Head to head: '80s alternative slaps now as hard as ever

What would alternative culture be today without its music? 

From Joy Division T-shirts to Siouxsie Sioux inspired tresses, music is an essential element in alternative subculture. It's the passion that unites the alternative scene, the meat off of which it subsists, and it all started with the post-punk alternative revolution of the 1980s.

Using the same electronic instruments and sound engineering techniques as their pop music peers, post-punk alternative bands defined the decade just as much as Cyndi Lauper or Whitney Houston, albeit more subtly.

In the hands of artists willing to experiment, new technical innovations produced more than the aggressively saccharine synth pop that saturates our image of the decade, and achieved more complex, mature sounds than the punk of their counter-cultural predecessors. 

Bands like New Order, The Psychedelic Furs and Joy Division experimented with hypnotic, catchy, synthed-up rhythms, creating a darker cousin to the bright, exuberant sounds of pop. This engaging, complicated, entirely different sound, coupled with with themes that ranged from love and alienation to misery and disappointment, captivated audiences. Listeners found music that was not only totally different from anything that had come before it, but imminently relatable in its open angst.

Like punk, '80s alternative was unafraid to embrace darker themes, but it did so with a musical composure and subtlety that was lost on its cymbal crashing, guitar smashing predecessors. The narrators of The Cure songs are sensitive: they wear their hearts on their sleeves, they get hurt, they fall in love and suffer all the associated turmoil. 

These bands powerfully changed the face of rock n' roll from a glimmering, charismatic, loud machismo to a sometimes sad, sometimes optimistic but always earnest, sensitivity. 

The themes resonated so widely, and the innovative sound of bands like The Smiths and Tears for Fears were so compelling that music that started in the alternative scene quickly rose to an enduring popularity, charting right next to pop icons of the day. 

While it might not have achieved the same sensational (but temporary) popularity as Belinda Carlisle or Kenny Loggins, the '80s was a decade when alternative music gained popularity with a wide audience. While many of the pop icons of the decade proved temporary, and now serve only as relics representative of a bygone era, the alternative scene remains relevant. 

We listen to Duran Duran and Rick Springfield for the nostalgia, yes. Eighties pop was fun and carefree — a stepping stone to the pop we know now. 

But The Smiths and Joy Division haven’t fallen out of fashion. More than nostalgia, these bands have stayed relevant. The goth, folk punk and electronic scenes that got started in the '80s have since blossomed from their foundations into distinct, evolving genres. The sound of the pioneering alternative bands of the era has endured over time, transcending their cultural moments to attract new listeners in each successive generation.

What’s the hallmark of good music: endurance of meaning or momentary kitsch? That’s for you to decide. But when the opening waves of some jangling synth pop song blare over the radio, I challenge you not to think of your mom’s high school prom before turning the channel. 

Hang out on any college campus and you’ll see the living, breathing effects of '80s alternative. From goths with dark hair and darker eyeliner to girls sporting Joy Division crop tops, the spirit of '80s alt is alive and well all these years later. 


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