Pop’s Ever-Present Past
Matthew Munhall | Monday, September 14, 2015
In 2010, critic Simon Reynolds wrote in The Guardian about the “1980s revival that lasted an entire decade.” Reynolds cites Daft Punk’s “Discovery” as the quintessential album of this revival, synthesizing post-disco, synthpop and electro in the process of reconstructing the 80s. The specter of the 80s during the the mid-aughts could be seen in the post-punk of LCD Soundsystem and The Rapture; the glo-fi of Ariel Pink and Neon Indian; and the synthpop of Ladytron and Cut Copy.
Five years later, however, 80s revivalism is still in full swing. Earlier this month, Slate’s Carl Wilson wrote a piece explaining why so many of the year’s biggest pop stars were referencing 80s pop in their music. Recent albums from Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen and The Weeknd have used sleek synthpop to conjure, as Wilson explains, “at once a reassuring consensus appeal and a permissive aura of flexibility.” 80s pop — especially as represented by MTV’s holy trinity of Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince — has come to represent music that subverts prevailing cultural norms without sacrificing mainstream reach. When the so-called 80s revival has lasted longer than the decade it’s referencing, though, it seems the decade has become less a passing trend than a permanent well of inspiration for musicians.
This decade revivalism is not a 21st century invention, either. The 70s harkened back to 50s rockabilly, with Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” returning to the charts thanks to its use in “American Graffiti” and “Happy Days.” The 80s, too, experienced a 60s revival that propelled The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” to No. 1. American culture is always ready to look back 20 years into the past and mine it for inspiration.
Yet, the internet has seemingly intensified that urge to re-contextualize the sounds of prior decades. As file sharing and streaming services have changed the way we listen to music over the past 15 years, so too has the way we conceive of the relationships between different genres and periods. The internet has flattened both space and time — a history (albeit an incomplete one) of recorded popular music is accessible with the touch of a screen on Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube. It’s easier than ever for musicians to revisit and reference specific touchstones.
Beyond the interminable 80s revival, the critical declarations made this year about other periods speak to the existence of this ever-present past. In January, Stereogum asked, “Will 2015 be the year of the 70s singer-songwriter?” Natalie Prass and Father John Misty have both released excellent albums this year that refashion Laurel Canyon folk for the present day. 2015’s biggest hit, Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk,” likewise modernized 70s funk for a new audience. In June, Vogue declared that it was “Officially the Summer of 90s Music.” Speedy Ortiz and Courtney Barnett have channeled that decade’s alt rock, while Kendrick Lamar has resurrected G-funk. In the internet age, musicians are looking back to every decade of the 21st century simultaneously.
To an extent, this continual rehashing of the past is inevitable in pop music; musicians have always built on what’s come before them. What separates great art from the rest, however, is not merely replicating the past, but reshaping and recontextualizing it for the present. It’s why Reynolds pointed to “Discovery” as the quintessential album of the 80s revival: Daft Punk drew on 80s touchstones, but ran their vocals through vocoders in order to create a futuristic sound. In its best incarnations, revivalism is not a link to the past but to the future, conjuring not mere nostalgia but new possibilities of what music can sound like.