Soft Rock Genre Profile

Los Angeles soft rock band Toto, photographed in 1982.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


Although soft rock never officially died and the term continues to maintain general application to various kinds of mellow, light rock still today, the style thrived in its purest form for about 10 years spanning most of the '70s and the early years of the '80s. Characterized by gentle, unimposing arrangements and lyrics focusing on love and romance, this music was typically unoffensive enough to gain favor among the parents of hard rock fans or serve as a generally pleasant soundtrack at retail establishments during shopping trips. Though sometimes regarded with disdain, soft rock also harbored its share of quality.

Soft Rock's '70s Emergence:

Following the chaotic political climate and radical musical experimentation of the late '60s, a niche sprung ready to be filled by the quiet, confessional sounds of the growing singer-songwriter movement. Much of the resulting music relied heavily on acoustic guitars, piano and soft layers of orchestral instrumentation, with heartfelt lyrics sung in calming, melodic tones. Artists like James Taylor, America, Bread and Firefall exemplified the accessible sound of soft rock and turned the form into one of the most popular and accepted rock music styles of all time.

Dismissal & Backlash in Some Circles:

For "serious" rock fans, the soothing sounds of soft rock seemed overly sentimental and watered down, sidestepping controversy and favoring maximum mainstream appeal over a distinctive, unique sound. This criticism sometimes held weight but more often served as a way of segregating the largely white, middle-class proponents of the form from fans of hard rock, soul, funk, punk and other edgier, earthier '70s styles. In fact, later terms like yacht rock and corporate rock began to enjoy growing usage as a way of marginalizing the often privileged, clean-cut types presumed to be the prevailing audience of soft rock.

Soft Rock Evolves into Adult Contemporary as the New Decade Advances:

The unique sound of soft rock persisted into the early '80s, but before long the blend of pop, rock, country and folk that had defined the form became less common, replaced often by glossy pop music with very little if any resemblance to rock. Whitney Houston, Cher and Luther Vandross generated considerable '80s success of this type, while latter-day soft rock artists like Ambrosia, Little River Band, Toto, and Kenny Loggins began to fade somewhat or at least change significantly with the times by the mid '80s.

Additional Key '80s Soft Rock Artists: