'80s Rock Music Genres - A Capsule View

American singer Pat Benatar on stage, USA, 1980.
American singer Pat Benatar on stage, USA, 1980. Michael Putland/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It's a job that can never be complete, but breaking down the music of the '80s into its key genres and styles is a great way to begin to get a handle on the decade's wide array of sounds. Here's a quick, capsule look at some of the era's most prominent and important pop music categories.

Arena Rock

Without arena rock, '80s music would have been a far different creature, and despite common attitudes to the contrary, probably not for the better.

Despite its commercial nature, the '80s blend of progressive rock, radio-friendly pop/rock with huge hooks, and hard rock became a deserved staple of the decade's musical menu.

College Rock

Though defined by an impressive eclecticism that made it hard to categorize, college rock ultimately became a recognizable '80s style in its own right. Working steadily outside the mainstream of the era's pop/rock establishment, college rock generally featured quirky, guitar-centered music - epitomized by the jangle pop subgenre - that spotlighted both melody and a punk rock-inspired independent spirit.

  • Key Artists - U2, R.E.M.

Hair Metal

Sometimes called pop metal and glam metal almost interchangeably, the phenomenon of hair metal whittled heavy metal and hard rock down to a successful pop music formula. Along the way, the form drew advantageously from '70s glam rock for its image but slathered on '80s pop production at will to build a powerful mainstream audience.

Heartland Rock

Carrying over from a strong emergence during the latter half of the '70s, heartland rock became a major '80s genre by deftly blending straightforward rock and roll with other popular American styles like country and folk.

Very popular on album rock and classic rock radio, the genre featured simple melodies and lyrics often concerned with the joys and plight of Everyman.

New Wave

Perhaps the most recognizable '80s music genre in terms of both name and sound, new wave helped generate many of the decade's most memorable style elements as well. But more than anything, this pop music distillation of punk rock's defiant spirit produced some top-notch guitar rock as well as a potent, keyboard-dominated subgenre called synth pop. Ultimately new wave became enough of a phenomenon to begin overshadowing the music, but that's only part of the story.


Although it featured more than a little overlap with both new wave and synth pop, the music category known as post-punk generally exhibited more outright experimentation than its genre relatives. Usually louder and more aggressive than new wave, post-punk often seemed more emotionally stormy and morose as well. Guitar and keyboards played heavy roles, along with esoteric lyrics and mannered vocals.