Chapter 5

Pop Culture

This essay is a review of:

Are We Not New Wave?: Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s

by Theo Cateforis

Musical Wave or Tsunami
by Kristen Suk

            Music has been and is an essential part of culture. It is formed by exterior factors from economical circumstances to social instabilities and can help to serve as social commentary of the times that artists may be living in. Although melody is formed in this fashion, it can also serve as a source of hope and encouragement that can gradually help to bring about change.  During the 1980’s in the United States, technology was rapidly advancing and, therefore, entertainment and culture also seemed to be growing exponentially. Music created during the 1960’s to the 1980’s was under the category of new wave, which drew from several different musical genres and ideas. In Theo Cateforis’ nonfictional book, Are We Not New Wave? : Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s, speaks of the new wave movement as “one whose musical details reveal illuminating elements about the movement [in history] as a whole.”1 He also reveals how society and other trends affected the new wave genre and the progression of music in general.

            The new wave is described as “a movement, trend, or vogue, as in art, literature, or politics, that breaks with traditional concepts, values, techniques, or the like.”2 In the first quarter of this book, Cateforis explains how before new wave existed, rock and roll, disco, and punk were the most popular musical genres that people listened to. When new wave was first introduced, it was said to be a category for artists who were not interested in rock and roll and didn’t want to be labeled as a punk artist. In the 1970s, America had been going through an economical recession. Also during this time, a punk group by the name of Sex Pistols carried a very substantial influence in the musical industry. When they disbanded later that decade, their music helped to differentiate new wave and punk. The general audience of this kind of new wave was mainly targeted at teens and people in their adolescence who didn’t have much say in what was occurring during this economic low.

            The new wave movements consisted of various characteristics that popularized even in places outside of the United States, like Britain. While punk was adopted by England, new wave targeted the general public in the USA, who on the other hand did not care much for punk. Cateforis explains the musical trends that were being popularized in Britain like the New Romantics and the New Pop. They helped music transition towards the use of modern technology like the Roland Micro composer and the Linn Drum.3 Publicity and media also played a big role in the success of musical groups. Magazine covers of concerts and music boosted the popularity of groups. One peculiar trait of new wave was that, just as the name implies, everything occurred in waves. For example, rock was very popular in the 60’s, but as time went by, the wave of rock came back in and then back out. Many different musical genres became present in songs written during the new wave movement, but they just as quickly faded. This blended many genres together, giving new wave music a unique sound. Cateforis introduces a specific musical quality of new wave: nervousness. The 1970s was a time when everything was rapidly innovating. With this came demanding work and with demanding work came stress and nervousness. Funk emerged because of this oppressiveness. It represented a “new hipness” based on “slang, fashion, and bodily expression.”4 New wave artists tried to imitate and replicate nervousness in their music with musical techniques such as vibrato, which is why their performances lacked physical prowess. Groups like Devo “played upon body’s awkward nervous tensions with as much creative imagination and bizarre humor.”5 This expression of nervousness in music served as social commentary of the stressful and demanding times that people seemed to be living in.

            A large part of new wave was the bringing back of old music styles and recycling them to be used in a fresh type of way. One form was called Kitsch. It is a German word synonymous to trash. “Anything with the domain of ‘popular culture’ fell under” Kitsch.6 Artists wore outdated wigs and their fashion stood outside of the norm. This led to many consumerist goods and merchandise like band shirts. Because “part of the significance of new wave was that it focused on pop and style…[, this] allowed a window for more women.”7 Women became more involved since they were the easiest to target for things like fashion. Many band groups and music corporations tried to appeal to girls, since the most profit could be made from them. There was a different form of nostalgia called Camp. Cateforis describes camp like this: “Camp rescues items from the scrap heap… and invests them with new often ironic meaning.”8 Pop was seen as progression from punk. Pop showed the evolution of music over time during the new wave movement. Nostalgia was an extremely important component to pop music and culture. Pop was related to many different aspects including “style, color, media, and ironic intent,” leaving room for nostalgia to kick in.9 A few outcomes of nostalgia were AM radio and the sound of guitars.

            In the last quarter of the book, Cateforis talks about the use of different instruments and the integration of influences from African music culture into American music. Because of the technological advances, music began to imitate technology in that performances became more stagnant and the musical sound became more artificial. The use of synthesizers changed the whole face of music. A synthesizer is practically a keyboard that can achieve many different sounds. It gave a rise to “a new type of pop musician[s]…versed solely in electronics.” 10 Music during this time reached “global modernity”, a “new connectivity wherein previously isolated societies and their musical arts and entertainments were finally coming into contact with one another.” 11African music was large musical influence in American music. Groups like Adams and the Ants had many rhythms and techniques borrowed from African Burundi drumming. However, the social interaction in making African music was much greater than the rhythms made in African music. It “expresses the body, hence sexuality, with a directly physical beat and an intense, emotional sound.”12  

            Theo Cateforis formulates many claims and ideas through the entirety of the book. His main opinion in this book is that music is greatly influenced by the context of societal, economical, and cultural times. Society and politics during the 1980’s was very progressive. It was during Reagan’s presidency and his Reaganomics. Economy was strained during this time since it was during a financial crisis and after the industrial revolution. “Kitsch was most of all a by-product of the industrial revolution.”13 Music imitated the times they were living in. Moreover, culture was constantly changing and expanding. Radio and television programs created during this time, like MTV, changed the face of entertainment. Because of the radio and television, the marketability of groups had to change. But overall music “captured the tensions surrounding urban life, a directly ineffective government, and a new technological age filled with both promise and dread.”14

            The author of this book, Theo Cateforis, has an extensive background in music that gave him the basis to write Are We Not New Wave? : Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980’s. “This interest in new wave’s musical stylistic dimensions stems not only from my training as a musicologist, but also from my background as a rock musician.15 Cateforis has first hand experience as a musician during the 1980’s that helped him to have a better idea of what music was like during those times. It also gives primary knowledge of what kind of ideas and situations influence an artist’s music. Cateforis also had a broad range of studying and education that helped him to conceive the ideas in this book. “My scholarly approach in writing this book is most of all informed by… my long-standing participation in popular music studies, an interdisciplinary field where musicology, media studies… and numerous other areas meet and mingle freely.”16 All these credentials work together to help stress the importance of music and historical context. By the time this book was published in 2011, entertainment was one of the largest money making businesses in the States. Pop and rap has become the most widespread music listened to by the mass population. These musical genres take much influence from previous musical movements and categories. Also, the 1970s was a time when people pursued pleasure and living life to the fullest. It was also a time when economically the United States was a bit strained. The 1980s reflected the direct effects of this attitude and time. Music usually imitates the situation of the times, so naturally the music created in the 1980s were a replication of this attitude.

            Several people who read Theo Cateforis’ book later wrote reviews of the book. Since this book is more contemporary and not very well known among the nonfictional book category, reviews were not strictly professional. In The Rock Star Journalist, an author of unknown identity writes an editorial called Cateforis Analyzes New Wave With a Discerning Eye. He speaks of how Cateforis did a very good job of explaining how new wave was a movement that consisted of the merging of many different musical genres.17 Although the writer of this editorial believes that Cateforis did a good job of contextualizing and informing the reader about musical waves and drifts, he does think that Cateforis missed couple of opportunities to better compare groups and musical genres. For example, “Cateforis could’ve then shown the distinct takes offered by each group, given their respective light and ark takes on the material.”18 He concludes that the book was very informative of the new wave, but that one book cannot completely capture the idea of the entire new wave movement. In a more positive and less critical review, Scott Poole, a writer for Local Encyclopedia, praises the writing techniques and abilities of Cateforis. So much so that he named the review Are We Not New Wave: Makes Me Wish I Could Take Theo Cateforis ‘ Class. Poole explains that this book was very intellectual and informative. It was a “mind-numbing exposition of each and every new wave band.”19Poole thinks that Cateforis did an extremely good job of highlighting the important characteristics and aspects of the new wave movement. However, he does wish that Cateforis addressed the effects of role gender played in music. He “wanted to hear more on his ideas about gender performance on-stage and whether this new style of rock ‘n’ roll masculinity influenced the larger cultural turn.”20

            Are We Not New Wave? is a very scholarly book. Cateforis took many examples of artists and songs, from the time of the 1960s to the 1980s, to help the reader better understand what kind of music originated and popularized during this time. He explains musical trends in depth and connects these trends to events that were going on outside of the musical industry. Although Cateforis did give some context of the economy and society, he could have brought in more so that the reader could even further understand how such conditions could have affected the musical choices made by artists. One thing that Cateforis managed to do very well was connect technology to musical quality. He describes the effects of technology on new wave like so: “New Wave’s dated technological modernity allowed for a celebration of the ‘synthetic and artifical’.”21 He spoke of synthesizers and the progression of instrumental set up with the advancements of technology, which did overall change the way music was performed. Overall, anybody could pick up this book and know infinitely more about not only music up to the 1980’s, but also music in general.

            Living freely, like mentioned before, was a mantra before the 1980s. Doing whatever whenever was the mental state in all of the United States. It was a period when sexual transmitted diseases became more widespread, a time when hedonism was prominent. The 1980’s, however, was the drift away from this point, more towards conservatism. It was a time of mending from the radical explosion. Rock used to be very energetic and charismatic. Many rock artists had eccentric appearances and made irregular gestures on stage that made crowds cheer. However as music progressed towards conservatism, performances became much more stagnant and almost lazy. One of the artists said, “on stage I do very little actually. I might smoke a cigarette, drink a bit. I might clap my hands occasionally.”22 Moreover, music trends began moving backwards to times that were before this liberal era.

            Music has many faces and many masks. It molds to its surroundings and embodies the true qualities and dynamics of the era the music is created. New wave was one of these many movements in the 1980’s that resembled this: “[It] has become a pit-stop style, a place where one can pause and rest for a moment before moving onto something else equally as intriguing.”23

1. Cateforis, Theo. Are We Not New Wave? : Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s. University of Michigan, 2011. 15.

2. Cateforis, Theo. 17.

3. Cateforis, Theo. 50.

4. Cateforis, Theo. 81.

5. Cateforis, Theo. 86.

6. Cateforis, Theo. 111.

7. Cateforis, Theo. 105.

8. Cateforis, Theo. 115.

9. Cateforis, Theo. 137.

10. Cateforis, Theo. 180.

11. Cateforis, Theo. 183.

12. Cateforis, Theo. 212.

13. Cateforis, Theo. 111.

14. Cateforis, Theo. 166.

15. Cateforis, Theo. 15.

16. Cateforis, Theo. 15.

17. Unknown. Cateforis Analyzes New Wave With a Discerning Eye. Rock Star Journalist, 2011. Paragraph 2

18. Unknown. Cateforis Analyzes New Wave With a Discerning Eye. Rock Star Journalist, 2011. Paragraph 4

19. Poole, W. Scott. ‘Are We Not New Wave?’ Makes Me Wish I could Take Theo Cateforis’s Class. LocaLencyclopedia, 2011. Paragraph 6

20. Poole, W. Scott. ‘Are We Not New Wave?’ Makes Me Wish I could Take Theo Cateforis’s Class. LocaLencyclopedia, 2011. Paragraph 14

21. Cateforis, Theo. 222.

22. Cateforis, Theo. 180.

23. Cateforis, Theo. 223.