Party Like It’s 1989

Why are so many of 2015’s biggest pop stars channeling the sound of the 1980s?

The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye, Taylor Swift, and Carly Rae Jepsen.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Kevin Winter/Getty Images, Monica Schipper/Getty Images, Ethan Miller/Getty Images for iHeartMedia.

My favorite music meme of the summer was this mix boiling down the Human League’s 1981 hit “Don’t You Want Me?” to its opening phrase: “You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar,” repeated in endless, sublimely moronic variations. It condenses into less than three minutes all the smart dumbness and stylish awkwardness of ’80s music.

This general sensibility (dumbness not omitted) has helped transform The Weeknd, aka Toronto’s Abel Tesfaye, from a gloomy and foul-mouthed alternative-R&B cult object into a full-blown pop star. The vector was of course “Can’t Feel My Face,” which he performed on Sunday at MTV’s VMAs, and which currently sits atop the Billboard charts. For millions who didn’t know Abel from Adam, it became the summer’s most credible smash —in part because it simulates so well the synth burble and serotonin flush of 1980s Michael Jackson. Made with the Swedish imperial chart conqueror Max Martin, it calls up the days of “Billie Jean” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” which Pitchfork last week proclaimed the 13th and second best songs of that decade, respectively.

So I was surprised that even as his new album Beauty Behind the Madness was finally coming out last week, The Weeknd released the raunchy, self-reflexive, Kanye West–produced “Tell Your Friends” as its fifth single. That’s deep into the album to go without touting “In the Night,” its only track that sounds more like the King of Pop. I assume Tesfaye’s team is reserving “In the Night”—a psychodrama set to an irresistible smooth groove—as a secret weapon to maintain dominance in the year’s last quarter.

These MJ comparisons aren’t incidental to Tesfaye. They are his express aim. “These kids, you know, they don’t have a Michael Jackson,” he told the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica in a profile in July. “They don’t have a Prince [whose ‘Purple Rain’ was No. 1 on Pitchfork’s list]. They don’t have a Whitney [‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody,’ No. 20]. Who else is there? Who else can really do it at this point?”

Perhaps he’s right about those ’80s icons, though Miguel, for example, seems determined to put up a fight for the “New Prince” title. But another strain of that decade’s music is up front in the new album by Tesfaye’s fellow Canadian, Carly Rae Jepsen, Emotion (officially styled E•MO•TION). That set adopts Cyndi Lauper as its spirit animal, and elsewhere echoes early Madonna (Nos. 127 and 17 on Pitchfork)—two women who once wrestled with the novelty-act label that’s hounded Jepsen ever since “Call Me Maybe,” and who generated era-defining sounds despite having, like Jepsen, naturally thin voices.

Still, both The Weeknd and Jepsen were preceded (as are we all, ultimately) by Taylor Swift. Her final conversion from country-pop princess to chart-pop diva last year flew under the banner of 1989. Most straightforwardly the title was just her birth year, but it was also a four-digit mini-manifesto: Like ’80s music, it declared, the new Taylor was going to be unabashedly fun, quirky, inventively plastic, and big, big, big. It was a declaration of independence from her past, but also from any obligation to conform exactly to the more widescreen stylings of competing divas such as Katy Perry and Rihanna.

These three artists also turned to many of the same studio wizards who could conjure up the 1980s’ gated drums and neon-laser synths. Swift hired, among others, producer-songwriters Max Martin and Ali Payami (both of whom worked with The Weeknd), as well as Shellback (who aided Jepsen on Emotion’s opening track, “Run Away With Me”). And both Tesfaye and Jepsen also collaborated with another Swede, Peter Svensson, formerly of the band the Cardigans, who were already somewhat of an ’80s throwback in the ’90s.

Strains of ’80s revivalism have been common in music for more than a decade, but why is it that these days it seems to be the place that stars are turning for Big Pop Statements? As a former Breakfast Club–era adolescent, I have a few theories.

One is that to these artists, all in their 20s, the decade is what the Mad Men era is to Gen Xers like creator Matt Weiner and me: It was when their parents met, when they were conceived, but a time that expired before they came to consciousness. It is at once familiar and mysterious. It is the crucible that they never directly experienced. Tesfaye might have said “these kids” never had an MJ, a Whitney, a Prince. But in many ways neither did he. Born in early 1990, he was old enough to engage with those icons only after their magic years, when each had fallen from their pedestals. In that light, the ’80s must seem to many of these stars of the 2010s like a pop Arcadia to be restored.

What’s more, for pop culture as a whole, the ’80s can seem in retrospect like the last gasp of consensus, of a “monoculture” in which everyone agreed what mattered and what didn’t and could share that conversation. Like most cultural narratives, this is a lie. But it is one that is particularly powerfully underwritten by the visual memory of peak MTV: Once the music-video station removed its early color barrier, it became the place where you might see Madonna, Michael, Whitney, Prince, Iron Maiden, REM, and Run-DMC all in the same hour. It was the final 20th-century redoubt of Top 40 before the commercial ascension of hip-hop and then grunge/alternative/“indie” fractured the pop audience back into subcultural (and often racialized) tribes.

Another aspect of ’80s music was that it followed the musical shakeups of the death of disco and the advent of punk/New Wave, as well as the conflicts and reactions around triumphal neoconservatism. So it was a pop period in which boundaries weakened; the weird went mainstream and the mainstream went weird. There were asymmetrical haircuts, androgynous costumes, synthesizers challenging guitar supremacy, all-but-open queerness, arty pretension, as well as macho posturing. In the vacuum left by disco, the decade saw rock, dance music, and the arty stuff melding together. Everything seemed permitted, except perhaps subtlety.

This is one reason, for instance, that Korean pop, in aspiring to wring universality out of its global otherness, leans so heavily on ’80s signifiers. And when a Western star wants to risk some kind of self-reinvention—like Swift and The Weeknd with their stylistic shifts, or Jepsen trying to overcome the “one-hit wonder” curse—’80s references offer at once a reassuring consensus appeal and a permissive aura of flexibility. In this sense, it can seem like idealism as much as ambition: If Prince, Madonna, and MJ could achieve better living through appropriation and assimilation, why not Abel, Carly, and Taylor?

Yet the 1980s were also the decade of “greed is good,” and in that Gekko/Trump mode, this revival also speaks to the absence of an outside. For all three artists, the desire to be the coolest is hard to distinguish from the drive to be the biggest. For those of us who lived through the 1980s, this is a familiar paradox. It includes the way that, for instance, the visual-art world wrestled with the contradictions between the critical origins of Pop Art and the later ultracelebrity of Warhol and his successors. Or post-punk’s inability to retain its oppositional cred vis-à-vis Reaganism and Thatcherism whenever it became successful; in the parlance of the day, it “sold out.” (File under U2.)

Today, with the music industry in fiscal crisis, there is an all-or-nothing ambience: Being a mid-level or niche artist seems like an unsustainable career plan. As in the economy as a whole, as Chris Molanphy pointed out in Slate last year, the musical 1 percent take the spoils and to the rest go the dregs. On her tour this summer, Swift has been bringing other pop stars and celebrities onstage with her at every stop, with little regard for genre—the X-rated Weeknd having been one of the less comfortable for her own primary audience of young teens and their parents. This is part of her ongoing campaign—apparent in her VMA–winning video with Kendrick Lamar and her duet on the awards show with Nicki Minaj—to expand her personal Venn diagram until it fits snugly around every other sphere of pop culture. She wants to be everyone’s bestie. This is Social Network thinking: What’s cooler than a million fans? A billion fans.

It’s no coincidence that each of them has turned to the cadre of Swedish producers who’ve proved the most ruthlessly efficient hit-makers of the century. Those producers are a little older than the artists, and actually did have their formative years during the 1980s. Earlier, Max Martin and Shellback were too relentlessly focused on novelty to indulge in throwbacks, but perhaps now they are reaching an age to relish a touch of nostalgia, especially in collaboration with kids who find it romantic. 

There’s also a bravado to working with those producers for artists such as Swift and Tesfaye, who have staked their personas on being the auteurs behind their own music. They are saying that they are so sure of themselves that they can hire the biggest Svengalis in the business and bend them to their own will, rather than losing their identities—and by extension manage the same with pop as a whole.

They need to prove themselves on that ground, because pop now—no longer so scorned by music snobs, the way it was for decades—has become a kind of enveloping meta-genre, a transcendent condition to which almost every record aspires. On a recent edition of the New York Times Music Popcast, talking about Justin Bieber’s hit summer single with Diplo and Skrillex, “Where Are Ü Now,” critic Jon Pareles observed that for hipsters like those two dance-scene DJ-producers, in 2015 there could be nothing more “punk” than to work with Bieber, to prove they could render him cool. On the same scale The Weeknd could have done nothing cooler than to work with Max Martin. And when the drive is The More Pop The Better, ’80s-ness has come to stand for pop’s essence.

To understand how it became that way, Jepsen’s album offers helpful signposts. Along with the chart-pop producers, she brought aboard collaborators such as Ariel Rechtshaid (Haim, Sky Ferreira), Dev Hynes (Blood Orange), and Rostam Batmanglij (of Vampire Weekend), all with origins in more independent-minded scenes. Those sectors had an ’80s revival going on long before the mainstream.

As Simon Reynolds pointed out in the Guardian in 2010, this ’80s influence had spread its roots underground through the whole previous decade among guitar bands, many branches of EDM (which always had DNA in common with synth-pop and post-disco), and hybrids such as “electro-clash.”

Looking back, it seems obvious that when those musicians seized on ’80s music in the 2000s, it was part of their subcultures’ own slow process of wrestling and reconciling with pop. It allowed them to bring in simpler fun and immediacy without grazing too close to the contemporary mainstream. They could have their escapism and their cultural connoisseurship, too. Still, their ’80s sources tended to be more post-punk, New Wave, No Wave, Brian Eno, synth experimenters, and funky outliers—the Cool ’80s, rather than the (then) Uncool ’80s of Jackson, Madonna, Hall & Oates, and Christopher Cross. By now, that distinction has withered away. Tefaye himself is an exemplary case. The Weeknd’s early releases sampled the dark post-punk of Siouxsie and the Banshees. Now he’d much rather be Jackson.

As in so many cases of musical social anxiety, Pitchfork provides a useful index. When it made a list of the best albums of the ’80s in 2002, the top three spots were held by Sonic Youth, Talking Heads, and the Beastie Boys. In its ’80s song list last week, it was Prince, MJ, and NWA. Critics always lean a bit more pop when picking singles than albums, granted, but back in 2002 it’s difficult to remember Pitchfork discussing singles at all. As in music as a whole, its self-conscious readership’s center has moved closer to, well, the center.

Eighties references are less fashionable in more underground music now, but that’s partly because musicians are equally happy to experiment with their own more outré versions of current pop and R&B styles, as well as with those from metal, disco, 1990s indie rock, New Age, and easy listening. In this sense, the mainstream’s ’80s moment is simply belated catching up.

One record that helped mark that transition was 2011’s Kaputt by Vancouver contrarian Destroyer (Dan Bejar), which shamelessly embraced textures from the Uncool ’80s as well as the soft-rock ’70s, with synthesizers and saxophones that could have come straight out of a Hall & Oates album. His vocals mostly left his former David Bowie/Bryan Ferry theatricality behind in favor of a more hushed and intimate croon, though the words were still dense collages of wordplay. The horn flourish that opens Jepsen’s Emotion on “Run Away With Me” (above), in fact, sounds exactly like an outtake from Kaputt, although in Bejar’s case what follows is a lyric like, “A savage night at the opera/ Another savage night at the club/ Let’s face it, old souls like us are being born to die/ It’s not a war till someone loses an eye.”

Bejar’s first album since then, Poison Season, was released last week, and continues in a similar mode but complicates the horn grooves with cinematic, post-Stravinsky strings, more meandering structures, and vocals that aim nearer to Capitol Records–era Frank Sinatra (though still not all that near). “It’s like a strange mashup of 20th-century classical and, like, Destroyer at the Sands,he told Pitchfork. Still there are also sax lines that could be from Born in the U.S.A.

Now in his early 40s, Bejar (full disclosure: an old friend) may be as utterly disconnected from contemporary pop as he claims, but with his instinctive 1980s roots he’s more in step with the mainstream than he might know. I’m amused that he, Jepsen, and Tesfaye are all Canadian—as their compatriot, I know that as a nation we tend to be hobbled by earnestness, so we really benefit from an infusion of ’80s-esque artifice.

The problem, however, with most kinds of revivalism is that they are also a kind of avoidance. Mainstream 1980s gestures, for instance, seem to elide the global spread of hip-hop that dominated the ’90s and ’00s, along with the potentials and inevitable complications that it brought to the pop conversation. When Nicki Minaj side-eyes Swift on Twitter and Miley Cyrus on the VMAs, it’s as if she suspects that these white pop girls are wishing her out of their way.

Still, by this point it seems probable that, like the influences of 1960s garage rock, orchestral pop, and power pop, the sway of ’80s sounds will never entirely recede. Between electro, old-school, post-punk, New Wave, synth-pop, goth, and the new hegemonic pop of Jackson and Madonna, there was simply too much unleashed by that hinge between disco, punk, and arena rock ever to be fully exhausted.

What’s more, today there is no place or period, from Edwardian music hall to last month’s hits, that is too faded or too fresh to reload or reboot. The audio archive is perpetually open and available at a click. As Simon Reynolds wrote in in his 2011 book Retromania, “We’ve become so used to this convenient access that it is a struggle to recall that life wasn’t always like this; that relatively recently, one lived most of the time in a cultural present tense, with the past confined to specific zones, trapped in particular objects and locations.”

Along with all the decade’s other associations, the 1980s are perhaps best remembered as the last long moment of that mandatory present-ness, before we started to get permanently networked. It was the province of landlines, snail mail, and nothing-on-demand, before we began to become the Culture That Knew Too Much.

The popness of the ’80s, then, connotes its fancied innocence, provided you bypass all its real terrors and dysfunctions. This can imbue even what once seemed like the most cynical and calculated blockbuster pop with a poignant sentimentality. I think this is why Jepsen connects it to “emotion”: The music’s very shallowness becomes a kind of helpless depth. Whether you were there or not, you seem to recall, don’t you? I do. You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar.