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A Century Through Music

By Rosemary O’Brien 

Throughout all of human history, there has been music. Songs and pieces of music express the innermost thoughts and feelings of humans as a society. Everyone interprets music differently and has their own ideas of who and what represents the best music (Harry Styles, obviously). Despite these differences, songs and musical sounds tend to go around in cycles.  Different musical eras have different characteristics and sounds, creating their own ‘genres’ and thus communicating the ideas and happenings of the time. 


The 1930s were full of vibrant musical culture, glitz, and glamour, thanks to the Art Deco movement. It saw a large rise in big bands and swing music, and the jazz sound began to spread its way into Europe and the rest of the world. Soulful piano, brass and rhythm guitar became the key to success in the music industry, utilized by singers such as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. It was also the year in which the movie 'The Wizard of Oz' graced cinemas around the world, and with that came Judy Garland’s sweet and hopeful song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, which became the number-one song of the decade. 


The 1940s was an eventful decade, home to World War II, the Holocaust, atomic bombs and the beginning of the Cold War. It was a key part of the modernist movement in literature, and most of pop culture was seen through a haze of the struggle of the times. Swing, jazz and country music dominated and defined that which was popular during the decades. Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and their emotional and beautiful voices emerged out of this time. One of the most popular songs of the decade (name keeping with the theme of sunshine and rainbows), was Tommy Dorsey’s “I’ll Never Smile Again”. Despite this, the 1940s were also when Bing Crosby released the song “White Christmas”, which is a staple on every mum’s Christmas playlist to this day.


Unlike its morose predecessor, the 1950’s were the years of the “boom”. The economy boomed, the suburbs boomed, and most importantly was the “baby boom” - now ever-so-respectfully referred to as “boomers''. All this booming began in 1946 when 3.4 million babies were born in the United States - a record number. The music scene also had its own boom, bringing in the era of rock-and-roll, rhythm and blues and “doo-wop”. Another defining sound of this decade was the deep-voiced, sparkly-jumpsuited, newly-branded King of rock and roll, Elvis Presley. Elvis’ music defined this decade, with classics like “Hound Dog”, “Jailhouse Rock” and “All Shook Up”. Other artists of the decade included Buddy Holly and Brenda Lee, but everyone in the '50s was living in the King’s shadow a bit. 


Civil rights movements, the Vietnam War and antiwar protests were key figures in the 60’s. The were also the years of political assassinations such as JFK, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. It was a decade where people were calling for change, justice and peace, and its music often carried these exact messages. Rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and antiwar music were the most popular sounds at the time. We began to see iconic bands make their debut in the world such as Simon & Garfunkel, The Rolling Stones, and a tiny, irrelevant little band called The Beatles. The world was completely hit with Beatle fever, and John, Paul, George and Ringo became common household names. In a way, they were the One Direction of the 60’s. The Rolling Stone’s song, “(I Just Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, was one of the biggest hits of the time, along with The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”. 


The 1970s were trademarked by frequent military coups, civil wars and various political upheavals. The fashion was bright and flowy, featuring bell-bottom pants, frayed jeans, tie-dye and maxi dresses. It also marked the rise of ‘hippie’ culture, people known for their communal living arrangements, vegetarian diets, holistic medicine and long hair (aka, your average Byron Bay resident). Disco, funk and R&B were popular during this decade, and sounds were often unconventional and smooth, much like the hippies. Rock music was (as always) playing a large part in the Western musical scene, and punk rock was especially popular in the mid to late 70’s. From this time we saw the ‘disco-dance’ music of the Bee Gees, the indie rock of Fleetwood Mac and the iconic piano ballads of Elton John. It was also the decade when the best song in the history of music took over the world - Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which remains one of the most iconic and mind-blowing songs ever.


The 1980s were some of the brightest years in modern history (both literally and metaphorically). The clothes were brighter, the grass greener, the shoulder pads bigger. It was the first time that ‘pop culture’ as we know it today began to really take off. The 80s have been named the “decade of decadence”, shown through their production of some of the best music, TV shows and movies of all time (some of these including Back to the Future and Ferris Bueller's Day Off). It is the time that our parents and grandparents most often reflect on with nostalgia and the memories of the time continue to live on, as does the music. The 80s saw the emergence of electronic dance music featuring synth guitar and electric drums, as well as “new wave”, also known as modern rock. Some of the most iconic singers of this time included Madonna, Michael Jackson, Dire Straits, Queen and Prince, voices that we still hear on our radios to this day. 


A decade of peace and prosperity, the 90s were a time of innovation and technology. The Soviet Union fell, and the rise of the Internet began a new era of communication and entertainment. This decade also saw rap, reggae and contemporary R&B music become popular, alongside rock music. Grunge, Britpop and industrial rock emerged and took over as the most popular sounds of the decade. This saw the rise of iconic rock bands like Nirvana and Silverchair, as well as pop singers like Mariah Carey and Britney Spears. Whitney Houston’s love ballad “I Will Always Love You” emerged as the most popular song of the decade, closely followed by Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Sinead O’Connors “Nothing Compares 2 U”.


As a fashion lover, the 2000s era was almost like a fever dream. People walked around wearing iconic and unironic outfits featuring oversized sunglasses, mini handbags and oversized hoop earrings. Teen girls rejected memorizing math formulas for memorizing jean formulas - mid-rise, boot-cut, fabric accents down the side, fabric accents in the flares, lace-up sides, baggy, cargo - the list goes on. The profound technological advancements of the '90s continued, bringing us the best thing to happen to mankind - the flip phone. Barack Obama replaced George Bush as the president in 2009 and remained in power for the rest of the decade and into the 2010s. Contemporary R&B was one of the most popular genres of the time and powerful, feel-good female voices like Rhianna, Beyonce and Alicia Keys graced the airwaves everywhere. Eminem, Coldplay and Amy Winehouse were also among the top artists and the no. 1 song of the decade was The Killers' “Mr Brightside ''. **

**HOT TAKE: this is the worst, most overplayed song in the whole world and you are lying if you say it does not make your ears bleed. Anyone who plays it should be issued a lifetime ban from the aux cord.  


The 2010s saw the musical and cultural dominance of dance-pop, electronic dance music, hipster rock and electropop. An increased demand for accessible variety and personalisation of music led to the rise of streaming services such as Spotify, SoundCloud and Apple Music (bleurgh). From this, less mainstream music genres began to make their way into people’s playlists, and we saw a rise in smaller artists. Gone were the days when everyone listened to the same dusty record that had been in their family for 60 years. A whole world of music was simply at your fingertips. Despite this, pop music continued to dominate the charts in the 2010s, with popular bands and singers like Taylor Swift (mother), Justin Beiber and One Direction (RIP 😭). The rise of new recording technology ushered in different sounds such as autotune and electronic instruments. Mark Ronson became a music-producing-god, with songs like ‘Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” with Mylie Cyrus and “Uptown Funk” with Bruno Mars, which emerged as the top songs of the decade. 


It feels strange to be writing about the era we are currently living through as though it is already history, but here goes. As we all know, the 2020s started off with a bang, beginning with the COVID-19 pandemic, many extreme weather events and a desperate call to action for climate change. It saw the scarily rapid rise of TikTok, which is arguably now the key to any artist's success. Genres such as indie rock, synth-pop and K-pop have emerged from this time and some of the top artists include Doja Cat, Dua Lipa, Olivia Rodrigo and of course, Taylor Swift. We cannot determine the top song of this decade yet, as the decade is not yet over, however, the Triple J top 100 song of last year was Doja Cat’s “Paint the Town Red ''.


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