20 Events That Changed Pop Music

01
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1887 - Invention Of the Gramophone

Gramaphone
Gramaphone. Photo by Hulton Archive / Getty Images

 The first machine that could record sound waves as they moved through the air was the phonoautograph invented in 1857 by French bookseller Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville.  A number of other devices, methods, and media for recording followed, but it was not until Emile Berliner patented the gramophone in 1887 that sound began to be recorded on discs that would soon be mass produced for listening at home.  Until the increasing popularity of digital sound files around 2000, discs remained the most popular form of mass production and sales of recorded music.

The recordings created by the phonoautograph were intended only for visual study of sound waves and were produced in soot coated paper by variations in air pressure caused by sound.  They were not intended in playback.  In 1878, Thomas Edison perfected the phonograph.  His device created grooves on a cylinder coated with substances such as tin foil, lead, or wax.  The recording was played back by tracing a needle through the grooves and amplifying the vibrations produced back into sound.  However, it was extremely difficult to manufacture copies of these early recordings.

In 1887 German inventor Emile Berliner introduced the gramophone.  It used flat discs as the media for recordings.  These discs were much easier and cheaper to mass produce than cylinder recordings.  However, cylinders continued to compete with discs until Thomas Edision ceased production of cylinders in 1929.  

The earliest record label to market disc records was Berliner Gramophone which began selling five inch discs, the size of today's compact disc, in 1889.  By 1894 seven inch records were introduced and Berliner's American production companies eventually became the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901.  It was purchased by RCA in 1929.  Emile Berliner founded his classical music label Deutsche Grammophon Records in 1898.  It continues today.

Some of the earliest popular recording artists include John Philip Sousa's Band, African-American singer George W. Johnson, white pioneer singer Arthur Collins, and vaudeville star Billy Murray.

02
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1942 - Frank Sinatra and the Bobby Soxers

Frank Sinatra Signing Autographs
Frank Sinatra Signing Autographs. Photo by Gene Lester / Getty Images

In the summer of 1939, 23 year old Frank Sinatra was signed to a $75 a week contract by bandleader Harry James. 10 records were released throughout the rest of the year but none of them achieved major popularity.  By the end of the year, Frank Sinatra had been asked to join Tommy Dorsey and Harry James released him from his contract.  In July of 1940 the song "I'll Never Smile Again" by Tommy Dorsey with Frank Sinatra became a 12 week #1 hit.  The mass popularity of singer Frank Sinatra had begun.

It can be argued that teen idols existed before Frank Sinatra.  The death of film star Rudolph Valentino in 1926 reportedly cause mass hysteria among his young female fans.  1920s singing star Rudy Vallee was mobbed by flappers everywhere he went, and sometimes he could barely be heard at his sold out performances drowned out by the screams of female fans. However, it is Frank Sinatra and his fans known as bobby soxers that created the model that would be repeated over and over by idols of teen pop fans over the next half century and beyond.

The typical bobby soxer was a female between ages 12 and 25.  Bobby socks date to the late 1920s when it became fashionable for women to show their ankles.  The socks are rolled down to form a thick cuff at ankle height.  These fashionable girls and young women were the core audience for Frank Sinatra.

Hordes of screaming female fans seemed to follow Frank Sinatra wherever he went.  When he opened at New York's Paramount Theater on December 30, 1942, comedian Jack Benny is quoted as remembering, "I thought the goddamned building was going to cave in. I never heard such a commotion."  A piece by the Paley Center for Media states, "In October 1944, outsiders did not understand why girls were in line outside of the Paramount Theatre at 3:00 am, hours and hours before the box office opened, in defiance of New York City's juvenile curfew, to hear a common-looking balladeer sing a commonplace love song like 'All or Nothing at All.' Theater ushers were not trained to handle the girls who swooned inside or outside the theater...Who could have predicted that a throng of girls would smash windows, trample passersby, and even, according to one report, overturn a car?"

By the end of the 1940s Frank Sinatra's appeal to teenagers had declined. However, it seemed to set in place an endless appetite among young female fans for the next round of teen idols. The excited screaming of teen fans for their favorite singers has become a core component of pop music.

03
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1954 - Elvis Presley Records At Sun Studios

Elvis Presley Recording In the Studio
Elvis Presley Recording In the Studio. Photo by Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Elvis Presley played an indispensable role in moving mainstream pop music from domination by pop standards and novelty songs to rock and roll as the key driving force.  Elvis Presley first visited the Sun Records offices in Memphis, Tennessee in August 1953.  He paid for enough studio time to record a two-sided acetate of "My Happiness" and "That's When Your Heartaches Begin."  However, nothing significant resulted from this visit other than Sun Records owner Sam Phillips instructing his receptionist Marion Keisker to make a note about the young singer.  She wrote, "Good ballad singer. Hold."

In January 1954 Elvis Presley recorded again at Sun Records, but again nothing came of the results. However, Sam Phillips was continually on the lookout for a singer who could bring the sound of black musicians to a broader white audience.  He invited the 19 year old Elvis Presley back to the studio in the summer of 1954.  Late in the evening of July 5, 1954, he launched into a version of Arthur Crudup's 1946 blues song "That's All Right."  Guitarist Scotty Moore remembers, "All of a sudden, Elvis just started singing this song, jumping around and acting the fool, and then Bill (Black) picked up his bass, and he started acting the fool, too, and I started playing with them."  

Watch Elvis Presley perform "That's Alright Mama"

Three days later Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played "That's All Right" on his radio show.  The trio of Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore, and Bill Black performed live for the first time on July 17, 1954.  Elvis Presley's trademark leg shaking was developed as a combination of his natural response to performing R&B music and being nervous on stage.  Young girls screamed watching his movements.  

Elvis Presley did not have instant commercial success, but he was on his way and his style of rockabilly merged with R&B would soon help revolutionize pop music.  He first reached national music charts in the summer of 1955 when "Baby Let's Play House" reached #5 on the country chart.  In the spring of 1956 "Heartbreak Hotel" went to #1 on the Billboard pop chart and Elvis Presley was a pop star.

04
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1959 - Motown Records Founded

Motown Artists
Motown Artists. Photo by Michael Webb / Getty Images

Motown founder Berry Gordy got his start in the music business as a songwriter for local Detroit musicians including legendary singer Jackie Wilson.  He co-wrote and produced Jackie Wilson's 1958 single "Lonely Teardrops."  The song topped the R&B chart and hit the top 10 on the pop chart.  The money Berry Gordy earned from the succes of "Lonely Teardrops" was used to start Tamla Records. It would become a primariy subsidiary for the Motown Records umbrella.  The first single released on the actual Motown label was the Miracles' 1959 single "Bad Girl." 

William "Smokey" Robinson, lead vocalist of the Miracles, became the vice president of Motown Records under Berry Gordy.  In 1959 Berry Gordy purchased the property at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit that would become the location of the "Hitsville USA" recording studio.  Within seven years Motown would occupy seven more houses in the area.  By the end of 1966, the label employed 450 people and grossed $20 million.

Motown adopted the slogan, "The Sound Of Young America."  In 1961 Motown had its first #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, "Please Mr. Postman" by the Marvelettes.  In the following decade the label released more than 100 top 10 hits.  Motown became known for creating what was known as the "Motown Sound."  It was a blend of R&B, pop arrangements and songwriting, as well as gospel-influenced vocals. Motown also used a tight knit group of studio musicians for the majority of the 1960s recordings.  They were collectively known as the "Funk Brothers."  The Motown style had major influence on the direction of both pop and R&B music.  

Watch the Marvelettes perform "Please Mr. Postman."

Motown relocated to Los Angeles in 1972, and the label saw its influence and commercial success slowly fade through the rest of the decade.  Motown has continued to generate hits through the years, but has never returned to its glory days.  After a period of being folded into the Universal Motown Republic Group, Motown was reborn as a separate label in 2012.

05
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1964 - The Beatles Land In New York

Beatles and Airplane
Beatles and Airplane. Photo by Evening Standard / Getty Images

The Beatles first reached the UK pop top 40 with the single "Love Me Do" released in the fall of 1962.  It was a #17 hit.  It was followed by "Please Please Me" in early 1963 which climbed all the way to #2 and made the Beatles into pop stars at home.  A US release of the song generated little interest.  "From Me To You," the next single, released in April of 1963, went to #1 in the UK as Beatlemania began to take hold.  When "She Loves You" was released in August 1963, it became the fastest selling single of all time in the UK.

In December 1963 the marketing of the Beatles in the US began in earnest.  "I Want To Hold Your Hand" was released by Capitol Records the day after Christmas 1963.  Pop radio interest spread quickly and the demand for the song was so high that Capitol contracted with RCA and Columbia to press additional copies of the single.  By February 1, 1964 the Beatles had their first #1 pop hit in the US.  The new pop sensations were booked to perform live on the Ed Sullivan Show February 9, 1964, and they set out to land in New York February 7, 1964.

The Ed Sullivan Show was one of the country's most popular variety shows.  It had already played a legendary role in pop music by broadcasting performances from Elvis Presley.  In late 1963 host Ed Sullivan happened to be passing through London's Heathrow airport when he encountered frenzied Beatles fans awaiting the group's return from Stockholm, Sweden.  After negotiations with the group's manager Brian Epstein, he booked the group to perform on three consecutive Sunday nights in February 1964.  

Watch the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show

When the Beatles landed at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City on February 7, 1964, pop music in the US was changed forever.  The group would become the most influential pop act of the 1960s and well beyond.  On February 9, 1964 they played five songs on the Ed Sullivan Show for a TV audience estimated at more than 70 million.  By April 4, 1964, all of the top five songs on the Billboard pop chart in the US were Beatles songs.  No other recording artist has ever come close to that peak of popularity.

06
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1965 - Bob Dylan Goes Electric

Bob Dylan Playing Electric Guitar
Bob Dylan Playing Electric Guitar. Photo by Agence France Presse

Bob Dylan helped spearhead the emergence of folk music into the pop mainstream in the early 1960s. He was not only one of the genre's top performers, but also a key songwriter whose work was performed by many other artists.  However, by the end of 1963 he was beginning to feel tension with many in both the folk and political protest movements.  His album Bringing It All Back Home released in April 1965 would become both one of his most celebrated artistic achievements and in some quarters most reviled.

Side one of Bringing It All Back Home uses a full electronic backing band on the recordings.  It was the result of a fusion of folk and rock that Bob Dylan had been working on for some time.  The second side of the album remained entirely acoustic, but the artist's electronic experimentation would change rock and pop music forever.  Bringing It All Back Home is hailed as one of the most influential albums of all time, and it arguably created the entire folk-rock genre which later produced the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young among many other artists.

Bob Dylan was booked as a headliner at the Newport Folk Festival of 1965.  The festival had become an acclaimed event for introducing top folk artists to a larger audience.  Bob Dylan performed at the festival in both 1963 and 1964.  On July 20, 1965, five days before the Newport Folk Festival headline performance, Bob Dylan released his celebrated rock single "Like a Rolling Stone."   He appeared at a Newport workshop on July 24, 1965 and played three acoustic songs.  Reportedly, Bob Dylan made a spontaneous decision on that day to challenge the Newport Folk Festival's traditions and perform with a full electronic band the following day.

Two key musicians from the "Like a Rolling Stone" recording sessions joined Bob Dylan on stage July 25, 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival.  They were Mike Bloomfield on guitar and Al Kooper on organ. Three songs were performed including "Like a Rolling Stone" among both cheers and boos before the band left the stage. After pleas for him to play more, Bob Dylan returned to the stage to play acoustic versions of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" completing his last Newport Folk Festival performance for 37 years.

Watch Bob Dylan at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival

Controversy remains over whether the booing at the Newport Folk Festival was due to anger at the electronic music or simply displeasure with sound system problems and the short length of the set. However, Bob Dylan himself seemed to believe it was frustration with the electronic music.  He gave an interview late in the year in which he said, "I mean, they must be pretty rich, to be able to go some place and boo. I couldn't afford it if I was in their shoes."  Whether or not the complaints were about Bob Dylan "going electric," for the next two years controversies raged throughout his audience at concerts in which he played some songs acoustic and some electric, and the "purity" of folk music in the mainstream pop arena had come to an end.

07
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1969 - Woodstock

Woodstock Crowd
Woodstock Crowd. Photo by Ralph Ackerman / Getty Images

Music festivals were already a key part of pop music history before Woodstock.  The Newport Folk Festival had seen the debut of "electric" Bob Dylan and 1967's Monterey Pop Festival anchored California's "Summer Of Love."  However, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair took things to an entirely different level drawing 400,000 people to hear 32 bands over the four days August 15-18, 1969.

Woodstock was initially planned as a significantly smaller event, and, in fact, only approximately 186,000 advance tickets were sold with organizers expecting a total of approximately 200,000 in attendance.  The festival took place at Max Yasgur's 600 acre farm in the Catskills in upstate New York actually over 40 miles away from the town of Woodstock.  Once organizers realized how large the crowd would be, a last minute decision was made to tear down fences around the venue and turn Woodstock into a free music festival.

The list of performers read like a who's who of late 1960s rock.  Creedence Clearwater Revival, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, and the Band are just a few of the acts who took the stage to perform for the massive crowd.  The Beatles, Doors, and Led Zeppelin were all reportedly invited to perform, but turned down invitations for various reasons. One of the most celebrated performances of the festival was delivered by the Who.  They were originally scheduled to perform at 10 p.m. on Saturday night, but they did not actually take the stage until 5 a.m. Sunday morning.  The Who performed nearly all of the rock opera Tommy. Political activist Abbie Hoffman interrupted the set and was thrown off the stage by Pete Townshend.  The sun rose as the group played "See Me Feel Me."  Despite the group members saying otherwise, the Who's Woodstock performance is considered a high water mark for late 1960s rock.

Watch the Who perform "See Me Feel Me" at Woodstock.

Despite the potential for crime and violence with such a massive crowd, Woodstock took place in an atmosphere of relative peace and even joy.  Two people died during the festival.  One was a victim of heroin abuse and the other mistakenly run over by a tractor. Despite these, the festival is seen as a major triumph of the peace and love generation.  The event was filmed and a feature length documentary was released in 1970.  Titled simply Woodstock it received an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and was a boxoffice success earning $50 million.

The tragically violent Altamont Free Concert in December 1969 is seen as a disturbing historical coda to the success of Woodstock.  However, the legacy of Woodstock is that large music festivals remain a significant part of pop music to this day.  Today, CoachellaBonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and many others are the spiritual descendants of the spirit of peace and love on the four days of Woodstock. 

08
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1970 - American Top 40 Is Born

American Top 40 logo
American Top 40 Logo.

On the July 4, 1970 weekend, American Top 40 debuted on seven radio stations.  It was a weekly show that counted down the 40 biggest pop hits in the US.  Hosted by Casey Kasem, the show would soon provide an introduction to the world of pop music charts for millions of music fans around the world.  Many music industry professionals can trace their first fascination with pop music to the weekly countdown show that gave insight into the workings of the Billboard charts.

Radio personality Casey Kasem collaborated with broadcast producer Don Bustany to create American Top 40.  Don Bustany wrote and directed the show while Casey Kasem served as the host. It began as a three hour program and then expanded to four hours in October, 1978 as the average length of hit singles continued to increase.  By the early 1980s American Top 40 was played on 520 radio stations across the US and in 50 different countries around the world.

During the course of a weekly American Top 40 show, Casey Kasem delivered a wide range of information and trivia about the songs and artists that appeared on that week's chart.  He also announced #1 hits on other Billboard charts and, for a period from 1978 through 1981, presented past #1 pop hits from the "AT40 Archives."  Casey Kasem also presented "Long Distance Dedications" that involved a letter sent in from a listener wanting a song played dedicated to a significant person in their life.

In 1988 Casey Kasem left the show in a dispute with ABC and he was replaced by Shadoe Stevens. Casey Kasem produced his own show titled Casey's Top 40 in competition with American Top 40. The Shadoe Stevens era came to an end when American Top 40 was cancelled in 1995.  After acquiring the rights to the American Top 40 name, Casey Kasem resurrected the show in 1998.  He passed on the hosting duties to Ryan Seacrest in 2004 who continues to headline the show.

The primary legacy of American Top 40 dates to the first Casey Kasem era before the existence of the Internet to give wider access to weekly music charts.  When American Top 40 began, many pop fans heard new hit songs for the first time on the weekly show if their local radio station had not yet added the song to their playlist.  The show kept millions of pop music fans informed of up to the minute workings of the music industry.

09
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1971 - Carole King's 'Tapestry'

Carole King - Tapestry
Carole King - Tapestry. Courtesy Ode

Today it is hard to imagine how female pop artists were viewed before Carole King's landmark 1971 album Tapestry.  There were plenty of female singers that were seen as reliable hitmakers stretching back to the days of Patti Page.  However, they were rarely seen as capable of putting together artistically coherent albums in the manner of Bob Dylan or even Frank Sinatra.  

Carole King was a very successful Brill Building songwriter in the 1960s.  Her legendary partnership with husband Gerry Goffin produced such hits as Little Eva's "The Loco-Motion," the Drifters' "Up On the Roof," and the Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday."  Carole King had recorded her first single as an artist in 1958, but she did not pursue a career as a performer again until after divorcing Gerry Goffin in 1968.

Following her divorce, Carole King moved to Los Angeles' Laurel Canyon and quickly became part of the legendary music community there.  She met James Taylor and Joni Mitchell as well as songwriting collaborator Toni Stern which inspired her to work on her own records.  The first release was the 1970 album Writer.  It included a new recording of "Up On the Roof" and James Taylor appeared as a guest musician, but the project received little attention. 

Carole King's Top 10 Songs

For Tapestry, Carole King worked with legendary producer Lou Adler.  James Taylor encouraged her to record some of her past songs including the Aretha Franklin hit "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" and the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" both written with Gerry Goffin.  The memorable album cover was shot at Carole King's Laurel Canyon home.  

Upon release Tapestry instantly began spinning off hit songs.  "It's Too Late" went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.  "You've Got a Friend" was recorded by both Carole King and James Taylor, and the latter took it to #1 on the charts.  "So Far Away" was a top 20 hit for Carole King, and Barbra Streisand covered "Where You Lead" taking it to the top 3 on the adult contemporary chart.  Tapestry was praised by critics for its warmth and intimacy.  It went to #1 on the album chart and spent 15 weeks there.  That remained the longest reigning #1 album by a female solo artist until Whitney Houston spent 20 weeks at the top with the soundtrack to The Bodyguard in 1993.  Tapestry has spent a total of more than 300 weeks on the Billboard album chart which is still the record for a female solo artist.

Watch Carole King sing "It's Too Late"

Carole King's colleagues also heaped praise on the Tapestry album.  It won four Grammy Awards including Album Of the Year.  "You've Got a Friend" was named Song Of the Year making Carole King the first solo female to win that award. Tapestry was selected by the National Recording Registry among the first 100 recordings to be preserved as, "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important." Tapestry not only changed the way solo female pop artists were viewed, but it also alerted the music industry to the musical power of the singer-songwriter movement of the early 1970s.

10
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1974 - "Rock the Boat" Kicks Off the Disco Era

Hues Corporation - Rock the Boat
Hues Corporation - "Rock the Boat". Courtesy RCA

There is no consensus on how or where the genre known as disco began.  What is clear is there were rumblings of a new kind of dance oriented pop music as early as 1970.  David Mancuso's seminal private parties called The Loft began in February 1970 and introduced innovations in presentation of songs and speaker technology that would eventually give rise to the first disco clubs.  Isaac Hayes' legendary 1971 hit "Theme From Shaft" is considered by many to be one of the earliest disco records. Cameroon artist Manu Dibango released "Soul Makossa," another early disco styled record, in 1972 and, with support from David Mancuso, it quickly became popular in New York City.

Disco was heavily influenced by funk, soul, and Latin music.  One of the most distinctive elements of disco music was a uniformly accented, steady, four on the floor beat.  Early disco made liberal use of orchestral instruments and the hi-hat cymbal. Disco also adopted electronic instruments such as synthesizers very early on.

A series of songs with elements of early disco hit #1 on the pop chart from 1973 through early 1974 including the O'Jays' "Love Train," Eddie Kendricks' "Keep On Truckin'," and the Love Unlimited Orchestra's "Love's Theme."  However many agree that the first disco record to top the Billboard Hot 100 climbed to the top in the summer of 1974.  California based pop and soul trio the Hues Corporation recorded "Rock the Boat" in 1973.  In 1974, with support of disco clubs, the song took off nationally and it reached #1 in July.  The disco era had begun.   

Watch the Hues Corporation perform "Rock the Boat"

Billboard kicked off its Disco Action chart in October of 1974.  Disco's popularity continued to rise in the pop mainstream until the release of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack in late 1977 made disco the predominant genre in pop music.  However, a backlash soon followed.  Anti-disco sentiment reached a peak in July 1979 with the Disco Demolition Night demonstration at Chicago's Comiskey Park between the games of a Chicago White Sox baseball double header. In July, six of the top 10 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 were disco songs.  By late September there were no disco songs in the top 10.  Disco headed into the dance music underground.

11
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1977 - Saturday Night Fever

Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack
Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack. Courtesy RSO

The movie Saturday Night Fever was based on a New York magazine article by British writer Nik Cohn titled "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night."   Although the author eventually stated that the article was largely fabricated, the film became a cultural landmark and cemented disco music as a key part of mainstream pop.  The double album soundtrack also brought movie soundtracks back to prominence in pop music.

The Bee Gees were not involved in the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever until the film was in post-production.  The film's star John Travolta has stated that during filming he was dancing to Stevie Wonder and Boz Scaggs.  Producer Robert Stigwood commissioned the Bee Gees to write songs for the movie, and he was blown away by the results.  The group recorded four new songs for the soundtrack.  Their previous hits "Jive Talkin'" and "You Should Be Dancing" were also included.  They also wrote the song "If I Can't Have You" recorded by Yvonne Elliman for the album.

Top 10 Bee Gees Songs

The lush ballad "How Deep Is Your Love" was the first of the new Bee Gees songs to be released as a single.  It was released in September 1977 and topped the pop chart in the US in late December just after release of the soundtrack and the film.  By early 1978 the country was gripped in full Saturday Night Fever.  The follow up single "Stayin' Alive" went to #1 as well as the soundtrack album.  The album spent a phenomenal 24 consecutive weeks at #1 occupying that spot for most of the first half of 1978.  It was certified platinum 15 times.  Three Bee Gees singles and Yvonne Elliman's "If I Can't Have You" all hit #1 on the pop singles chart.  The soundtrack album received the Grammy Award for Album Of the Year.

Although the Bee Gees success extends well beyond disco and Saturday Night Fever, they will forever be identified with the project and the genre.  The film and its successful soundtrack helped disco push into many many aspects of American life as a true cultural phenomenon.  Among movie soundtracks, Saturday Night Fever is the landmark that inspired two other massively successful film soundtracks from John Travolta films, Grease and Urban Cowboy.  Disco would never be bigger than in the immediate wake of Saturday Night Fever, and few films have so directly defined a moment in American pop culture.

12
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1977 - Punk and New Wave Class Of 1977

Sex Pistols
Sex Pistols. Photo by George Rose / Getty Images

Punk rock can trace its roots back to the garage rock of the 1960s.  "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen and the three chord guitar rock of the Kinks are seen as key predecessors to the punk style.  1969 albums from Detroit bands MC5 and Iggy Pop and the Stooges took the music a step further.  By the mid 1970s a New York punk scene centered around the clubs CBGB and Max's was well under way. Across the Atlantic, Malcolm McLaren brought ideas back to the UK from his experiences managing the New York Dolls.  He set out to make stars of a punk styled band named the Sex Pistols.  They were quickly followed into the spotlight by the Damned and the Clash.

Along with punk bands, a new sound that was less aggressive than punk but more artsy, experimental, and "twitchy" than the mainstream was emerging.  It was dubbed new wave by journalists in the early 1970s to describe some bands and by 1976 was being used frequently when discussing such emerging bands as Blondie and the Talking Heads. 

1977 was the year that punk and new wave seemed to explode as the next new big movement in pop music after the rise of disco.  Debut albums were released by multiple artists that would become defining bands of punk and new wave.  In the UK, the Sex Pistols released their only studio album, the legendary Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols.  The Clash's self-titled debut hit stores as well.  Another seminal UK band The Jam also released their debut collection In the City, and the Damned's first two albums both appeared in 1977. Straddling the fiery energy of punk and intellect of new wave, Elvis Costello and the Attractions hit stores with My Aim Is True.

Watch the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" music video.

On the other side of the Atlantic in the US, a band called Talking Heads made their debut with the angular, artsy new wave album Talking Heads: 77.  It was joined by the self-titled debut from Blondie which actually slipped into the market in December 1976.  Punk group the Ramones had also released their first album in 1976, but it was their third album Rocket To Russia released in late 1977 and featuring the single "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" that broke the group into the top 50 of the US album chart.  Critically acclaimed punk band Television released their debut Marquee Moon in early 1977.

Watch the Ramones perform "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker."

1977 is seen by many as the peak of the first major commercial wave of punk rock, but the genre has returned to prominence in multiple waves since.  New wave would continue on and hit its peak influence on mainstream pop in the early 1980s.  However, there has rarely been a single year that has seen the recording debuts of so many challenging, enduring, and influential recording artists at once. 

13
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1980 - "Rapper's Delight" Takes Rap To the Pop Charts

Sugar Hill Gang
Sugar Hill Gang. Photo by Anthony Barboza / Getty Images

Along with disco and punk, a third major new genre of popular music was developing in the late 1970s..  Rap or hip hop music is rooted in the development of New York City block parties.  The parties incorporated DJs playing music, and the DJs began isolating percussive breaks of songs in a style that was common in Jamaican dub music.  Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc was considered one of the founders of hip hop.  As the isolated percussion tracks became more popular, turntabling techniques such as scratching and beat mixing were added to the performances.

Rapping came after the initial development of hip hop.  Influenced by the spoken word poetry of the late 1960s and early 1970s, MCs began adding rhymed verses and call and response chants to their instrumental tracks.  Early rap music remained primarily a live party phenomenon until the first recordings in 1979.

While there is significant controversy over whether the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" is the first rap record, it is certainly the first to generate significant success on national pop music charts.  Rock and roll veteran Sylvia Robinson, of the duo Mickey and Sylvia, was both a successful solo artist in the 1970s with the hit single "Pillow Talk" and an R&B label executive owning All Platinum Records.  With an ear to what was on the verge of exploding, she formed the Sugar Hill Records subsidiary in 1979 with the aim to record rap music.  She put together a trio called the Sugarhill Gang and recorded a song titled "Rapper's Delight" which consisted of the trio rapping over an interpolation of Chic's #1 disco smash "Good Times."   The record was released in September 1979, and by January 1980 it was a top 40 pop hit.  "Rapper's Delight" was not only a hit in the US, but topped the pop singles chart in Canada and went to #3 in the UK. Rap was on its way to becoming a permanent part of pop music.

Watch the Sugarhill Gang perform "Rapper's Delight."

Sylvia Robinson and Sugarhill Records had another landmark rap recording on the way. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released "The Message" in July 1982 and introduced social and political commentary to hip hop.  The record is often considered to be one of the greatest rap records of all time and helped shift the focus of hip hop to the words of rappers and MCs.  "The Message" became the first rap record added to the National Recording Registry in 2002.

14
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1980 - John Lennon Murdered

Mourners of John Lennon
Mourners of John Lennon. Photo by Hulton Archive / Getty Images

John Lennon, of the Beatles, spent the latter half of the 1970s in a five year hiatus from the music industry.  His son Sean was born October 9, 1975, and he took on the role of househusband leaving business matters to wife Yoko Ono.  John Lennon appeared on a track for fellow Beatle Ringo Starr's 1976 album Ringo's Rotogravure and did not return to the recording studio until 1980.  In the summer of 1980, inspired by a treacherous sailing trip to Bermuda, John Lennon began writing songs again. His wife Yoko Ono also began writing songs partially in response to her husband's assertion that music by groups like the B-52's had similarities to her past work.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono decided to release their music together on an album they would call Double Fantasy.  They approached record producer Jack Douglas to work on the project.  The recordings began in secret, but soon the couple confidently let out the news that they were recording a new album.  "(Just Like) Starting Over," the lead single from the project, was released on October 20, 1980.  The song soon entered the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.  The album Double Fantasy hit stores on November 17, 1980 just in time for Christmas shopping.  Sales of the album were somewhat sluggish but still managed to climb to #11 in the US.

Just before 11 p.m. on December 8, 1980, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were returning to their apartment home in New York City's Dakota building.  John Lennon was shot four times in the back at the entrance to the building by Mark David Chapman.  Less than 20 minutes later he was pronounced dead on arrival at Roosevelt Hospital.  

The first US media report of the death was by Howard Cosell on Monday Night Football.  Much of the world woke up the next morning to the shocking story of the murder of John Lennon.  Yoko Ono issued a statement, "There is no funeral for John. John loved and prayed for the human race. Please do the same for him. Love, Yoko and Sean."  Amid massive outpourings of grief around the world, Yoko Ono requested that fans assemble Sunday, December 14, 1980 in New York's Central Part for 10 minutes of silent prayer.  Millions around the world heeded her wish to engage in the 10 minutes of silent prayer.  30,000 gathered in John Lennon's home city of Liverpool, England and more than 200,000 gathered in Central Park.   

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1981 - MTV Is Born

MTV Logo
MTV Logo. Courtesy MTV

The direct ancestor of MTV, aka Music Television, was a music video program called PopClips created by Mike Nesmith, formerly of the pop group the Monkees.  Production began in the spring of 1979 and it was broadcast on the Nickelodeon cable TV channel in late 1980 and early 1981.  

MTV was founded by Robert W. Pittman.  On Saturday, August 1, 1981 just after midnight MTV was launched with the words, "Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll."  The words were followed by the MTV theme song and footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing with a flag that included MTV's logo in changing colors.  The first music video shown was "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles, and it was followed by "You Better Run" by Pat Benatar.  

Watch the launch of MTV.

The MTV model of playing mostly music videos was an instant success. It ushered in an era in which visual appeal became a very important component of the success of a recording artist.  Music that was not played on local radio stations began selling well due to music videos shown on MTV.  Music video was considered a major component of what was called the second British Invasion in which British acts with appealing music videos surged on to the pop charts.

Other networks put together programming modeled after MTV.  These included HBO's Video Jukebox, WTBS' Night Tracks, and NBC's Friday Night Videos.  However, MTV proved to be the most successful and durable.  The original model of MTV resembled FM radio with videos.  They were played around the clock and introduced by VJs, modeled after radio DJs.  The first five MTV VJs Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, J.J. Jackson, and Martha Quinn all became celebrities.  

Attractively produced music videos arguably made stars out of artists who might have floundered without the images that accompanied their music.  The new medium also gave early exposure to directors who would later become major names in the film industry.  By the late 1990s MTV was highly criticized for moving away from its focus on music video.  However, music videos as part of music promotion were here to stay.  The success of the Internet and video site YouTube brought a renewed focus on music video in a form where fans could choose to watch their favorites on demand.  Today, viewing of music videos has been incorporated as an integral part of the data that creates Billboard's pop charts. 

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1982 - Michael Jackson Releases 'Thriller'

Michael Jackson - Thriller
Michael Jackson - Thriller. Courtesy Epic

Leading into the recording sessions for ThrillerMichael Jackson should have been enjoying the afterglow of his success with the album Off the Wall.   Released in 1979 when he was 21, the album peaked at #3 on the album chart and was the first collection by a solo artist to place four singles in the pop top 10.  Ultimately, Off the Wall was certified eight times platinum in the US and earned a Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance - Male. It received widespread critical acclaim for representing a new maturity in Michael Jackson's music.  

Top 10 Michael Jackson Songs

However, Michael Jackson was unhappy.  He explained that he was lonely and felt that he and the Off the Wall album were both undervalued having failed to win the Grammy Award for Record Of the Year and the lack of magazine cover opportunities.  He vowed that everyone would someday be begging for his attention.

For Thriller, Michael Jackson worked once again with Quincy Jones, the producer who had helped him craft Off the Wall.  They worked on 30 songs and ultimately nine were included in the album. Recording began in April 1982 and the album was completed with final mixing in November.  Neither Michael Jackson nor Quincy Jones were completely happy with the results and they worked on remixing every song.

The single "The Girl Is Mine" by Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney was released in October 1982 as a lead-in to Thriller.  The song peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, but it was not well received critically leading to underwhelming expectations for Thriller.  The album hit stores at the end of November.  "Billie Jean" was released as the second single to kick off the new year, and critical complaints were silenced. The acclaimed single soared to #1 where it stayed for seven weeks and brought the album to the top of the charts as well.

Watch Michael Jackson's "Beat It" music video.

When the dust finally settled, Thriller was the biggest hit album of all time.  Worldwide sales estimates are between 50 and 65 million.  In the US alone it was certified for sales of 29 million.  Thriller spent 37 weeks at #1 on the album chart and won a record-breaking eight Grammy Awards including Album Of the Year.  It was the first album to generate seven top 10 pop hit singles. 

Watch Michael Jackson's "Thriller" music video.

The influence of Thriller can not be over-estimated.  It established Michael Jackson as the world's top pop star.  Thriller led unprecedented financial success for the music industry.  It created an updated sound for the nexus of pop, R&B, and rock music. Michael Jackson broke down the MTV color line with the music videos that accompanied the hits "Beat It," "Billie Jean," and "Thriller."  The extended music video for the song "Thriller" took the art of the music video to new levels.  Thriller remains one of the most influential albums ever recorded.

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1985 - Live Aid

Live Aid Finale
Live Aid Finale. Photo by Dave Hogan / Getty Images

In October 1984, following viewing of a BBC report on famine in Ethiopia, Bob Geldof of the group Boomtown Rats and Midge Ure of Ultravox decided to work together to raise money for famine relief. They wrote the song "Do They Know It's Christmas?" together.  In a November appearance with BBC Radio, Bob Geldof promoted the project of recording the charity single and announced November 25, 1984 as the date for recording the song.  The list of artists who gathered for the 24 hours of recording was like a who's who of current British pop stars and a few additional international stars.  Sting and Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran had pre-recorded guide vocals and those who recorded that day included George Michael of Wham!, Bono of U2, Boy George of Culture Club, and Jody Watley of American R&B group Shalamar. "Do They Know It's Christmas?" became the bestselling single of all time in the UK later surpassed only by Elton John's "Candle In the Wind 1997" released in the wake of the death of Princess Diana.

Watch "Do They Know It's Christmas?" music video.

In March 1985, a US benefit single titled "We Are the World" designed to provide relief for famine in Africa was released and became a worldwide hit as well.  Following the success of the charity singles, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure set their sights on staging a massive benefit concert to raise additional money.  Simultaneous concerts were held at London's Wembley Stadium with approximately 72,000 in attendance and Philadelphia's JFK Stadium with a crowd estimated at 100,000.  The events were broadcast with live satellite link ups for an estimated television audience of 1.9 billion across 150 countries.

Queen, U2, and Paul McCartney were among the leading performers in London while Madonna, Bob Dylan, and a duo of Mick Jagger and Tina Turner performed in the US.  The concerts on each side of the Atlantic closed with group performances of the charity singles - "Do They Know It's Christmas?" in London and "We Are the World" in Philadelphia.  It is estimated that a total of approximately 150 million pounds was raised by the event for famine relief.

Watch Queen at Live Aid.

The Live Aid project was a phenomenal success in which the music industry spearheaded the raising of an unprecedented amount of money for a humanitarian cause in less than a year. The legacy of Live Aid is that the music industry now steps in quickly to respond to the need for support of victims of tragedy.  Telethons and recording projects that raise money for victims of earthquakes, tidal waves, and floods are direct descendants of the Live Aid project. 

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1991 - Nirvana Hits the Pop Charts With "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" Music Video. Courtesy DGC

The term grunge as relates to music is credited as first being used in 1981 when Mark Arm, later vocalist for Green River and Mudhoney used the word as a partial description of his current band Mr. Epp and the Calculations.  Independent label Sub Pop helped popularize the term using it in marketing for the band Green River in 1987 and 1988.  With the release of the single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in late 1991 by Nirvana, grunge stormed out of its regional focus in the Seattle area into the national mainstream pop charts.

The sound of grunge is something like a fusion of heavy metal and punk.  Frequently the music was characterized by relatively slow tempos, dissonant harmonies, and a high level of distortion and feedback in the guitars.  Lyrically, the songs often are filled with a spirit of angst and alienation.  One of the primary concerns of grunge bands was that the music be authentic and not sellout or pose as something else.

Nirvana was formed in 1987 by singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain along with bass player Krist Novoselic. After a succession of drummers, Dave Grohl completed the classic lineup in 1990.  With their signing to the label Sub Pop, Nirvana became a key part of the Seattle grunge scene.  Their first album Bleach was released in 1989 and received positive critical reviews but failed to make a national chart impact.  With a national tour following the release of Bleach, Nirvana began building a strong core audience.  Dissatisfied with promotion by Sub Pop, the band signed to DGC Records in 1990.

DGC hoped for sales figures in the range of 25,000 for their first Nirvana album titled Nevermind. However, they didn't count on the appeal of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."  The song was sent to radio on August 27, 1991 as the lead-in for Nevermind.  College and modern rock radio instantly jumped on the song.  MTV added the accompanying music video to its late night alternative show 120 Minutes. However, response was so positive that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was added to the daytime rotation. By late 1991, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and the album Nevermind were both hits.  "Smells Like Teen Spirit" ultimately peaked at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100, and Nevermind dethroned Michael Jackson's Dangerous at the top of the album chart in January 1992. The album was ultimately certified diamond in the US for shipment of more than 10 million copies.

Watch the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" music video.

While Nirvana's story as a band would end tragically with the death of Kurt Cobain, their success made alternative rock an ongoing element of mainstream pop music which has continued to this day. The grunge movement would fade out, but its concerns with authenticity and lyrical angst have a much longer lasting impact. After a decade with few significant new directions, grunge rattled mainstream pop and changed the sound permanently.

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1999 - Ricky Martin Live at the Grammy Awards

Ricky Martin At the 1999 Grammy Awards
Ricky Martin At the 1999 Grammy Awards. Photo by Frank Micelotta / Getty Images

Latin pop artists made significant impact on US pop charts before Ricky Martin.  Cuban born Gloria Estefan was a pop and adult contemporary superstar in the 1980s and early 1990s.  Jon Secada had a series of pop hits in the early 1990s.  However, it was the appearance of Ricky Martin live at the 1999 Grammy Awards that seemed to be the tipping point for Latin artists in the pop mainstream. Today the Latin sound and Latin artists are an integral part of mainstream pop.

Ricky Martin was born in 1971 in Puerto Rico.  He became a member of the internationally successful Latin boy band Menudo at age 12.  After five years performing with the group he set out for a solo career as both a singer and actor.  His Spanish language self-titled first album released in 1991 was a success and included a pair of top 10 Latin hits.  Ricky Martin's third studio album A Medio Vivir released in 1995 took his career to a higher level.  The single "Maria" became a top 10 pop hit across Europe and broke into the Billboard Hot 100 in the US.  

Ricky Martin's fourth album Vuelve, released in 1998, consolidated his success. It topped the Latin albums chart and stayed there for 26 weeks.  The song "La Copa de la Vida (The Cup Of Life)" became the official song of the 1998 World Cup.  With the massive worldwide exposure, the song went to #1 on the pop singles chart in Australia, France, Germany, and Spain among others.  The album earned Ricky Martin a Grammy Award nomination for top Latin pop album, his first.  He was booked to perform live at the Grammy Awards ceremony.

On February 24, 1999 Ricky Martin took the stage at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles performing "La Copa de la Vida (Cup of Life)" and electrified the crowd. He received a standing ovation, won the Grammy Award for Album Of the Year and sparked an instant interest in Latin music among American pop fans. In late March Ricky Martin released the single "Livin' La Vida Loca," the first from his upcoming self-titled English language album.  It went to #1 on the pop singles chart in the US and around the world earning Ricky Martin Grammy Award nominations for Record Of the Year and Song Of the Year.  The dam had been breached for Latin pop music.

Watch Ricky Martin at the 1999 Grammy Awards.

Since that magic moment at the 1999 Grammy Awards, Latin music has been an integral element of pop music in the US and around the world.  Ricky Martin paved the way for the mainstream success of artists like Enrique Iglesias, Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, ShakiraPitbull, and many others. 

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2002 - American Idol Debuts

Kelly Clarkson Wins
Kelly Clarkson Wins. Photo by Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Expectations for American Idol were not high when it began.  Simon Fuller and Simon Cowell, the British creators of American Idol, attempted to sell the show to American TV networks in 2001 and met with little enthusiasm.  However, reportedly Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Fox network, was convinced to buy the show by his daughter Elisabeth who was a fan of Pop Idol in the UK, the new show's model.

In October 2001 the show Pop Idol debuted in the UK.  It was inspired by the series Popstars which, created by Nigel Lythgoe, had originated in New Zealand in 1999.  All of the shows are centered on a musical competition with judging contestants on their singing and performance abilities.  The first winner of Pop Idol in the UK was Will Young who instantly became a pop star.  Four of his first five singles and his first two albums all went to #1 on the UK charts.

The first season of American Idol debuted on June 11, 2002 as a summer replacement show on the Fox Network.  It ran through September 4, 2002.  The show had two hosts, Ryan Seacrest and comedian Brian Dunkleman.  The latter left after the first season and Ryan Seacrest remains the host. The first judging panel consisted of Simon Cowell, music producer Randy Jackson, and singer/dancer Paula Abdul.  The show was a surprise hit and ratings grew through the finale.  Kelly Clarkson emerged victorious from the first season and she remains one of the most successful of all American Idol winners.  As of 2014, she has had nine top 10 pop hit singles in the US with three going all the way to #1.  All six of her studio albums have hit the top 3 on the US album chart.  

Watch Kelly Clarkson win American Idol.

For eight consecutive seasons from 2003-2004 through 2010-2011, American Idol was the highest rated TV show in the US.  Contestants from the show have hit #1 on various Billboard charts 345 times in the first 10 years of the show.  As of 2013 past contestants of American Idol have sold more than 59 million albums and 120 million singles.  Among the stars introduced to the American public on the show are Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Daughtry, Jennifer Hudson, Adam Lambert, and Phillip Phillips.

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Lamb, Bill. "20 Events That Changed Pop Music." ThoughtCo, Aug. 22, 2016, thoughtco.com/20-events-that-changed-pop-music-3246994. Lamb, Bill. (2016, August 22). 20 Events That Changed Pop Music. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/20-events-that-changed-pop-music-3246994 Lamb, Bill. "20 Events That Changed Pop Music." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/20-events-that-changed-pop-music-3246994 (accessed November 21, 2017).