When Was Pop Music at Its Worst? 1986, Apparently. (It’s SCIENCE!)

I have vivid, vivid memories of 1986. I was working at an adult contemporary radio station in Winnipeg that specialized in playing the most mainstream pop dreck of the day. Whitney Houston. Lionel Ritchie. Peter Cetera. To underscore my point, here’s the top 100 Billboard singles from that year:

  1. “That’s What Friends Are For”/Dionne Warwick and Friends
  2. “Say You, Say Me”/Lionel Ritchie
  3. “I Miss You”/Klymaxx
  4. “On My Own”/Patti LaBell and Michael McDonald
  5. “Broken Wings”/Mr. Mister
  6. “Party All the Time”/Eddie Murphy
  7. “Kyrie”/Mr. Mister
  8. “Addicted to Love”/Robert Palmer

I think I’ve made my point. By September of that year I’d had enough and bolted for CFNY in Toronto. The station saved my life.

And it wasn’t my imagination. Music really WAS extra-awful in 1986.  According to a new study of 17,000 songs, that year was a low point in creativity and a high point in boredom. Too many drum machines and overuse of synthesizers led to too many similar-sounding songs.

The study also shows that there were three big revolutions  in pop music over fifty years.

  • 1964: The rise of guitar-based rock bands by the Beatles populated by members who wrote and performed their own songs.
  • 1986: The era of endless drum machines leading to a world that sounded like Duran Duran.
  • 1991: Hip hop enters the pop charts in a big way.

Since I love examining cycles in music (go here to read me pontificate on the 13-year cycle and here to learn about the 12-year music-and-technology cycle), I’m fascinated by this kind of data interpretation.

The next question is “What will be the next thing to trigger a revolution in sound?” Not consumer behavior. Not technology such as smart phones and streaming. But the sound of rock and pop music. Thoughts?

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

6 thoughts on “When Was Pop Music at Its Worst? 1986, Apparently. (It’s SCIENCE!)

  • May 6, 2015 at 10:33 am

    Both 1985 and 1986 were terrible for rock music. The lull slowly way to the pop/hair thing, (Poison, Bon Jovi) and rock radio was saddled with bad solo records from Robert Plant, collaborations like The Power Station (interesting), and Mike & the Mechanics (regrettable). Meanwhile, REM and INXS were still in the mainstream incubator. Van Halen introduced Sammy Hagar; forever polarizing fans. It’s also important to note that this lull allowed for the commercial breakthrough for RUN DMC and the Beastie Boys.

    Thankfully there was survival music from Peter Gabriel, Dire Straits, Pet Shop Boys, and the Smithereens.

  • May 6, 2015 at 11:49 am

    To me it was the end of a cycle when the originality inspired by punk, and then MTV, had fully run its course and devolved into commercially driven pop. Sill, there were a few gems that continue to resonate with me… Lifes Rich Pageant, Crowded House, Candy Apple Grey, London 0 Hull 4, Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, Guitar Town, Graceland, Licensed to Ill and The Queen is Dead. I will even admit in my old age to occasionally liking the odd track from Slippery When Wet.

  • May 6, 2015 at 2:10 pm

    I don’t disagree that there was a lot of real garbage during the mid 80’s, but I can’t believe 86 was the lowest point ever. Does no-one else remember just how truly awful the early to mid 70’s were? In the UK the charts were lousy with manufactured bands playing the most bland generic “music” (usually done by session musicians with pretty boys who could neither play, nor sing out front) aimed at the pre-pubescent female market.

    And to Dan Hill’s point, this is why we ended up with what could be argued as the biggest revolution in music in the last forty years – missed out from the above list– that of Punk Rock. It may have been the end of the cycle in 86, but it could also be seen as the beginning of the next cycle in rock that lead to Grunge and beyond

  • May 6, 2015 at 5:37 pm

    I think we’re pretty close to the mid 80’s sound right now with the likes and sound-alikes of Mumford, Of Monsters and the London Grammar type sound (even looks like an 80’s band).
    What about autotune? It’s the drum machine of the 2000’s.

    I would agree the mid 70’s was pretty awful for pop, made worse visually by satin jumpsuits and patchwork jean hats.

  • May 7, 2015 at 4:42 am

    The whole irony is that 1986 was followed by a juggernaut year in music. 1987 had some monster albums by U2, Bon Jovi, INXS, Beastie Boys, R.E.M., Def Leppard, Whitesnake. Oh yeah…and a debut album by some band called Guns N’ Roses

  • June 4, 2015 at 7:42 pm

    It could be argued that Mumford, Avett Brothers, Civil Wars, etc. ushered in a new cycle as a reaction to the over-produced, auto-tuned stuff on pop radio, but I’m still not certain that the “new folk” sound will leave any kind of lasting impression. Mumford has already moved on and I expect the others will as well. I have no idea what’s next but I’d be willing to bet that some 13 year old kid in New York or London or Tokyo is already on it.


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