A recent study by London-based researchers and published in the journal Royal Society Open Science looked for harmony and timbre in every Billboard Hot 100 song in the US since 1960 and concluded that 80’s pop music was less musically diverse than any other period of time since the Billboard Top 40 chart has existed.
I think this is a fact that most of us who experienced the music of that decade innately know. There is a stigma attached to 80’s pop that came mostly from feeling that slight distaste and taboo. I suspect this may have had something to do with the advent of the digital synthesizer and I wonder if the decline in creativity and originality is due to it’s overuse during that time.
The synthesizer is an instrument – a tool – just like any other, and there are better or worse ways to use it. Naturally, in the beginning, most players are experimenting with the instrument, and haven’t yet discovered nuanced or effective ways to use it. And I think its overuse eventually led to associations with a lack of musical value and depth, and caused a recession in the use of it.
But I think that tool has been misunderstood as ‘novel for novelty’s sake,’ when in reality the flourishing of its capabilities is just happening now. Even some of the most recognizable and particularly gnawing sounds that turned us off to 80’s music have been used in recent years successfully.
I’d like to take a stab at what the 80’s was aiming for with the sounds that came out of it; clean and sleek architecture, urban landscapes, cars, products, and sounds as if to project itself as far as possible into the future and away from the upheaval of the 60’s and 70’s. We wanted the future, and we had a vision for it. We weren’t ready for it, but there were some beautiful dreams back then.
The real value of digital and synthesized music is its ability to create atmosphere, to more closely emulate the real world. The same with advanced uses of imaging and rendering; the technology can only grow toward more photorealism, whose returns have already begun to diminish. But if the tool is used in a strategic way, the work grows beyond the song and into the imagination.
Artists today who synthesize music and audio samples could attempt to emulate a cello perfectly, for example, but to what effect? The good artists synthesize pieces and fragments of sounds, instruments to emulate just a small part of the layered sonic landscape. Synthesized music is much more able to project the three-dimensionality of a piece of music. Not the three spatial dimensions that we live in. But they can be imagined spatially. The first dimension of a piece is time – because we experience a song as a linear thing. The second is through layering. And the third arises naturally when those layers start relating to one another in rhythm, or in tone, or harmony, and those relationships become recognizable structures in the three dimensions of the song.
Recently though, I have come across some musicians that I think have achieved a truly immersive sound experience of the future that the 80’s wanted or fantasized about. Some of these songs even implement aspects and uses of synthesized sound in ways that used to rub us the wrong way.
A short preface to the music:
I listen to music nowadays where lyrics matter very little to me. There are only so many words in our lexicon, and besides, words are ambiguous. But I do like music with lyrics and words, still. Not because I need to digest the entire lyrical essay that is the song, but because really all I need are a few recognizable words or phrases to set the stage of that sonic landscape, and my imagination with the sounds does the rest.
So in this sense, and especially because, for me, the 80’s was a decade that can more easily be identified by its architecture, the sounds of the 80’s usually invoke in me images of future, or alien cities. Songs don’t need to be stories for you to be transported somewhere.
Here are some songs and musicians that weave that sonic landscape very well, but especially take note of M83 and Taggart and Rosewood.
This is a very spatial song. The title alone sets a fascinating environment. Midnight. A car is barreling along the turnpike weaving in between vehicles. Skyscrapers encroaching the freeway on every side, on every turn. An impossibly anonymous club hidden at the feet of the metal and neon buildings. Debauchery. Saxophone. Think of Blade Runner. Hong Kong at night. Akira.
The beginning of this song can turn some people off, I think – this is an example of one of the more recognizable and annoying effects of 80’s synthesized music. It is not necessarily any nicer sounding in Midnight City, but it has an effect of creating the anxiety and energy of that kind of night.
Volcano Choir is a side project of Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, and Gayngs, who is a native of Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Producer Ryan Olson of Gayngs, Marijuana Deathsquads, and Polica, and Zach Coulter of Solid Gold, and Gayngs make Taggart and Rosewood. The studio session linked is a great little trip into a futuristic noir crime film scene. The suits, the wine, the table, the light, the masks. All add up to an impressive immersive sound experience that becomes very spatial, for me. The last 1/3 of the session especially becomes very mysterious, like an otherwise darkened cave except for the twinkling of amethyst in the cave wall at unknown distances. But none of it looks like a cave. It looks like a dream-like amalgam of an interrogation room and a bar, but an attractive interrogation room with the ambiance of an empty trendy bar. But in our minds it is a cave and a nightclub and an interrogation room. In our minds, it can be both. And so, in our minds, we get to experience impossible things.
Collaborates in M83.