New Wave music is often thought of as an outgrowth of punk music that became popular in the 1970s. Punk was seen as distinctly separate from Heavy Metal, or rock bands because of its anti-corporate, and often anti-government stance. New Wave, however, often embraced the corporate in its marketing strategies, with many bands becoming one-hit wonders by producing a single popular record and then quickly becoming obscure. This style of music also became associated with the excess of the 1980s, though some bands believed that it had more of a punk philosophy.
Bands associated with this genre can be very different in structure. Early examples include bands like Elvis Costello and the Attractions, The Pretenders, Duran Duran, U2, and The Police. While some of these bands relied on previous rock strategies, deriving more from punk and rock, others drew on the significant development of the synthesizer to replace many standard instruments.
Duran Duran is a perfect example of synth-produced music. Most of the drumbeats and orchestral sounds replaced the more standard arrangement of drums, electric bass, electric guitar, and piano. Even bands that relied more heavily on standard arrangements, such as The Police, delved into synth produced music, especially in their last two albums, Ghosts in the Machine and Synchronicity.
By the mid 1980s, the term New Wave encompassed just about all musicians that might now be considered “alternate” rockers. In fact, many of the original artists in this genre responded to this great popularity by returning to more fundamental rock roots. This is particular the case of musicians like Elvis Costello, Sting — the lead singer of The Police, who started producing jazz albums — and Joe Jackson. Most of these musicians went back to the roots of rock or earlier to use real rather than synthesized instrumental sounds.
Some bands fought their inclusion in this category, particularly U2. The band continued to produce music with limited synthesizer inclusion, resulting in being reclassified simply as a rock band in the 1990s.
New Wave was also associated with deliberate fashion movements. For men, this often meant heavy use of makeup like eyeliner, and Romantic-styled fashions like blousy shirts. Some called the early fashion stylings of bands like Duran Duran and Adam Ant, New Romance. In musician’s circles, one might hear such bands referred to as New Romantics rather than New Wavers.
Often, New Wave fashion stretched and bent gender lines. This was definitely not always considered as transsexual or homosexual, although some of the more popular musicians of the time claimed bisexualism, such as David Bowie, Boy George, and later George Michael.
The style is often thought of as akin to disco in its popularity, and unimportance. Some important artists came out of this period, however, particularly U2, Sting, and Elvis Costello. These artists have easily jumped the gap into the mainstream because of demonstrated excellent musicianship over 20-year or longer careers. They are also more likely to retain a degree of social responsibility. Bono, lead singer of U2, is one of the foremost celebrity leaders who has advocated for non-violent conflict resolution and for aid to impoverished countries
Most artists in the New Wave industry could not ignore the heightened attention given to AIDs toward the end of the 1980s. Since excessive lifestyles often led to greater sexual activity of an unsafe nature, the genre lost some of its artists to HIV. Those who have remained popular have turned their attention to promoting awareness and raising funds for research into HIV, and for support of nations destroyed by their growing HIV populations.