When Bubblegum Pop Was an Artform

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Every decade produces its own share of light, bubbly, fun music that adolescent and teenage girls love. Known, occasionally derisively, as “bubblegum pop,” these songs create the framework through which most tweens and teens process their lives. Music by people like Pat Boone, the Archies, Andy Gibb and Shaun Cassidy may be forgotten today, but to anyone who grew up listening to them, it’s still as fresh and relevant today as it was then.

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Although some bands, like the Monkees, gain respect as musicians and artists after the fact, most are only remembered fondly by the girls who loved them at the time. This all changed in the 80s, when “bubblegum pop” was elevated to an artform and well-respected singers, songwriters and musicians produced a brand of pop that was bright and effervescent, becoming the sound that defined the decade.

I Want My MTV

In previous decades, pop music that was aimed at younger audiences was often overproduced and the performers were heavily stage-managed, so the product, while catchy, was often forgettable. Things changed in the 80s when the decade’s sunny veneer intersected with the advent of MTV, creating a groundswell of interest in unique but still listener-friendly artists who appealed primarily to younger viewers.

With a set that looked like every teen’s dream basement where they got to hang out with their favorite bands, MTV played music videos 24 hour a day. From the moment the network played “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles at midnight on August 1, 1981, it was a hit, even if the early videos were mostly live clips or art pieces by David Bowie and Laurie Anderson.

The immediate need for content proved fertile ground for young artists and bands to sidestep radio and quickly make their names with videos and New Wave was born. British bands like Duran Duran created lush videos shot on location while local girls like the Go Gos drove around Los Angeles in convertibles. It was sunny, it was fun, and even when it was moody or caustic, like The Jam and Scritti Politti, it still had a great beat you could dance to.

Major Key Happiness

A key feature of New Wave pop in the 80s was that most songs were written in major keys. Major keys produce a positive, upbeat response in listeners. They imply happiness and well-being, regardless of the lyrics. Katrina and the Waves “Walking on Sunshine” was the quintessential 80s pop song, even the title suggests that it’s frothy fun. Lyrically, musically and even visually, “Walking on Sunshine” wanted you to know that Katrina was all about positivity, even in cold, gray London.

Not that happy music meant silly or insignificant. One of the era’s most prolific, and respected, songwriters, Paul Weller, used these major keys and danceable beats to create socially aware music, first with The Jam and later with Style Council. He just sang about the optimism questioning the status quo and blazing your own path.

Girl Power

If the 70s introduced the rise of women who were singers/songwriters and musicians, with women like Aretha Franklin, Carol King and Carly Simon paving the way for other women to create their own music with full artistic control, the 80s kicked down the doors to let singers like Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson or Madonna as well as bands like the Bangles and the Go-Gos own the airwaves. And above all others was the ultimate “girls” anthem of the 80s: “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” by Cyndi Lauper.

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Cyndi said it in the title of her first album, “She’s So Unusual.” With her Day-Glo dye job, bright, thrift store clothes and shaved side of her head, Cyndi was the embodiment of the 80s. Happy, a little eccentric, and fun. She was instantly memorable and sang about equality in a way everyone could embrace: Girls just wanted to have some fun on their own without asking permission.

All About the Songwriting

Unlike prior decades, 80s pop was written by the artists’ themselves. Other genres like rock, country and R&B had a history of artists writing their own music, but pop was still the purview of packaged artists choosing material written by others for performers who were groomed by managers to fit into a specific niche. That’s how pop music was produced.

By the time the 80s rolled around, with artists born in the late 50s and early 60s and who were raised on pop music, bands and artists started writing their own music and creating their own sound. Even acts that were usually associated with each other, like the Go-Gos and the Bangles, had distinct appeals: you were either Team Bangles or Team Go-Gos, even if you liked both. Two bands that really shone in this genre were Haircut 100 and Wham!

Haircut 100, fronted by fresh-faced singer & songwriter Nick Heyward, were the kings of “bops:” three-minutes of ear-catching tunes like “Love Plus One,” “Favourite Shirts (Boy Meets Girl),” and “Fantastic Day.” They bridged the gap between “kid’s stuff” and what was “good music.” Heyward, a little less fresh-faced these days, is still writing and recording, though with a more wistful, but still hopeful, tone.

Meanwhile, Wham! introduced the world to the king of 80s “bubblegum” pop, George Michael. From the first finger snap in “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go,” he, along with bandmate Andrew Ridgeley, showed just how high bubblegum pop could soar in the right hands.

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Dina del Vall

Writer

Dina del Valle is a freelance writer and lifelong pop culture aficionado currently living in Southern California.