Synth pop, breathy vocals, drum machine, reverb/delay, and dance rhythm: five elements that represent the defining characteristics of 80’s electropop. Clearly these are neither the definitive elements to the entire decade of 80’s music, nor is today the only time these elements have reemerged. As of late, however, new and existing artists are producing music that follows this criteria. The synth pop music of the 80’s seemed to fill a need of simply wanting to have fun, as Cyndi Lauper plainly stated in “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” This second coming of electropop dance music seems to be filling a similar need. It’s not about the impressive vocals or the drum fills – people just want music they can dance to; after all, we are in a recession.
Synthpop (electropop) gained prominence in the 1980s with the use of midi synthesizers as the dominant instruments in a track. One of the most notable uses of the synthesizer in the 1980s is on Gary Numan’s hit single, “Cars.” In 1980, the track rose to number 9 on the US Billboard Hot 100 list. The track immediately begins with long-held, whiny synth chords leading into the verse, and continues to use them throughout the song. Yet, synth use amplified to an extreme at the 1 minute mark where the song goes into a synthesizer solo/breakdown.
Recently, Bon Iver has become known for his synth use. In his latest, self-titled, record there is a drastic increase in the use of keyboard and synth than in his previous work. This is most prevalent in his song, “Beth/Rest.” Though the synth in this song sounds to be syncopated rather than long-held notes, it is without a doubt the most dominant instrument. What highlights the use of the synthesizer, however, is the airy, falsetto voice that hovers and drags above the synth chords, creating a dreamy, lucid, heroin-trip feel to the track.
The airy, “come-hither” vocals are the signature of much of 80’s pop. Lead singer of The Cure, Robert Smith exemplifies this sound perfectly in their song, “Lovesong.” His light and breathy vocals are relaxed. They never push; still, you can hear the pining emotion behind the lyrics, “I will always love you.”
More recently, in 2011, French band M83 released their hit single “Midnight City,” which oozed with the sounds of 80’s pop. Similar to Smith, singer Anthony Gonzalez almost whispers the lyrics. They sound distant and echoy. You can’t listen to the track without thinking of the 80’s, its impossible. Their music doesn’t just use bits and pieces of 80’s sound, the band is clearly heavily influenced by the sounds that emerged from 80’s pop.
The drum machine was another “go to” instrument for 1980s musicians. It is an electronic machine used to imitate the sound of percussion instruments, without an actual drum set. The difference between the two is primarily heard in the clean cut at the end of a drum hit on a drum machine as opposed to the ringing that occurs with an actual drum set. It is very recognizable in the staccato percussion rhythm of the 1980’s hit – 43 consecutive weeks on the Billboard Hot List in 1981 – “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell. The same exact beat reoccurs throughout the entire track, uninterrupted in the same style and rhythm – just one downbeat to hold the track steady.
Still today, bands such as The Strokes occasionally make use of the drum machine – which is especially prevalent in their latest album, Angles. The most notable track that uses the drum machine in Angles is “Two Kinds of Happiness.” The clearly electronic use of percussion is carried throughout the entire track. Short beats without resonance and drum syncopation are the biggest clues that the band used a drum machine. Stylistically very different from their other albums, Angles makes use of a strong 80’s influence.
‘I Ran’ by Flock of Seagulls features all the traditional elements of 80’s pop, but what rises above the neon-spattered, hair-gelled fray is the guitar. It’s serves as a distant, reverb-laden counter to the grounded drum beat. Reverberated guitar had its heyday in the 80’s, was reviled in the 90’s by grunge and alt. rock acts, but has seen a resurgence in the post-millennial music industry by acts like: Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, My Morning Jacket, and The Kills.
Released just earlier this year, The Kills song, “Future Starts Slow” features an eerily similar guitar line to “I Ran.” The song exemplifies the distant, spacey guitar effects of The Kills’ guitarist, Jamie Hince, that hearkens back to that jangly dancehall reverb of that defined 80’s guitar. The Kills even use drum machines on most recordings and live shows, as well. The difference? The Kills alternate between the heavily grounded drums and the infinitely spacey guitar. The use of reverb is nothing new, however, but in its previous incarnations it was more natural, as a guitarist’s amplifier contained a spring to create a subtle echo. Both of these examples use the newer, digital counterpart.
Perhaps one of the most notable features of 80’s pop were the dances that seemed to be inseparable from each song. You almost couldn’t make an 80’s pop song without using a dance rhythm. “Beat It” by Michael Jacksonfeatures a one-two count that, as the old folks would say, “you can really tap your foot to.” It’s consistent, with seamless transition and nothing in the line of drum fills. The drums in this song serve as both a back-beat for the King of Pop and a metronome for Eddie Van Halen.
More recently, ‘Kids’ by MGMT has a similar 1-2 count, a march for the panning keyboards and endearing poppy melody to cruise over. MGMT’s quirky, synthy simplicity paved the way for acts like Empire of the Sun and Foster the People, relying on a simple beat and letting the complexities of their leads – keyboards and vocals – come forward.
In 2001, if you had asked somebody if they thought the midi synthesizer would ever make a substantial comeback, their answer would have most likely been: get the hell out! If you asked someone in 2010, they would have replied: it never left! And they both would be right. Technically, it never left, but lately it has made quite a comeback.