Illustration by Jane Kim
This article originally apeared on Noisey Canada.
The dream of the 80s is alive in pop music. Yes, it may be lacking big-budget videos of bands trying to get laid in jungle forests, blockbuster star-vehicle movies that double as soundtracks, and knowing you made it when Weird Al parodied you, but the aesthetic is all there. Canada’s done more than electing a Trudeau again to inject life into the ultimate throwback Thursday. Dan Boeckner’s synthpop group Operators nod to new wave on their album Blue Wave through the title and channeling high bass lines of New Order and Joy Division founding member Peter Hook. Jessy Lanza absorbed the 80s electropop goodness of Japanese group Yellow Magic Orchestra on her album Oh No, producing more joyful bleep bloops than ever. The Darcys reintroduced themselves as a Miami Vice-core pop duo with “Miracle,” a radio-friendly single whose chorus hints to the arpeggiating synth line of The Human League’s 1981 hit “Don’t You Want Me.”
DIANA also returned with the dreamy synth washes of “Slipping Away,” echoing Roxy Music’s atmospheric 1982 classic album Avalon, and Shad revealed his soft-rock alter ego Your Boy Tony Braxton, somewhere between Control Janet Jackson and Reckless Bryan Adams, on Adult Contempt. Tegan and Sara are a prime—and very successful—Canadian example of the 80s pop revival, diving deeper into synthpop on Love You to Death that features bombastic mall tour-worthy singles and videos including the literally animated “U-turn.” While the 80s resurgence isn’t exclusive to the north—Dev Hynes aka Blood Orange is big on drum pad R&B on Freetown Sound, The 1975 evolved into young INXS on I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are... oh forget it, and Shura oozes early Madonna on Nothing’s Real—Canada is leading the way through a mix of profit motive, producer-swapping, and nostalgia at a time when it’s easier to idealize the past than the future.
Tegan and Sara gave early signs of a flair for new wave on albums like The Con in 2007 and Sainthood in 2009. But it was their mainstream unapologetic pop breakthrough on Heartthrob in early 2013 that gave way to more 80s-flavoured albums; others that burned up that chart soon after Haim's Days Are Gone that same year and Taylor “Snake” Swift's 1989 in 2014. From there, Carly Rae Jepsen made her "Careless Whisper"-worthy sax solo reintroduction to the world on E-MO-TION, and The Weekend crossed over from blogs to arenas after emulating Michael Jackson on "Can't Feel My Face,” both in 2015.
It’s not like everyone decided to go 80s pop during a hazy yacht bender with Duran Duran on repeat (but that would be one hell of a party.) Heartthob was a massive success, debuting at number three on the Billboard top 200 in 2013—their highest chart position to date. Heartthrob pushed Tegan and Sara’s total album sales, saw Juno Award wins for Pop Album, Single, and Group of the Year as well as a Polaris Music Prize nomination, and led to lucrative opportunities to tour with Katy Perry, share the stage with Taylor Swift on The Red Tour and Macklemore at Osheaga, and contribute to The Lego Movie soundtrack. That hyper-optimistic collaboration with The Lonely Island, “Everything Is Awesome,” earned Tegan and Sara their first Grammy nom in 2014 and pretty much sums up how their career’s been going since they made a swerve into 80s inspiration.
A pop reinvention like that gets smaller artists dreaming big. In 2014, Darcys drummer Wes Marskell wrote an essay for The Huffington Post Canada that was part announcement that Marskell and guitarist Jason Couse were the last Darcys standing, and part revelation that Darcys were questioning their identity after their first three art-rock albums saw, well, art-rock level sales. Marksell points to Tegan and Sara’s strategic thinking as a prompt for brainstorming on what Darcys should do next. “Heartthrob didn't sell simply because Tegan and Sara wanted it to,” Marksell writes. “They made changes, and though they may have explored the boundaries of the genre and bridged the gap between their old and new sound, they still created a very recognizable product.”While producer-swapping is nothing new to the game, in the last few years, a number of artists began tapping the producers behind their peers’ successful 80s-leaning work to ride the lucrative wave of nostalgic pop. It’d be amiss to not mention Sky Ferreria’s “Everything Is Embarrassing” at this point, a gorgeous echo of new wave balladry produced and co-written by Ariel Rechtshaid and Dev Hynes in 2012. Rechtshaid went on to work with Haim on Days Are Gone in 2013, and he and Hynes were leveraged by Carly Rae Jepsen on E-MO-TION in 2015. Serial hitmaker Max Martin went from shaping Swift’s 1989 in 2014 to propelling The Weeknd towards Swift-levels of chart domination with "Can't Feel My Face,” producing two other tracks on Beauty Behind the Madness in 2015 as well. Meanwhile, fellow 1989 producer Shellback joined Jepsen’s reinvention party on E-MO-TION that same year, producing and co-writing the endless fire emoji-worthy “Run Away With Me.”
Not everyone in the 80s revival spectrum in Canada follows Tegan and Sara’s lead for sales or scouting likeminded producers. We’re are also living in a golden age of nostalgia where an 80s pop culture cut-and-paste show like Stranger Things is a huge success. Jessy Lanza points to her uncle for introducing her teen self to the Yellow Magic Orchestra records that would go on to shape her drum machine-backed sound on Oh No. Shad credits his adult contemporary turn as Your Boy Tony Braxton to his childhood “vague memories of Michael Penn, Terence Trent D’arby, the Cure, Bryan Adams, Janet Jackson, and others that evoke a smile.” And damn do we need a smile.
Research shows that nostalgia helps us cope with anxiety and loneliness, increasing hope for the future, which is perfect for a time when life currently has nightmares that include Donald Trump failing up the political ladder, Brexit denting the global economy, alarming patterns of terrorism, everything-phobic idiots, and so on and so on. The synth washes, drum machines, and saxgasms of 80s pop is the dance floor escape we deserve, and the one we need right now.
Jill Krajewski is a writer living in Ottawa. Follow her on Twitter.