“Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts…”

This post’s title comes from Paul Simon’s “Boy in the Bubble,” a song about the trials and tribulations of the modern world. We can certainly say that we have come to a very skewed reality when we find our heroes on the pop charts instead of working in orphanages, hospices and soup kitchens or devoting their lives to the cause of freedom and justice. Nonetheless, who these heroes are tend to say something about us and our times. While I would still encourage each and every one of us to look beyond pop culture and find the real heroes among us, the point of this site remains, for better or worse, music and, by extension, it at least wanders around the periphery of celebrity culture in the hopes of getting inside and finding something real.

So, what’s the point of this post? Well, a friend and I were discussing who were the “artists of each decade.” That seems simple enough, but as it turned out, we found a great many points of debate. In a sense, this is not a question about great music, but about artists associated with watershed moments in both music and culture. We found that identifying those moments helped us to rule certain artists in and out of consideration. We also found that some decades were more difficult to narrow down than others.

Here’s a first pass at the task at hand which came out of our conversation. I’m attempting to link the artist to some moment or cultural change, something more than just musically pivotal. Keep in mind that these choices are not about subjective preferences or the somewhat objective notion about the “best.” This is about music’s role in the bigger picture.

Decade Artist Why? Other possibilities
50s Elvis Presley Elvis broke the race barrier in reverse. He brought the energy, excitement and sexuality of “race” records to white teenagers, allowing subsequent generations to avoid Perry Como (except at Christmastime). Buddy Holly
60s The Beatles Starting with Rubber Soul, rock n roll began to evolve into rock. By Sgt Peppers, rock music had gone from the teen craze of the 50s to something that had to be taken seriously artistically. Everything changed and their influence is pervasive even today. None.
70s The Clash After the Beatles put the head into rock music, it began to go too far. Punk returned the heart, but the Clash proved that both heart and head could co-exist. Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Ramones, Sex Pistols
80s Michael Jackson MTV. As if that weren’t enough, Jackson’s music re-broke the race barrier that had sprung up in rock music. By the middle of the decade, three punks from NYC were a top hip-hop act and 70s rock dinosaurs Aerosmith were re-energized by working with Run DMC. U2, Prince
90s Nirvana Every teenager in America traded the shiny, thin veneer of the 80s for flannel and self-loathing when they heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the alternative ironically became mainstream. Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers? Nah, culturally, nothing in the decade compares.
00s Fall Out Boy They got signed to a major label based on plays on Myspace,ushering in an era that set traditional A&R on its ear. TV on the Radio

So, what do you think? Who would you consider the “artist of the decade” for each? What do you think are the events surrounding them? What does the ease or difficulty of narrowing it down in certain decades tell us about that time?

18 thoughts on ““Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts…”

  1. Metal Mark

    I have never heard Fall out Boy and really can’t comment on the previous decade because I have not kept up with pop music. For the others I’ll chime in.
    50’s-Elvis is a given because he was not just the voice, but the image and the spirit. Buddy Holly did a great job of linking solid writing in with a good performance, but Elvis rules the decade.

    60’s Beatles-Not much of a fan, but I can’t argue the choice. They not only took what had done before, but they progressed themselves during the decade. Which is something that many of these other acts didn’t do.

    80’s-Michael Jackson-I think this is a faily close one with U2 as the runner up. It was the MTV generation and Michael Jackson and his videos from Thriller were a huge part of igniting videos as an outlet for new music. Even people didn’t like Michael Jackson’s music would watch his videos. Between the radio and videos we were flooded with music more than in previous decades.

    90’s-Nirvana
    Like with the Beatles no contest here. They changed the musical trends almost overnight in 1991 and it effected years to come even though Cobain would be gone just a few years later. I don’t think they added anything as writers or musicians because they were not great at either. There was something there in the mood and the image that people connected with right away.

    70’s-
    I can’t really agree with The Clash here. Punk was big in the second half of the decade, but a decade defining band? No, I think this is the only choice where you let your personal bias get in the way. I just don’t see them as being the top defining act of the decade.
    I would probably choose Zeppelin as I think that the hard rock phase lasted longer than other styles of the decade and Zeppelin headed that up. They also made heavier music more accessible to a point throughout the decade. I think that just as good of a case
    could be made for Pink Floyd too.

    “In a sense, this is not a question about great music, but about artists associated with watershed moments in both music and culture.”
    If this is part of your criteria then I would say KISS have to at least be in that other possibilities category. Their music and their ugly mugs were all over the place in the 70’s. Glam was huge in the 70’s and the whole shiny over the top image is associated with that time. You chose a punk band and had two others as possibilitiees, but not one glam band. Bowie and Alice Cooper could be considered too.

    Except for the 70’s I think you did a good job on the list.

  2. bobvinyl Post author

    Mark, Kiss was considered seriously and forgotten when I posted this. I think you can point to two important things in the 70s: the reclaiming of rock n roll from the big behemoths and the extreme commercialization of rock music. Either has valid arguments in its favor and I chose the former. The only reason the Ramones and Pistols were also among the possibilities was that one make make a better case for them over the Clash under the circumstances. I don’t really think glam itself was an essential turning point, but I completely dropped the ball by omitting Kiss. You’re absolutely right that they were completely pervasive in their heyday. They drew in an even younger crowd and proved that there was a lot more to sell than just music. They certainly weren’t the best band of the decade, but with the criteria we’re using, they might be the most important and defining. Good catch.

    Dave, check the post title. It doesn’t say anything about overrated bands. Good one though!

  3. CLS

    I have to agree with Metal Mark on the 70’s. I think Zepplin would be more appropriate. Kiss? Seriously….come on.

    60’s – Big Shocker. Yeah, yeah, yeah the Beatles are groundbreaking, but I also think there were other bands who had major influences over artists of that time, including the Beatles, and continue to influence today…no names mentioned.

    80’s – Michael Jackson of course, but I think there has to be a place for Madonna. She has been extremely influential to women artists and is still relevant and emulated today.

    90’s – I can’t think of many acts that I can recall from the 90’s, but Nirvanna was definitely ground breaking.

    Today – Fall Out Boy for sure – maybe even Lady Gaga but that remains to be seen. Not many artists today have the staying power.

  4. Chuck

    I agree with you on everything but the ’70s and possibly the ’00s.

    I think Mark is right, and you let your personal biases influence your choice about the ’70s. To me, the band has to be Led Zeppelin. Zeppelin was the first band to make everything about rock music larger-than-life: the lifestyle, the excesses, the money, the touring (who had a personalized airplane before Zeppelin?), the parties, the sound, and of course, the songs. The fact that punk was a reaction against the excesses that Zeppelin created simply strengthens my argument: If Zeppelin hadn’t changed things so dramatically, punk wouldn’t have needed to react against it.

    With that said, I agree with the bands you included in your ’70s “Other possibilities” list, assuming you add KISS and Bowie.

    The 2000s are tricky. Maybe I’m out of touch with the non-musical parts of music, like what rock star’s look sells best at Hot Topic and how many people mourned Casey Calvert. I think White Stripes is missing from your “Other possibilities” category (and, based on our conversations, I assume that’s an oversight), but I don’t see any of Jack White’s bands having the cultural impact that people like Nirvana or MJ did. White Stripes almost reminds me more of Foo Fighters: everyone knows they’re a great band and they sell gazillions of copies, but people don’t look back and say “My life changed the first time I heard White Stripes,” the way they make similar comments about The Beatles or Elvis or Nirvana.

    I will throw Eminem’s name into the ring as another contender for the 2000s.

    Radiohead should be in the “Other possibilities” for the ’90s as well.

  5. bobvinyl Post author

    CLS,

    Remember we aren’t talking about the “best” or our “favorites” here. We’re not even talking strictly about record sales. It’s about changes in both music and culture. Kiss definitely qualifies. They may not have introduced marketing to rock music, but they certainly moved the focus from the music to the many other avenues of mainstream success.

    Probably everyone but you agrees that there is no real question about the 60s.

    Point well-taken about Madonna. She should probably be mentioned in the other possibilities column. I don’t think she trumps any of the others, but she also can’t be ignored. Lady Gaga is also an interesting point. She came along so late in the decade that she may end up being more of a contender in the 10s. Her importance remains to be seen.

  6. bobvinyl Post author

    Chuck,

    I think Kiss may have embodied the excesses of the 70s even more than Zeppelin. To boot, they didn’t back it up with anything worthy of the hype and they added the extreme marketing angle that has haunted rock for years. I’m leaning toward Kiss for the 70s.

    I think we both found the 2000s tricky. What FOB represents is certainly the major shift in music as both industry and culture, but they’ve already been forgotten. No one’s gonna buy their box set in 20 years and again in 40 years. They won’t be able to play stadiums all over the world with or without a release for which to tour. When they die, the news might not even mention it and they certainly won’t televise the funeral.

    I’m not sure I agree with Bowie and Eminem. What is your thinking behind their fundamental change?

    As we discussed last night, I wonder if Radiohead might be considered for the 2000s (despite being a 90s artist) due to the pay-what-you-will model of selling In Rainbows. They represent part of that same shift as FOB and they have staying power as well.

  7. Chuck

    Agree with CLS’ Lady Gaga comment. Madonna was the last pop artist who had so much potential to completely change the face of pop. If she has longevity, she’s going to be a force on par with Madonna and MJ.

  8. Chuck

    The biggest point against KISS is their music. KISS had a big cultural impact, but their music is simply a dumbed-down version of the hard rock / cock rock that Zeppelin and their peers brought to the mainstream. And unlike Elvis (or Nirvana, to a lesser degree), it’s not like hard rock / cock rock was simmering underground, waiting for a culturally appropriate voice to bring it to the masses. Hard rock didn’t need KISS, but KISS definitely needed hard rock to pull off what they wanted to do.

    After thinking through another credible challenger, I continue to stand with Zeppelin.

  9. Jeff

    The 50s, 60s and 90s are no-brainers. I agree with MJ being the artist of the decade for the 80s, although I think Madonna certainly gives him a run for his money. I would have to disagree with The Clash being the band of the 70s. While they certainly have their spot in history amongst the genre, I don’t think they defined the decade. If you were to ask the average person what band they most associated with the 70s, I think very few would even mention The Clash. Even though I have been very anti-Zep lately, I think they would have to be the band of the decade. If not them, then probably Pink Floyd, but I would have to say Zep is the band.

    Now, the 00s are extremely tough. There weren’t many artists/bands who really had the kind of lasting power that the aforementioned bands had. I don’t think Fall Out Boy is the band of the decade, and I definitely don’t think TV on the Radio should even be considered. In terms of rock, I think Emo and Indie were the two main sub-genres that dominated, but I don’t think that the 00s were really a decade of rock. If I were to pick a rock band for the decade I would have to say it would either be Death Cab for Cutie or The White Stripes. Maybe having been a college student during the huge indie explosion may give me a bias, but Death Cab were all the rage – especially with the boom of the internet and music. Anyway, back to the point that rock wasn’t a focal point of the 00s, I really struggled figuring out who was the artist of the decade. My fiancee believes Beyonce was the biggest. After thinking about it for awhile, I can’t really think of anyone better. I had initially thought maybe Britney Spears, but she fizzled out mid-decade. The boy bands were mainly the late 90s and didn’t really carry over into the 00s. So after this long winded comment, my picks would be:

    50s – Elvis
    60s – The Beatles
    70s – Led Zeppelin
    80s – Michael Jackson/Madonna (it’s a toss up)
    90s – Nirvana
    00s – Beyonce (I can’t believe there is nobody better)

  10. bobvinyl Post author

    With Zeppelin, I go back to asking, “What is the fundamental shift that they represent?” I marginally buy Chuck’s argument about the excess, but Kiss had the excess and the commercialization which I still think is bigger. I understand that their music wasn’t that great, but for some reason, they continue to resonate with generation after generation. There’s something big about them. Kiss was the band that sold us more than the music. That can’t be denied, because the music isn’t all that special and yet they keep coming back and cashing in over and over.

    Jeff, aside from sales, what makes you pick Beyonce? How has she shaped anything aside from her bank account? To me, she’s a pretty good, modern version of Diana Ross. That’s okay, but not a landscape changer. I’m a big fan of Jack White and DCfC, but I don’t see how they changed

    I’m not that convinced of my Fall Out Boy pick either. However, I am convinced that it represents that one significant change in music in the 2000s: the role of the internet in promotion and distribution. I think Radiohead’s release of In Rainbows could give them the title, but they seem more like a 90s band (that’s when they recorded their best material and the decade with which they’re associated). Perhaps the fact that I feel I have to pick between a band who is already largely forgotten and a band who’s really associated with the previous decade says a lot about the 2000s.

  11. Chuck

    One of the people I dismissed as a candidate for the ’00s might warrant deeper consideration: Danger Mouse. He touches on the role of the internet in promotion and distribution (The Grey Album was one of the most talked-about albums of the decade, and it wasn’t even officially released), and he contributed to some of the decade’s finer albums (Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz, etc). I don’t know that he really effected people the way the other artists on the list did, but his impact as both a musician and a “change agent” is undeniable.

    Bob, I understand that Kiss continues to resonate with new generations, but so does Zeppelin. You’re caught up in the fact that they had a powerful marketing machine behind them, but they were hardly the first to have that. The Monkees were all about selling product long before Kiss was, but I don’t see you arguing their merits. Kiss might have changed the music business, but every other band on this list changed music. Kiss didn’t change music. Zeppelin did.

  12. Chuck

    Oh, and as for your question as to what fundamental shift Zeppelin represents, I’ve got two words for you: heavy metal.

  13. Jeff

    Bob, I’m looking at this from the point of view of who we will most associate with the decade many years from now. I think if you were going to focus on changing the landscape then I would make the case that the Sex Pistols and Ramones deserve to be ahead of The Clash.

    I don’t even know if you can associate a band/artist with changing the landscape of music for the 00s. There were countless bands who utilized the internet to leap into the spotlight. If we were to focus on rock, maybe the case should be made that the Internet / Napster / Pitchfork / MySpace were the most important musical linchpins of the decade, more than any band, because I think they will be remembered more than the bands who they helped bring fame to.

    Beyonce may not have done anything unique, but she represents this decade possibly better than any other artist. Pop was the genre of the 00s and she was Pop’s biggest powerhouse – especially when evaluating the 00s as a whole. Bands/artists that were driven by the internet like Fall Out Boy, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Bright Eyes, Danger Mouse, etc will all be distant memories in ten years. I think in ten/twenty/thirty years from now we will still remember Beyonce. She was a musical and pop culture icon that was probably bigger than anybody else.

  14. Sean

    50s Elvis Presley – Sure, though in terms of writing it’s Chuck Berry, hands down. It is a crime that out of all those great records Berry turned out in the 50s, racism kept each and every one of them from hitting the top of the charts.
    60s The Beatles- Definitely.
    70s Led Zeppelin owned the 1970s. The Clash are one of my favorite groups, though they didn’t make a truly definitive album until 1979’s London Calling. Had they carried on beyond Combat Rock with Jones still on board, they may have been contenders for the title in the 80’s
    80s Michael Jackson- This was a truly putrid decade for music. Thriller could do little but stand pretty tall amongst the fluff. There were positive developments in terms of some artists, but too much garbage in my opinion.
    90’s Nirvana- Absolutely. I was 24 when this really hit big. All I remember is a great sense of relief that someone made an exciting record which stirred the part of my brain that originally sparked my obsession with music. Bad hair metal, awful dance music, watered down hip-hop and truly sickening ballads by no-hopers and one hit wonders clogged the charts at that time. Nirvana dropped on all of that crap like a boulder on a box of sugar donuts.
    00’s Radiohead- Breaking away from turgid, paint by numbers sludge, they have continued to make challenging music without hype (KId A rang in the 2000’s with style) and were at the forefront of the “pay what you feel it’s worth” movement, bringing In Rainbows straight to the net in 2008. These guys are leaders, not followers.

    It is all quite subjective in the end. Great list and an excellent topic, sir.

  15. Perplexio

    For the 70s, I’d argue for Chicago or Three Dog Night over The Clash. From a socio-cultural standpoint in the 70s both of them constantly had songs playing on the radio throughout that decade. I’m not referring to their lasting impact on music so much as their ubiquitous presence in people’s lives due to the heavy rotation in which their music was played in that era.

    If you’re looking at it from a more musical perspective I’d argue for Pink Floyd. While they formed in 1967 (incidentally so did Chicago, but that’s neither here nor there) they really didn’t find their sound and come into their own until after Syd Barrett’s departure and David Gilmour’s emergence in the band. Their best material was all released in the 70s– Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, and The Wall. And heck Dark Side of the Moon alone should get Floyd on the top of the list, let alone those other albums!

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