50 ways music has changed in the last 50 years
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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Woodstock caps the 1960s
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 '70s bring a new musical era
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.
Glam and disco define a 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.
New sounds emerge
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.
Everyone becomes a rock star for a night
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.
The Bronx boogies down
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.
Punk rock shocks
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.
Hate groups leverage the power of music
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.
8-tracks change car travel
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.
The record store becomes a cultural hub
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.