In the opening line of his book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, Simon Reynolds posits that “we live in a pop age gone loco for retro and crazy for commemoration”. It’s true, to be honest. You can’t move an inch on social media without another op-ed about the importance of an album on its 10th anniversary, articles about now-problematic 80s and 90s sitcoms or the latest binge-worthy Netflix show that just happens to be set 30 years ago.
Pop music isn’t immune to this nostalgia-fest. Whether Taylor Swift’s supposed 80s-inspired 1989, Carly Rae Jepsen’s glittering early Whitney throwback synths or Bruno Mars co-opting funk/the Police/new jack swing to help win all the Grammys, the genre is saturated by the past. When used cleverly, nostalgia can result in incredible sampling in songs like Selena Gomez’s effervescent “Bad Liar” or Beyoncé’s “Hold Up”. When it’s used badly you end up with Jonas Blue butchering Tracy Chapman.
Then there’s the 80 remix. You’ll have heard one of these over the last few years because websites come at you on social media with headlines like “These 80s reworks of Justin Bieber's songs are flawless” or “It Turns Out Ariana Grande Was Born To Be An '80s Pop Star” and finally “Can You Handle These Oddly Amazing '80s Remixes of Ariana Grande, Maroon 5 and Justin Bieber?” They’re also fucking sick. These remixes, though, aren’t all being produced by just one mullet-loving retrophile. Rather, there’s been a proliferation of them saturating YouTube – the 80s remix’s preferred medium. But where are all these remixes coming from and why won’t people stop making them?
According to the genre’s Wikipedia page (yes, it even has its own Wikipedia page now), the “retro-remix” stems from 28-year-old Russian producer Steve Duzz’s 80s reimagining of the Game of Thrones theme tune. From Duzz’s remix – including a nostalgic trailer it soundtracked, with all of Westeros re-imagined like an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess – there came TRONICBOX, whose “What Do You Mean it’s 1985” remix of Justin Bieber’s megahit gave the song a bizarrely emotional and pondering lilt. TRONICBOX would go on to remix further tracks by Bieber, Fifth Harmony, Demi Lovato and, my personal favourite, Ariana Grande’s “Into You”. In fact, for a period it felt like you couldn’t move without bumping into another nostalgic hit of modern pop magic.
“I’ve been producing 80s-inspired music and remixes for a while,” says Saint Laurent, a self-professed “music maker, video glitcher for hire” whose nostalgic take on Calvin Harris and Rihanna’s “This Is What You Came For” (complete with VHS-filtered visuals) has over 3 million views on his experimental YouTube channel. “Then I came across TRONICBOX’s works and was inspired to put my 80s spin on contemporary pop with real VHS visuals for retro authenticity.” Saint Laurent, whose real name is Laurence, explains that, for him, 80s music production mirrors the fashion of the time; it’s “big and bold,” as he puts it, something that drew him to artists like Michael Jackson, Prince, Whitney Houston and producers Quincy Jones, Kashif, Teddy Riley and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, who pretty much epitomise those distinctive and dramatic gated reverbed drum machines.
Tokyo-based producer Initial Talk, who also uses YouTube and whose 80s remix of Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” was actually picked up by Dua’s label and officially released, expresses a similar idea. For him, the influences are the same but the reasoning for creating various remixes is different. “For obscure producers like me,” he says, “it's so difficult to get attention only with original songs.” Both producers agree, however, that the 80s was a time of invention in pop.
“The 80s was a perfect coincidence of several key factors,” recalls Mark Ellen, former editor of Smash Hits magazine, Q and The Word. “The arrival of the programmed synthesiser meant that anyone could be a musician, even people who couldn't really play an instrument. So you got a fantastically wide variety of acts.” Ellen explains that the excess of the 80s meant that record labels weren’t afraid to lose money, meaning that if a song wasn’t a hit an artist wasn’t immediately dropped. It was, he says, “an era of thrilling experimentation”.
Indeed, compared to today’s often paint-by-numbers pop charts, dominated by just three major labels, the 80s were like a smorgasbord of sonic exploration. Amalgamations of analogue and digital synthesizers, IRL instrumentation and a fearlessness when it came to what constituted pop meant that acts like Madonna, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson could flit between dance music, R&B, disco and rock’n’roll with reckless abandon. The theatrics of Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, Adam And The Ants and Frankie Goes to Hollywood also often bent gender and genre to create new exploratory aesthetics. Essentially, the 80s was pop’s proto Prometheus (though lovers of pop production’s Motown golden age would no doubt disagree).
Still, the fizzy sensibilities of Cyndi Lauper, the Eurythmics and Boy George weren’t ubiquitous. While Simon Reynolds declined to speak for this piece, he did note in his email the 80s were more than just synthetic drum machines and faux-horn sections; groups like The Pogues, The Smiths, AC/DC, Def Leppard and solo acts like Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi had some of the biggest selling albums of the decade. Why, then, has modern pop and the retro-remix only picked up on that synthesised sound?
Ellen suggests that this specific “sound” of the 80s – the compressed computerised drums and big splashes of synthesisers – came to symbolise something. “Like the 1960s did to 30-year-olds in the 90s, the 80s today represent a time of optimism, colour, prosperity and invention,” he says. “There were huge big-selling hits, immortal music videos and an international spirit of freedom.”
In a way, Laurence agrees. “There is a tendency for young people to figuratively crate dig for inspiration,” he says. “Admittedly, I am one of those who did not live through the 80s, yet I’m fascinated by its culture of decadence. Perhaps younger audiences and artists are attempting to experience or grasp the intangible 80s through contemporary pop and retro remixes – it’s essentially a relatable vehicle for time travelling.”
As MTV did in the 80s, YouTube and streaming services have also seemingly democratised music discovery. Now, rather than listen to albums on CD players dotted HMV, you can search “80s music” and be offered playlists, compilation videos, a string of iconic music videos or bootlegged vintage performances – as Reynolds writes in Retromania, “Our relationship to time and space in this YouTubeWikipediaRapidshareiTunesSpotify era has been utterly transformed.” He suggests that listeners no longer move backwards or forwards through music but laterally, consuming “vintage” media alongside the avant-garde. Essentially, pop’s currency is no longer the present but splintered across time.
Writing about mashups, he argues that the genre turns the history of pop into an “indistinct, digital-data-grey pulp, a blood-sugar blast of empty carbohydrate energy, ava-less and devoid of nutritional value” in order to “flatten out all the differences and divisions in music history.” Taking this stance, these retro-remixes do the same thing, forgoing any concept of pop history. It’s all something that Reynolds suggests exudes pathos, forcing us headlong into a society where there’s no cultural future.
Perhaps it’s my age – I didn’t live through the 80s – but I can’t help being drawn to anything with a retro pulse. Still, that doesn’t mean that I’m not, as Reynolds would call himself, a futurist. It’s just that my concept of futurism doesn’t necessarily constitute a modernist take of ripping up the rulebook. Rather, it’s post-modern; in order to create something new, in order to be avant-garde, you need straddle pop history. Just take something like Charli XCX’s Pop 2, a record arguably indebted to the 80s but, as Noisey’s own Lauren O'Neill wrote, one that refuses to disavow the past while shaping a new future.
Of course, the 80s revival – if we can call something a revival after the it’s lasted twice as long as the decade it’s reviving – has been followed by the 90s revival, and there are even 90s retro remixes cropping up on YouTube (like this one by Saint Laurent of Liam Payne’s “Strip That Down”). The 80s also doesn’t show any sign of dissipating; as Laurence says to me it’s “deeply embedded into pop’s DNA”. Perhaps the internet has intensified our fascination with the retro to the point that we’re even mutating the present to look like the past. But is that such a bad thing? In my mind, you can’t move forward without recognising and celebrating where you came from.
You can find Alim thinking about the 80s on Twitter.