Back To The Future: '80s Pop Makes Its Return

Written By Sam Murphy on 10/21/2015


If you look back on the greatest songs of the ‘80s - many of them signal a time when pop music was big-sounding. The pop stars had huge hair, big voices and were buoyed by heavy-beated songs with huge choruses. Somewhere in between the ‘80s and now, pop music, in terms of sound at least, has become a little less over the top. We’ve had choruses replaced by trap-drops, softer voices come into vogue and R&B make a reappearance in the charts. It’s not a bad thing but we have lost those huge sounding pop songs that tread a careful line between the ridiculous and the earth-shattering.

However, last year something happened. Taylor Swift, who you’d have a hard time arguing isn’t the biggest popstar on the planet, made a brilliant pop record that leant on all those elements from the ‘80s that made pop music big. The Max Martin production was out in full-force with one big stylistic difference to what other pop was doing at the time with the ‘80s influences - big, thumbing programmed drums, brass, groovy guitars and a focus on the chorus rather than losing it for a instrumental drop.

When everybody else was heralding the return of the ‘90s and heading towards R&B (Ariana Grande, Iggy Azalea, Charli XCX ), Swift took a left turn which, obviously, paid off handsomely. The simple fact is, pop was getting smaller. Artists were taking minimal R&B beats or simplistic deep house choruses and shying away from the big sounds probably as a reaction to the EDM phase which was even more obnoxious and OTT. Luckily, EDM seems to be slipping from the mainstream charts.

You’ll notice right now that the pop charts are starting to sound bigger than ever. The big chorus is back and the bass is throbbing that little bit more, mixed with a bit of cheese - the same kind that makes everyone smile when they hear “don’t you wanna dance? Say you wanna dance.”

More often than not mainstream trends start in the underground before making an appearance on commercial radio tracks. The ‘90s trend had been kicked off years before with producers like Kaytranada and Ryan Hemsworth channeling that nostalgia before it made its translated into R&B’s wave resurgence in the charts. The ‘80s trend is happening a little differently though. It really found momentum off the back of Taylor Swift and Max Martin’s 1989 tracks but is only just starting to appear in the pop charts - more than a year after Shake It Off (which, admittedly, leaned more towards a ‘90s sound than the rest of 1989).

The pop charts are vastly different in terms of sound to what they were this time last year. In October 2014, Taylor Swift was still reigning with Shake It Off, Jessie J, Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj had attempted to re-create Lady Marmalade with the horn-heavy Bang Bang and tropical house had just started to find its feet with Klingande’s Jubel. The ‘80s influences were nowhere to be seen. They had emerged almost a decade ago when bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Killers started looking to the decade for inspiration but it barely scratched the mainstream back then.

In 2015, it’s beginning to be the dominant influence. The Weeknd has harked back to Michael Jackson with his superstar turn Can’t Feel My Face, Little Mix are channelling Kylie and Madonna and even One Direction are giving off strong ‘80s Tay Tay vibes with (their Style knockoff ) Perfect. There’s also a chance that Macklemore’s ‘80s hip-hop-influenced Downtown will create some waves as more artists in that field try to emulate that sound.

It's starting to flood in from all different places but there’s one man you can trace this back to - Max Martin. The Swedish hitmaker has been creating trends for more than two decades because it’s only natural that pop artists will lean towards a sound that’s selling records. He ushered in a wave of pop-rock songs defined by huge choruses with Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone, introduced substituting the chorus for a drop with Katy Perry’s Dark Horse and popularised the horn-riff with Ariana Grande’s ‘90s-tinged Problem. With 1989, he opened the door for more ‘80s-leaning pop tunes with big programmed drums, vivacious shouts and dense layering. For The Weeknd he did it with Can’t Feel My Face and In The Night and also worked his magic on Adam Lambert’s latest single Another Lonely Night. It will be interesting to see what he does on Ellie Goulding’s forthcoming Delirium LP although he’s already injected a little ‘80s into Love Me Like You Do with the huge crashing drums reminiscent of a Foreigner ballad.

Away from Martin, Little Mix have already admitted that they’re going back in time on their forthcoming album Get Weird. "The album has an 80s vibe. Not cheesy 80s – it's more like Prince, that kind of cool sound,” they said. In general, not cheesy seems to be key with recreating one of history's cheesiest decades. Most of the pop songs influenced by it right now are looking more to icons like Michael Jackson, Whitney and Prince rather than trying to recreate another Hey Mickey or Never Gonna Give You Up.

Carly Rae Jepsen didn’t strike the same commercial success as 1989 but her third album E.MO.TION was arguably better. It traded in ‘80s nostalgia too serving up huge pop song after huge pop song complete with horns and exploding percussion. She gave us euphoria (Run Away With Me), hard-hitting ballads (Your Type) and bedroom musings reminiscent of a curly-haired Madonna (Boy Problems).

Speaking with Digital Trends, Jepsen acknowledged the ‘80s influences and drew them back to one song - Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. “I would put it out as is right now without changing a bloody thing,” she said. “The lyrics [by Robert Hazard] are just genius! As somebody who’s found herself fascinated by lyrics and how much they can say in such a short amount of time, they just make you want to sing along — even on the verses, where you get the deeper story about this sort of, I don’t know, this chaotic thing that’s going on.”

In a climate where lyrics continue to get more and more ridiculous, there’s something about ‘80s nostalgia that calls for something a little more creative. MJ’s Thriller was simultaneously ridiculous and genius, Madonna’s Borderline was bitter in message but sweet in delivery and Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun almost overstepped the cheese-factor but managed to be iconic and memorable. Maybe it’s the joyous sonic aesthetic but there’s something about it that allows you to go deep as Jepsen said but also be silly and ridiculous and in turn - memorable.

The mystical-lyrics of Little Mix’s Black Magic are ridiculous but delivered with the highest degree of fun and The Weeknd’s Can’t Feel My Face actually doesn’t make much sense but he does it with such conviction and intensity that your forget immediately. Him bursting into flames in the video is also ridiculous but it holds the same kind of intensity as Michael Jackson pulling out a gun at the end of the Smooth Criminal video clip. Pop is made to be over the top. There are so many other avenues you can take if you’d prefer to be quaint or quirky but name one great pop song and accompanying video that hasn’t been a little over the top.

The Weeknd isn’t only channeling ‘80s in sound he’s also doing so in persona. “These kids they don’t have Michael Jackson, they don’t have Prince, they don’t have Whitney. Who else is there,” he said on making more commercial music. That should be the take-away here. Even if the ‘80s influence doesn’t last long we’ve lost those popstars doing really huge pop songs. Of course, there are megastars like Beyonce and Rihanna but they’re doing their own thing and have mostly ditched the huge, meaty choruses for R&B bangers because their persona and vocal textures can hold people’s attention like no other.

This ‘80s resurgence won’t last long because of its in-your-face nature. Five to ten songs taking that aesthetic on the radio is fine but once you have 50 it will begin to feel like eating a whole packet of Starburst. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts and hope that the chorus of Macklemore’s Downtown doesn’t mean our next trip is into ‘70s glamrock.