Why does the majority of pop and alternative music being released in 2017 sound like an homage to the mid-to-late '80s? For the love of all that is holy, what's happening here?
If you love the pop music of the 1980s, you probably weren't around to endure it in real time. I was. And though great music was being made, it was the exception, not the rule.
The '80s were brutal. Unless you spent them following the Grateful Dead, getting into pre-"hair rock" classic metal, grooving to early hip-hop, listening to '70s rock albums, or digging deep for college rock and progressive alternative, you were forced to hear an awful lot of unpleasant music. Even routinely brilliant artists like David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen were making over-produced records that have not aged particularly well, at least in terms of their timbral aesthetics.
Snare drums that sound like cheesy synthesizers breaking wind. An emphasis on high-end frequencies to the detriment of bass. The sort of peppy production and songwriting that lent itself rather handily to the teaching of aerobics classes - '80s pop made those of us who had to slog through it pine for the good old days of disco, when at least a drum sounded like a piece of wood with a skin stretched across it, and you could hear the bass.
Bleachers. Grimes. Walk the Moon. Arcade Fire. The Weeknd. Chainsmokers. The 1975. Even some hip-hop artists – Chance the Rapper and the majority of the trap-rap set – are getting their '80s on.
Taylor Swift even went so far as to name her 2014 "I'm not a country artist any more, I'm a pop star" breakup album "1989." And judging by the sound of the first singles from her forthcoming record, Big Swifty's about to fully embrace the "modern '80s" genre yet again. She's been working with Jack Antanoff, after all. And Antanoff – formerly of Fun., now trading beneath the moniker Bleachers – would seem to view his existence on this planet solely as an opportunity to haul '80s production and songwriting values out of the dustbin.
Perhaps it all sounds fresh to Antonoff. He was born in 1984, which makes it unlikely that he was aware of the cruel and unusual punishment being inflicted on snare drums and sequencers while it was all actually happening the first time. Perhaps the Thompson Twins and Paula Abdul sound groovy to him for this reason. Nostalgia for something you never actually knew has a way of making otherwise sensible people do stupid things or adopt troubling stances.
Lest you get the idea that I despise all pop music released during the Reagan years, I'll admit that many of my most treasured recordings come from that era. U2 did its best work back then. R.E.M., Echo & the Bunnymen, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, N.W.A., Talk Talk, the The, the Smiths, Public Enemy, Iron Maiden, the Police, Prince, Michael Jackson & Quincy Jones, to name only a few – all made enduring music in the 80s.
I love synthesizers and sequencers when they are used as tools for experimentation, rather than mere copying. Witness an album like Japan's "Tin Drum," which I consider to be a timeless classic. The band was using the same technology available to everyone else. But play "Tin Drum" next to something by Duran Duran, and you'll hear the difference.
Last week, the all-'80s soundtrack companion to the Netflix series "Stranger Things" was released, and it too points toward the sunnier side of '80s music, for the most part. It should also be noted that the preponderance of
80s influence in the present day hasn’t yielded solely negative results. Witness new albums from Steven Wilson and the War on Drugs, both of which celebrate what the artists loved about that era's music. But both curate that era, rather than merely seeking to recreate it verbatim.
When I think of the '80s, I recall a dark cloud of heavily plasticized pop musical product hanging ominously above a rather vibrant underground filled with artists more interested in making art than getting famous. Sadly, I'm convinced that the current decade will be remembered in much the same way.