Do you know what the definition of new wave music is? Chances are, if you were born in or after the 1980s, you might not be entirely sure. After all, the term “new wave” is a little outdated now. But even if the name is fuzzy, the sound isn't. Below, we'll give you a primer on what new wave music is, and then we'll dive into some iconic new wave music and musicians. Ready to learn more?
What is New Wave Music?
New Wave music is a style that emerged in the late 1970s and became popular in the 1980s. It's a mix of punk, pop, and electronic music, with a DIY aesthetic. New Wave bands often used synthesizers to create new sounds, and they were influenced by artists like David Bowie and Roxy Music.
New Wave Music Characteristics
New Wave music emerged in the 1970s as a reaction against the stagnant sound of mainstream rock. The energy and DIY aesthetic of punk rock inspired New Wave artists. However, these artists also incorporated disco, pop, and electronic music elements. As a result, New Wave songs often featured catchy hooks and danceable rhythms.
However, the lyrics often dealt with more serious topics than those of traditional pop songs, such as alienation, government corruption, and social injustice. In addition, New Wave bands often made use of unusual instrumentation, including synthesizers, drum machines, and multi-tracking.
As a result of these innovative approaches, New Wave music had a wide-ranging impact on popular culture and helped to shape the sound of subsequent generations of pop music.
9 Examples of New Wave Music
Today, the term ”new wave” describes various musical genres, from synth-pop to indie rock. Here are some prime examples of this iconic sound:
1. “Psycho Killer,” by The Talking Heads
The song “Psycho Killer” was released in 1977 by the American band The Talking Heads. The song became an instant classic, known for its catchy hook and dark lyrics. The song is about a killer who is on the run from the police. The lyrics paint a picture of a cold-blooded killer enjoying the thrill of the chase.
Many artists have covered the song, which has been used in countless movies and TV shows. The Talking Heads were one of the most innovative and influential bands of their generation, and “Psycho Killer” is one of their most famous and enduring songs.
2. “Whip It,” by Devo
Devo's “Whip It” is one of those songs that's instantly recognizable, even if you can't name the band or the album it's from. The song's simple, catchy hook and amazing video helped to make it a 1980s classic. The song is built around a simple guitar riff and features an iconic synthesizer solo.
The lyrics are obtuse but seem to be about the pressure to conform to societal norms. The song has been frequently covered and parodied and has become a pop culture phenomenon. The song has since been used in countless commercials, movies, and TV shows.
Even though it's been more than 40 years since the song was released, “Whip It” still has the power to get people up and dancing.
3. “Heart of Glass,” by Blondie
As the lead single from Blondie’s third studio album, “Heart of Glass” launched onto the UK Singles Chart and became the band's first US platinum-selling single. Critics and fans have described the song as having an “electro-disco feel,” and it is considered one of the band's signature songs.
Due to its popularity and unique sound, “Heart of Glass” has been covered by numerous artists, including reggae singer Patti LaBelle, country music singer Linda Ronstadt, and R&B singer Alicia Keys.
4. “Rock Lobster,” by the B-52s
The B-52s are one of the most iconic American bands of the 1980s, thanks partly to their unique sound and quirky sense of humor. “Rock Lobster” is one of their most well-known songs, and it perfectly encapsulates their whimsical approach to music.
Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson wrote the song, and a real-life experience at the beach inspired it. The single was a surprise hit, reaching the Top 40 in the US and becoming one of the band’s most enduring classics. “Rock Lobster” remains a staple of classic rock radio, and it continues to delight fans with its catchy hooks and weirdo charm.
5. “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” by the Police
The song “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by the Police is a song about forbidden love, specifically a teacher-student romance. The lyrics tell the story of a man attracted to a young woman much younger than him.
The narrator knows it is wrong but can’t help how he feels. The song has a catchy melody and features some of singer Sting’s trademark wit. It was a huge hit when released in 1980, and it continues to be popular today.
6. “Major Tom (Coming Home),” by Peter Schilling
“Major Tom (Coming Home)” by Peter Schilling is a 1980s pop song about an astronaut who gets lost in space. The song became a hit in Germany and Austria and has been covered by numerous artists over the years.
While the song is ostensibly about space exploration, it has been interpreted as having a broader message about human isolation and alienation. In particular, the line ” ground control to Major Tom, your circuit's dead, there's something wrong” has been seen as a comment on the emptiness of modern life.
Whether you interpret the song as being about space exploration or human loneliness, it is undeniably catchy and memorable. And that, perhaps, is its greatest strength.
7. “Video Killed the Radio Star,” by The Buggles
Often cited as the first-ever music video, “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles was released in 1979, at the dawn of the MTV era, and its lyrics reflect the new medium’s impact on the music industry. The song’s narrator bemoans the fact that writhe rise of music videos has led to the decline of radio as a platform for music discovery.
The song quickly became a global sensation and, in the years since its release, has come to be seen as a prophetic anthem for the age of digital technology.
8. “In a Big Country,” by Big Country
The song “In a Big Country” was an instant hit when Scottish new wave band Big Country released it in 1983. The lyrics tell the story of a young man leaving his home in Scotland to seek his fortune in America. The song is notable for its use of traditional Scottish instrumentation, including the Highland bagpipes.
The lyrics of the song are also very unusual, referring to both personal relationships and political unrest. Despite its success, In a Big Country was not included in the band's debut album.
“In a Big Country” was nominated for a Grammy Award and has been covered by numerous artists over the years. Today, it remains one of Big Country's most popular songs.
9. “Girls on Film,” by Duran Duran
“Girls on Film” is a new wave song by Duran Duran, released in 1981. The song was the third single from the band's debut album, Duran Duran, and was a top 10 hit in the UK, peaking at number five on the UK Singles Chart. The new wave synth-pop track is characterized by its catchy melody and playful lyrics.
The video for “Girls on Film” was even more iconic, featuring scantily-clad models and dancers in a highly stylized setting. While the video was controversial at the time, it helped to cement the band's reputation as fashion trendsetters.
5 Top New Wave Musicians
New wave artists experiment with new sounds and styles, resulting in a fresh and exciting genre that continues to evolve today. Here are five top new wave musicians worth checking out:
1. The Talking Heads
The Talking Heads were an American new wave band formed in 1975 in New York City and active until 1991. The group released their debut album, Talking Heads: 77, in 1977 to critical acclaim. The album spawned the band's first hit single, “Psycho Killer.”
The band's fourth album, 1980's Remain in Light, cemented its reputation as one of the most innovative and interesting new wave bands around. The album featured a more electronic sound and was supported by the singles “Once in a Lifetime” and “Burning Down the House.”
The Talking Heads continued to experiment with their sound on subsequent albums, incorporating elements of world music and pop until they disbanded in the early 90s.
2. The Police
Formed by Sting, Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland, The Police grew to popularity globally in the late 1970s and early 1980s with unforgettable, unique hits like “Roxanne,” “Every Breath You Take,” and “Message in a Bottle.” The group blended various genres, including reggae, rock, funk, and jazz, into the new wave sound they are known for.
The Police disbanded around 1984, but they have reunited several times since then. In 2003, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
3. The B-52’s
The B-52s are a new wave band that formed in Athens, Georgia, in 1976. The band’s original lineup consisted of Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson, and Ricky Wilson. The group’s name comes from a beehive hairdo resembling the nose of a B-52 bomber. The B-52s are best known for their hit songs “Rock Lobster” and “Love Shack.”
In 1985, Ricky Wilson died of complications from AIDS, and the band took a hiatus. They returned in 1989 with new guitarist Keith Strickland and released the album Cosmic Thing. The B-52s continue to tour and perform today.
Formed in 1974, Devo is an American new wave band originally consisting of brothers Gerald and Bob Casale, along with Mark Mothersbaugh. The band's name comes from the theory of “devolution,” which posits that humans are regressing instead of evolving.
Devo's music is often quirky and sarcastic, with themes of de-evolution, technology, and society. The band was one of the first to use synthesizers in new wave music, and their use of video footage and early music videos helped to popularize the format.
Blondie was one of the most successful new wave bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The band released six studio albums and had a string of hits, including “Call Me” and “The Tide Is High,” throughout their career,
The group's third album, “Parallel Lines” (1978), is their best-known and most successful work. It contains the hit single “Heart of Glass,” which helped to break Blondie into the mainstream.
In 2006, Blondie got inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Today, Blondie remains an influential force in popular music, with its distinctive blend of new wave, punk, and pop still sounding fresh and exciting.
The History of New Wave Music
New wave music emerged in the late 1970s as artists eschewed the traditional rock sound in favor of a more experimental approach, incorporating punk, disco, and pop elements.
Some of the most popular New Wave bands include Talking Heads, Blondie, and The Police. New Wave music was often characterized by its use of synthesizers and electronic instruments, as well as its eclectic mix of styles.
While the genre initially met some resistance from older generations of rock fans, New Wave soon found its audience among rebellious teenagers and young adults. In the 1980s, New Wave evolved into a catch-all term for anything new and different in the pop music world.
What is New Wave Music? Final Thoughts
Whether you’re a fan of new wave or not, there’s no denying its influence on modern music. If you want to hear more about this fascinating genre, check out the examples we’ve given and the five top new wave musicians we’ve mentioned above.