Profile of Mainstream '80s Music Genre Arena Rock

Night Ranger
Rock band Night Ranger makes a curtain call while on tour in 1987. Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It could certainly be argued that the classic era for the style of mainstream rock music known as an arena or stadium rock was the latter half of the '70s when larger than life bands like Led Zeppelin, Queen and more anonymous acts like Boston and Foreigner ruled the rock airwaves and concert box office receipts. However, the '80s may well be the decade that squeezed the absolute maximum commercial potential out of arena rock, starting with the blending of arena rock and new wave common at the start of the '80s and reaching its pinnacle with the specialized, wildly popular strain of pop metal.

A Transitional Period

Although the '70s certainly had its share of sweeping stadium rock, the combined influences of hard rock and progressive rock that would define '80s superstars like ​​Journey, Foreigner and Styx remained relatively separate in the times of Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and Thin Lizzy. The other secret of '80s bona fide arena rock probably lies in the increasingly catchy hooks that drove the boost of mainstream commercialism that took place within the genre by 1980. The magic of the decade's turning seemed to launch a new level of lighters aloft, spandex, and the marriage of guitar and keyboards.​

Journey Through the Early '80s

Struggling former progressive rock bands like Journey were the most profound beneficiaries of the hybridization that became arena rock, as an increased pop aesthetic paved the way for bombastic singers from Steve Perry to Dennis DeYoung to rise to the top of the charts.

Additionally, bands like Canada's Loverboy freely used elements of new wave keyboards to dress up hard rock guitars and, especially, to perfect the important '80s art of the power ballad. Songs like "Open Arms," 404 Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger," and .38 Special's "Caught Up in You" exemplified this initial arena rock sound.​

Heavy Metal Hijacking Yields Pop Metal Machine

During most of the '70s and the first half of the '80s, heavy metal remained distinct from stadium rock, wallowing in menace and aggression far more often than it played the romance card.

But following the new wave of British heavy metal, that all began to change, kick-started by the glam rock-influenced Def Leppard, a genuine hard rock band that crossed over successfully and almost effortlessly into polished arena rock. The rise to superstardom of Bon Jovi, Whitesnake and Poison seems positively inevitable in retrospect, given the flashy yet straightforward concoction hatched by hair metal.​

The Late '80s Death Knell

Things got a bit out of hand as the '80s drew to a close, as just about every '70s band imaginable from Kiss to Aerosmith to Bad Company manufactured significant resurgences by combining the mainstream hard rock approach of the early '80s with the flair of pop metal to take advantage of arena rock's powerful dominion over a daunting percentage of successful pop music of the era. This undoubtedly increased the form's vulnerability, and the aggressive, greasy hard rock of Guns N' Roses and even quasi-hair metal acts like Skid Row foreshadowed the changing of the guard to come in '90s grunge.

Key Arena Rock Artists & Albums Across the '80s

  • Journey - Escape (1981)
  • Loverboy - Loverboy (1980)
  • Foreigner - 4 (1981)
  • REO Speedwagon - Hi Infidelity (1980)
  • Heart - Heart (1985)
  • Pat Benatar - Crimes of Passion (1980)
  • .38 Special - Special Forces (1982)
  • Night Ranger - Midnight Madness (1985)
  • Survivor - Eye of the Tiger (1982)
  • Def Leppard - Pyromania (1983)
  • Twisted Sister - Stay Hungry (1984)
  • Asia - Asia (1982)
  • Bon Jovi - Slippery When Wet (1986)
  • Whitesnake - Whitesnake (1987)
  • Cheap Trick - Lap of Luxury (1988)
  • Skid Row - Skid Row (1989)