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Evolution Of Music

Great music is a mixture of timeliness and timelessness. It captures the spirit of moment while carrying that same spirit in song form well into the future. The past hundred years has seen music become more commercially available and widespread than ever before, which in turn has helped spread a ton of trends that have evolved across the decades.

The 1930s

The Great Depression marks music becoming decidedly more downbeat for many. Jazz and vaudeville represent a welcome, more joyous distraction from the pervasive economic troubles. Protest music pervades the scene, from Woody Guthrie’s guitar ballads against poverty and anti-fascist anthems against the advancing Nazi threat.

The 1940s

The Allies defeat Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito to the strains of Andrews Sisters, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, and war songs galore. Amidst the Holocaust, Jewish songwriters back in America such as Irving Berlin and Rogers and Hammerstein score hit after hit. Jazz rumbles on, with the earliest hints of rock and roll being heard in Black music.

The 1950s

Elvis rises, and rock takes over as the dominant musical style. He’s far from alone, with Chubby Checker, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and others sharing the stage, while Doris Day, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald reign as the singing queens of the decade. Back in Europe, Eurovision begins. Jazz reaches its peak with figures such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk.

The 1960s

The Fab Four from Liverpool launched “The British Invasion” of popular music and culture, with the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and other British bands dominating the rock charts. Back in America, Bob Dylan blends folk and rock styles, influencing both styles. These figures and others contribute to protest music making a comeback amidst the turmoil of the Vietnam War. Motown and Civil Rights-focused Black music takes hold with singers such as Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, and James Brown making their mark.

The 1970s

From Saturday Night Fever to ABBA to Gloria Gaynor and beyond, disco dominates the charts, coinciding with the rise of the LGBT Rights movement. David Bowie and Elton John rise to prominence across the Atlantic. The Beatles break up, and John Lennon becomes one of the biggest voices of the anti-war movement until his assassination in 1980 shakes the world. Chicago and A Chorus Line debut on Broadway, while Evita and Sweeney Todd begin the decades-long composer duel between Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim. Freddie Mercury and Queen become champions of the charts. The “Peace and Love” generation of hippie rock gives way to a new generation of anti-authority punk rockers such as The Clash and Sex Pistols.

The 1980s

Michael Jackson, Prince, and George Michael battle for supremacy, Whitney Houston duels Madonna and Blondie, and pop begins to seriously contend with rock for pop cultural supremacy. Broadway and the West End are similarly big and gaudy with the dawn of the “mega-musical” in shows such as Cats and Les Misérables. Synth music and one-hit wonders abound, aided by the rise of music videos and a little cable channel known as MTV. The earliest rumblings of rap are heard in figures such as MC Hammer and Public Enemy.

The 1990s

MTV and the music video dominate the scene. Grunge rock defines the decade with bands such as Nirvana, with Kurt Cobain becoming the voice of a generation before his untimely death shocks a generation of fans much like Lennon’s had more than a decade prior. Pop begins to supplant rock with groups such as NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys launching the boyband wars. Gangsta Rap rockets to the top of the charts amidst a new wave of racial unrest and civil rights questions, with rappers such as Snoop Dogg, Tupac, and The Notorious B.I.G. leading the charge. 

The 2000s

Britney Spears becomes the top pop idol in the world, setting events in motion that would lead to her father’s despicable conservatorship and the #FreeBritney campaign two decades later. Her reign atop the pop charts is challenged by names such as Christina Aguilera and Pink. Rap continues its ascent with Jay-Z, the Black Eyed Peas, Lil Wayne, Nas, Eminem, and 50 Cent. 

The 2010s

Beyonce supplants Britney as the reigning queen of pop, while a new wave of socially conscious pop singers led by Billie Eilish make waves. Bruno Mars and others tap into nostalgia for older styles of music, reviving 70s, 80s, and 90s themes in their songs. MTV loses relevance to new musical trends on new platforms such as YouTube and TikTok.