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Are We Not New Wave?

Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s

Theodore Cateforis

Publication Year: 2011

“Are We Not New Wave? is destined to become the definitive study of new wave music.” —Mark Spicer, coeditor of Sounding Out Pop New wave emerged at the turn of the 1980s as a pop music movement cast in the image of punk rock’s sneering demeanor, yet rendered more accessible and sophisticated. Artists such as the Cars, Devo, the Talking Heads, and the Human League leapt into the Top 40 with a novel sound that broke with the staid rock clichés of the 1970s and pointed the way to a more modern pop style. In Are We Not New Wave? Theo Cateforis provides the first musical and cultural history of the new wave movement, charting its rise out of mid-1970s punk to its ubiquitous early 1980s MTV presence and downfall in the mid-1980s. The book also explores the meanings behind the music’s distinctive traits—its characteristic whiteness and nervousness; its playful irony, electronic melodies, and crossover experimentations. Cateforis traces new wave’s modern sensibilities back to the space-age consumer culture of the late 1950s/early 1960s. Three decades after its rise and fall, new wave’s influence looms large over the contemporary pop scene, recycled and celebrated not only in reunion tours, VH1 nostalgia specials, and “80s night” dance clubs but in the music of artists as diverse as Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, and the Killers.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Tracking Pop


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pp. 1-16

Like many historical narratives, the story of rock music is one organized around a succession of cycles. The music’s production, reception, and mythology are typically situated as part of a constantly renewing periodic phenomenon, intimately tied to the ebb and flow of adolescent or youth generations. This periodization finds its most conspicuous form in the...

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One: Tracking the Tide: The New Wave Washes In and Out

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pp. 17-44

The Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines a new wave as “a movement, trend, or vogue, as in art, literature, or politics, that breaks with traditional concepts, values, techniques, or the like.”1 There are numerous examples that fit this bill, ranging from the 1960s new wave of British theater and the influential early 1980s New Wave of British Heavy Metal to, of...

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Two: The Second British Invasion and Its Aftermath: From New Pop to Modern Rock

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pp. 45-70

Ever since the new wave label had been thrust upon radio programmers, record retailers, and consumers via Seymour Stein’s aggressive marketing campaign for Sire Records in the late 1970s, the genre had been intimately intertwined with the machinery of the American music industry. In England, however, new wave’s presence was much more fleeting. The genre...

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Three: From Neurasthenia to Nervousness: The Whiteness of the New Wave

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pp. 71-94

The Talking Heads’ 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense remains one of new wave’s definitive artistic statements, an adventurous cinematic portrait of a band long associated with the genre’s most experimental proclivities. As conceived by the Talking Heads’ front man David Byrne and director Jonathan Demme, the movie intentionally unfolds as a three-act theatrical...

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Four: Camp! Kitsch! Trash! New Wave and the Politics of Irony

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pp. 95-122

In his remarks on Wild Planet music critic Frank Rose deploys a tactic common to nearly every B-52’s review: he grounds the group’s aesthetic in their recycling of pop culture’s distant past, a dizzying parade of 1960s television reruns, forgotten female pop singers, novelty dances, and teenage Beach Party movies. ...

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Five: “(I Wish It Could Be) 1965 Again”: Power Pop and the Mining of Rock’s Modern Past

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pp. 123-150

In the summer of 1979, as Billboard magazine declared that the new wave was finally having a “significant impact on the U.S. market,” no recording signified the genre’s newfound success as dramatically as the Knack’s “My Sharona.”1 The Los Angeles quartet’s debut single emerged seemingly from out of nowhere to land atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart for six straight...

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Six: “Roll Over Guitar Heroes, Synthesizers Are Here . . .”

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pp. 151-181

At the height of new wave’s popularity in the early 1980s, no musical instrument symbolized the movement’s modern identity more fully than the synthesizer. The synthesizer had first found its way into rock music at the end of the 1960s, and from the very beginning its ability to produce striking timbres and fantastical sound effects ensured that it would be viewed as...

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Seven: Kings of the Wild Frontier

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pp. 182-216

From its very beginnings in the mid-1970s, new wave was characterized by its maddeningly diverse collective identity, a trait that made it difficult to define as a movement. Anyone surveying the new wave landscape at the dawning of the 1980s need not have looked far to find proof of this. Two of the most successful new wave groups at that time, Adam and the Ants and...

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Epilogue: The New Wave Revival

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pp. 217-223

By the early years of the twenty-first century, new wave had lain dormant within pop culture’s past for nearly two decades. However, as the music critic Simon Reynolds points out, in the new millennium the 1980s and its new wave style suddenly grew ripe for recycling. ...


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pp. 225-255


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pp. 257-275


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pp. 277-294

E-ISBN-13: 9780472027590
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472115556

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Tracking Pop
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OCLC Number: 794700526
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Are We Not New Wave?

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Subject Headings

  • Popular music -- 1981-1990 -- History and criticism.
  • New wave music -- History and criticism.
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