoning those on the street to join the party. The undeniable human attraction to music will never change—it has always made us dance, laugh, cry, and smile—but the sounds, formats, trends, genres, technologies, and instruments involved are always in a state of flux.
Here's a look at the past five decades of music, how it's evolved, how one generation has influenced the next, and what has changed in the relationships among fans, producers, and artists, the music they play, the way it's delivered, and how it's consumed.
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The most famous festival in the history of American music took place from Aug. 15 to 18, 1969, on a dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y. The event, which drew nearly 500,000 revelers, was the zenith of the 1960s counterculture era and the crowning achievement of the hippie movement. The biggest acts of the era paid homage to the mud-and-pot-soaked festival-goers, with performances by artists such as Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Santana, The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
The year 1970 was more than just the chronological end to the 1960s; it was the end of one of the most consequential eras in the history of music. The Beatles broke up in 1970, and other defining '60s acts like the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin became less accessible, touring in jets and playing massive stadiums and arenas instead of clubs and theaters. Iconic '60s pioneers Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix died in the '70s—all at age 27—as did the original king of rock, Elvis Presley, later in the decade.
The 1970s opened with a new genre called glam rock, embodied by David Bowie and defined by outrageous costumes and pageantry. Disco dominated the second half of the decade, with the music of performers like the Bee Gees and Gloria Gaynor emerging as staples on dance floors and car stereos across the country.
Bob Marley put reggae music on the map in the 1970s, James Brown gave birth to funk, and Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes, and Al Green defined rhythm and blues, better known as R&B. The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Charlie Daniels Band emerged as leaders of the southern rock genre.
In 1971, a cultural phenomenon was born when Japanese businessman Daisuke Inoue invented the karaoke machine, which translates loosely into "empty orchestra." Soon, bars, clubs, and even business retreats began offering a platform to every wannabe, pretender, and weekend warrior with the courage to test their singing chops in front of a crowd.
On Aug. 11, 1973, a young New York City DJ who went by the name of Kool Herc threw a back-to-school party at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. in the Bronx. Instead of playing songs in their entirety, he experimented by playing only the instrumental breaks—the part of the song that tended to animate the crowd—giving revelers more time to dance, which is where the term "break dancing" comes from. All the while, Herc's partner, Coke La Rock, used the microphone to amp up the audience. The moment is recognized as the birth of hip-hop, perhaps the most enduring and transformative genre in American music since rock ‘n' roll.
The late 1970s saw the emergence of a wild and anarchic genre that exuded nonconformity and angry rebellion. Born in New York but influenced and adopted by the underground scene in Great Britain, punk rock was defined by acts like Patti Smith, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and The Clash, and later, Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys.
Fascist symbolism had always been a part of punk rock's antagonistic style, and the genre was shaped by angry, disillusioned, white working-class kids in Great Britain. Neo-Nazis and other racists had existed on the fringes of the movement from the beginning, and white supremacist groups eventually leveraged the unifying power of music to lure and recruit disenchanted young people while getting their messages out. Skinhead bands began producing albums and shows, which often echoed the sounds and stylings of punk rock with combat boots, mosh pits, and aggressive, screaming vocals.
The first 8-track tape player debuted in the 1960s, but the technology enjoyed its heyday in the 1970s. Developed by Learjet, 8-track tapes used a continuous loop of magnetic tape to play eight musical tracks. It was the first practical and widespread medium for playing pre-recorded and personalized music in cars without relying on a radio DJ.
Vinyl records had been around for decades, but they were never cheaper and more readily accessible than they were in the 1970s, when high-quality, stereo record players became nearly as common as televisions. Cassette tapes were available, but had not yet entered the mainstream, and 8-tracks were confined mostly to cars. It was the golden age of vinyl, and the neighborhood record store became an epicenter of music, culture, art, and ideas.
In the 1980s, hip-hop exploded out of the inner city and made its way into the mainstream, as acts like Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy brought the sound to the masses. Later in the decade, what had started as party music would adopt a much sharper edge as rap became synonymous with vulgar and graphic depictions of urban dysfunction. Just like punk rock had done a decade before, gangsta rap—originally made famous and infamous by N.W.A.—challenged America's institutions, thrilled young people, and terrified law enforcement and mainstream parents.
Around the time Elvis Presley died in the late 1970s, Michael Jackson—the boy leader of the Jackson 5—was establishing himself as a marketable solo performer. The man who would be crowned the “King of Pop” spent the 1980s breaking sales records and redefining both pop music and pop culture with dances like the moonwalk, videos like "Thriller," and albums like "Bad." By the middle of the decade, Jackson was arguably the most famous person in the world.
John Lennon was shot and killed in 1980, signaling the end of an era in music and culture. But much of the previous decade lived on. Glam metal bands like Guns N' Roses, Poison, and Mötley Crüe—who donned grandiose costumes, makeup, and hair that borrowed heavily from David Bowie's glam rock movement—filled stadiums with their power ballads.
Building on what acts like Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Judas Priest, and AC/DC had started in the 1970s, heavy metal hit its stride in the 1980s as acts like Metallica, Twisted Sister, Anthrax, and Pantera introduced the world to headbanging and gave voice to bored and disaffected suburban kids. Black clothes, heavy electric guitar riffs, and morose lyrics defined the genre, which carried on music's long tradition of rattling Middle America and challenging mainstream society.
While pop acts like Debbie Gibson, Bryan Adams, Tiffany, Phil Collins, and The Police dominated the radio, so-called alternative acts like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and R.E.M. established themselves as anti-pop heroes that would display remarkable staying power. Genre-busting acts like U2 set new bars, and new-wave talent like Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, and the Eurythmics did their own part to reinvent 1970s glam.
When Morrissey and Johnny Marr formed The Smiths in 1982, they decided that their band would sign with an independent, or indie, label instead of a major record company, the likes of which had ruled the music industry for generations. After coming to prominence in the 1970s following decades of experimentation, indie labels like Factory, Mute, and Rough Trade—the latter of which eventually signed The Smiths—were small companies that did not have the funding or backing of the majors. They gave emerging artists a platform to launch their careers and focused their business models on artistic freedom and mutually beneficial artist-label relationships.
First released in 1979, the Sony Walkman changed our listening habits perhaps more than any other single piece of technology in the past 40 years. As portable as a transistor radio but offering the privacy of headphones, the Walkman ushered in the era of personal, mobile music. By the time the Walkman line was discontinued in 2010, Sony had sold 400 million units.
Although the technology was first developed in the mid-1960s, cassette tapes rose to prominence in the 1980s and went on to define the decade's music. Tapes were popped into Walkmans, car stereos, and boom boxes, used to record songs from the radio and even to dub tapes from vinyl records. The venerable mix tape that became the trademark of the era's portable music made long car rides more tolerable.
On Aug. 1, 1981, "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles fittingly became the first music video ever to air on a new network called MTV. The network changed the way music was consumed and became the voice of a generation. MTV launched acts like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Guns N' Roses into global superstardom before moving away from music videos in the 1990s. Video jockeys, or VJs, became household names.
When Columbia House filed for bankruptcy in 2015, The Verge called the mail-order subscription service "the Spotify of the '80s." Columbia House was famous for its hard-to-resist “incredible deals,” which delivered a big selection of albums, chosen by the subscriber, for a penny or other nominal fee. As a tradeoff, the subscriber agreed to buy a predetermined number of albums at full price over the course of a year. Many music collections were built this way, and Columbia House peaked at $1.4 billion in revenues in 1996.
In the annals of music festivals, there is Woodstock and there's everything else. The concept of the live festival was born in Upstate New York in 1969, but it would endure throughout the decades. The South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin debuted in 1987, the traveling Lollapalooza festival was first planned in 1991, and Coachella emerged in 1999.
The first compact disc was released in 1982, and over the next 20 years, 200 billion CDs were sold across the world. The technology did not use magnetic tape, but digital optical recording to embed playable tracks on polycarbonate plastic discs. The result was superior stereo sound on a light, thin, durable medium that would signal the death knell for cassettes—in the 1990s, the CD collection largely replaced the tape collection.
Before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989, an industrial, electronic, and futuristic new dance music called techno had risen to prominence in Europe and East and West Germany. By the 1990s, the movement had made it to the United States, where raves—impromptu dance parties often staged in empty warehouses or industrial buildings—began luring legions of young people entranced by the beats of techno. Reminiscent of the previous generation's discotheques, these urban dance parties were all-night affairs awash in mind-altering substances, most notably ecstasy and other so-called designer drugs.
By the 1990s, the line between reality and performance in the world of gangsta rap had been hopelessly blurred as gang members with criminal pasts became some of the biggest acts in rap. Felons with long rap sheets, most notably Marion "Suge" Knight, had risen to the executive level of the record industry, often through extortion, intimidation, and brute force. A long-simmering rivalry between the hip-hop hubs of New York City and Southern California culminated in the still-unsolved murders of Tupac Shakur and Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace.
Country music has spawned some of the biggest acts in music history, including Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, and Johnny Cash, whose influence and sales could rival most artists ever to hit the stage. The genre's artists and fan base, however, were traditionally regional, rural, and white. That all changed in the 1990s when crossover acts like Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus, Faith Hill, and Shania Twain brought country twang to mainstream radio stations and into homes across America.
Rock in the 1990s was defined by the shaggy hair and flannel shirts that were the standard uniform of the grunge movement, which evolved in, and emerged from, Seattle. Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana were the standard-bearers of the movement. At the same time, jam bands like Blues Traveler, Phish, and the Dave Matthews Band developed styles that paid homage to the Grateful Dead, a pioneering 1960s psychedelic group whose long, strange trip ended with the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995, though bandmates continue touring under alternative names to this day.
Global superstar songstresses with booming voices like Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston enjoyed massive success in the 1990s, but the decade also saw the rise of a new crop of supremely talented, independent, and often controversial women. The 1990s gave the world Liz Phair, Norah Jones, Aaliyah, Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, Tori Amos, Jewel, Natalie Merchant, and Alanis Morissette. Acts like Avril Lavigne and Alicia Keys would continue the tradition in the early 2000s.
Released in 1998, Cher's "Believe" topped the charts in 23 countries. Exactly 36 seconds into the smash single, the world first heard what would become one of the key innovations of the past 20 years: a new pitch-correction technology called Auto-Tune. Although it had existed for about a year before "Believe" was released, Cher launched the robotic-sounding voice enhancer into the public consciousness.
By the end of the 1990s, pop music was poppier than ever, with acts like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, *NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, Ricky Martin, and the Spice Girls dominating the FM dial. In response, anti-pop sentiment emerged with acts like Eminem, who used his own music to relentlessly mock and attack any artists he deemed manufactured or contrived.
A new sound bubbled up in the 1990s as some of the most talented artists in the world developed a blend of hip-hop and R&B. The Fugees—whose members Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean later became solo acts—as well as Destiny's Child, TLC, and Toni Braxton emerged as leaders of the subgenre.
In 1999, the peer-to-peer (p2p) file-sharing revolution began in earnest with the arrival of Napster. The controversial service let internet users download, upload, and share music without buying it. Although it was shut down just one year later in 2000, Napster sent the record industry into a panic and forever changed the way music was shared and delivered while giving birth to the concept of online music piracy.
Experimentation with what would become the MP3 digital audio format first began in the late 1980s. It wasn't until 1999, however, that the recording company Sub Pop first began distributing music in the MP3 format, a follow-up to the MPEG formats that had emerged in the 1990s. Music could now be distributed and consumed without the listener handling a tangible object like a cassette tape or a compact disc.
The 2000s saw teen pop acts from the 1990s emerge as powerhouse mainstream players. Justin Timberlake from *NSYNC launched an impressive solo career, while Christina Aguilera experimented with new genres and sounds.
Dr. Dre was a founding member of N.W.A. in the 1980s and the human embodiment of West Coast gangsta rap in the 1990s. Later in the decade, he reinvented himself as one of the most successful producers in the industry when he gave Eminem his big break. Eminem was the biggest name in rap throughout the late '90s and early 2000s, but then, once again, the apprentice became the master. Just as Dr. Dre had done, Eminem moved to the producer's chair, formed Shady Records, and signed 50 Cent.
By the end of the 1990s, music lovers had libraries containing hundreds and even thousands of MP3 tracks, but those songs were shackled to their computers. Then in 1998, Eiger Labs released the world's first MP3 player. The MPMan F10 was a big, clunky, Walkman-like box that offered just 32 MB of storage. Improvements were made with new arrivals from companies like Intel and Iomega, but the game-changing transformation came in 2001 when Apple introduced the iPod. It would go onto become the audiophile gadget that defined the decade and achieve sales that likely surpassed 400 million, enough to rival the venerable Walkman it rendered obsolete.
In 2001, the same year Apple redefined music hardware with the introduction of the first generation iPod, it also unveiled the software that would become the most important music platform in history: iTunes. The two technologies combined to make tech hip—it was hard to go a day without seeing someone wearing the trademark white earbuds—and redefined the way music was bought, sold, and shared. The iTunes store debuted in 2003 and sold 1 million songs in its first week.
In 1992, Sirius and XM—whose companies would eventually merge—began acquiring Federal Communications Commission licenses to facilitate orbiting satellites to broadcast radio signals. A little less than a decade later in 2001, XM became the first company to deliver a national satellite radio broadcast. Music was now being beamed to people's homes, cars, and offices from outer space.
For generations, the jukebox was the center of the party. Whether at a bar or a bowling alley, a diner or a skating rink, jukebox music filled the air on a pay-per-play basis. But users' choices had always been confined to the records or other media physically contained inside the machine. The rise of MP3s, however, gave jukeboxes bottomless music libraries that could play essentially any song anyone wanted to hear.
Television contest shows were nothing new in 2002, but that year, "American Idol" debuted in the United States and changed the nature and clout of televised talent competitions forever. The show would launch some of the biggest acts of the 2000s, including Carrie Underwood, Clay Aiken, Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry, Adam Lambert, and the original American Idol, Kelly Clarkson.
The cassette tape gave the masses the ability to record personalized music collections and take them anywhere. The arrival of digital music and MP3 players, however, allowed music lovers to compile massive music libraries and sort them by genre, season, sound, feeling, romantic partner, or any other category they liked—all without lugging around bricks of plastic, such as cassette tapes or CDs. The playlist was born.
In the wake of Napster, subscription services began popping up as a bridge between peer-to-peer piracy and old-fashioned album purchasing. Pandora launched in 2005 and was credited with developing the so-called “freemium” model, which offered algorithm-based stations and playlists with ads for free, or without ads for a price. SoundCloud launched in 2007 and Spotify joined the party in 2008.
In 2007, Apple, once again, unveiled an astonishing new technology that would change music and the world. The iPhone was less a phone and more a pocket computer that could make calls. Although iPods would still sell well into the 2010s, the modern smartphone unified standalone devices like cameras, calculators, and MP3 players into a single, pocket-sized super machine.
Disc jockeys had long held down the fort at radio stations and block parties, but the 21st century witnessed the DJ move from back-bench supporting act—Jazzy Jeff to the Fresh Prince, Ali Muhammad to A Tribe Called Quest, and that fourth Beastie Boy—to center stage superstar. Artists like Deadmau5, Skrillex, and DJ David Guetta gobbled up Grammys, sold out concert venues, and raked in millions—all without any help from a frontman.
Wobbly baselines, unexpected and often-jarring audio patterns, and grinding volume are the hallmarks of dubstep. A new kind of electronic dance music (EDM) that emerged in Great Britain at the turn of the 21st century, dubstep was an extension of techno that became a mainstay in dance clubs across the United States by the 2010s.
Just as indie labels did two generations earlier, YouTube gave aspiring musicians a way to circumvent major record labels and maintain artistic control over their work—only this time, the video-sharing app provided a direct channel between artist and audience. Artists like Justin Bieber used YouTube to parlay their talents into global superstardom.
A diverse crop of talented and pioneering women added their voices to the music of the 21st century. Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Adele, Miley Cyrus, Meghan Trainor, Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, Kesha, and Ariana Grande emerged as heavy hitters in the worlds of pop, hip-hop, and rock. Taylor Swift, Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, and Carrie Underwood made undeniable statements in country and crossover music.
For generations, musicians had stapled posters to telephone poles, handed out fliers, sold tapes out of the trunks of their cars, or, if they had the means, hired publicists to promote their brands. The new millennium, however, gave musicians instant access to something their predecessors could only dream of—direct lines of communication with their audience and fans. Podcasts, YouTube channels, and social media networks like Instagram and Twitter have replaced the fan clubs of old. Today's artists use these platforms to broadcast their messages, announce album drops and concerts, share intimate photos, and engage in political discussions with little more than a smartphone.
In 2014, the tide of change became clear when, for the first time, digital music sales overtook sales of physical music. Physical sales, which consisted mostly of CDs by that time, fell to $6.82 billion, while digital sales, which included services like Spotify, climbed to $6.85 billion.
The Time's Up and #MeToo movements ferreted out deeply entrenched sexism and casual attitudes toward sexual harassment and even assault in the industries of film, news, television, sports, comedy, and many other entertainment offshoots. At the 2018 Grammys, artists like Kesha, Camila Cabello, Cyndi Lauper, and Andra Day used the moment to call for a similar reckoning in the music industry. Since then, the #MuteRKelly campaign has picked up steam, and women have come forward with new allegations against industry heavyweights.
In the 2010s, new artists emerged just as they always had in the past, but also just as always, the world lost many of the pioneers and innovators whose work inspired and enabled their ascent. Among those who died in the second decade of the 21st century were Prince, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Nate Dogg, Teddy Pendergrass, Amy Winehouse, Heavy D, Whitney Houston, Dick Clark, Adam "MCA" Yauch, Joe Cocker, B.B. King, Chris Cornell, Tom Petty, Fats Domino, XXXTentacion, Aretha Franklin, and Mac Miller. They're gone, but their musical legacies remain.