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In the early 1970s, there was a growing sense that rock was losing its critical edge. There were growing complaints about "bubble-gum" music (light-hearted, pre-packaged music) directed at "teeny boppers" (pre-teens). There was also a sense that youth music was failing to speak to the social problems of the time, including the deepening isolation of urban ghettoes, mired in poverty.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, there was a proliferation of musical styles emphasizing an aggressive, antiestablishment tone. There was punk, a raucous, anarchic, heavy metal form of music that arose in lower Manhattan and the decaying urban neighborhoods in Britain. There was rap, in which rhyming lyrics are chanted to a musical backdrop that includes scratching, mixing, and sampling (extracts from other songs). Rap was one aspect of hip hop culture which emerged in economically depressed neighborhoods of the south Bronx. Other aspects of hip hop culture included break dancing and graffiti art. Especially controversial was gangsta rap, which was heavily criticized for its apparent misogyny, propensity for violence, and macho swagger. It is perhaps not surprising that gangsta rap found its largest and most enthusiastic audience among white suburban teenage boys, who found few outlets for a rebellious spirit in their own lives.

Other popular forms of musical expression included grunge, rasta, reggae, Salsa, and Tejano. The proliferation of musical styles reflected, in part, the tribalization of youth: the fracturing of youth into distinct identity groups. It also reflected the emergence of a new life stage, stretching from the early or mid-twenties into the early thirties, when many young people had left home but had not yet entered into adult careers.