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Stranger things happen when retro music infiltrates pop culture

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Nostalgia for the future: Rosie and Astro dust off the wayback machine for this coming Saturday’s Stranger Things ‘80s Dance Party at the Zodiac. - MEUNIERD / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • meunierd / Shutterstock.com
  • Nostalgia for the future: Rosie and Astro dust off the wayback machine for this coming Saturday’s Stranger Things ‘80s Dance Party at the Zodiac.
The holidays are a time of year that’s intrinsically laden with nostalgia. However, life also feels somewhat like a John Carpenter horror film if you pay any attention to current events, and that may be why the Netflix series Stranger Things has been so wildly popular this year. The show, if you’re somehow unfamiliar, is a Spielbergian pastiche that follows a group of middle-school-aged kids as they contend with the malevolent, otherworldly forces descending upon their small Indiana town.

If this sort of thing sounds like your jam, by the way, you’ll want to head to the Zodiac on Saturday, Dec. 2, for their very own Stranger Things ’80s Dance Party: A Night in the Upside Down.

The ’80s aspect of the Zodiac event, as fans know, is anything but incongruous. Along with Stranger Things’ large ensemble cast and sci-fi/horror elements, much of the show’s charm — and, indeed, its stylistic DNA — comes from its early-’80s setting. Even the font of the opening titles resembles the covers of Stephen King paperbacks, a film grain effect is applied to give the show an aged look and, most notably, the score, created by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein — both members of Austin-based electronic band S U R V I V E — is driven by decidedly retro analog synthesizers straight out of Carpenter, Vangelis or Tangerine Dream.

Of course, Stranger Things isn’t the only recent instance of music and pop culture dipping into the ’80s aesthetic. DEVO’s Mark Mothersbaugh provided the score for Thor: Ragnarok, which features high-contrast color schemes with lots of neon and a synthesizer-heavy soundtrack. St. Vincent’s recent video Los Ageless features striking pastels and visual nods to Terry Gilliam’s 1985 masterpiece Brazil and David Cronenberg’s disturbing 1983 offering Videodrome. This doesn’t even take into account the many sequels and remakes that harken back to the ’80s, such as Blade Runner 2049 and Robocop.

Nostalgia in pop culture doesn’t necessarily reflect a lack of creativity. Pastiche is used because an artist genuinely admires an established aesthetic, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Pastiche’s twin brother, parody, can be used to apply cultural critique. But the sudden prevalence of the ’80s aesthetic in pop culture does somewhat raise the question — why now? Didn’t we already experience an ’80s flashback in the mid 2000s, when bands like The Killers and Franz Ferdinand ruled the day?

One explanation is simply the cyclical nature of influence. When one wishes to escape via pop culture in difficult times, anything that draws upon the aesthetic of one’s childhood is probably an appealing choice — it recalls a time before adult responsibilities or the full awareness of the world’s horrors. (In the actual ’80s, one could observe plenty of throwbacks to the 1950s, be it from the Stray Cats, Happy Days or Back to the Future.) However, for this reason, the memories drawn upon can be either real or a reconstructed imagination of what that era was or, more tellingly, could have been.
Synthwave, the music genre name you could use to describe the Stranger Things soundtrack and others of its ilk, does not simply emulate the sounds of the ’80s verbatim, but frequently offers a retro-futuristic perspective. Which begs the question: What if the Giorgio Moroder sound and ‘80s aesthetic had stayed with us? What if the futuristic promises of the past had been realized, providing an alternative to the dissatisfaction we experience in today’s society?

An offshoot of synthwave, vaporwave explores the retro-futuristic in a somewhat more humorous and ironic fashion. It frequently uses samples of late-’80s and early-’90s “mood music,” from elevator music to smooth jazz R&B samples, much of which now appears charmingly earnest compared to the modern music and web experience. Vaporwave often marries its openly consumerist source material — shopping malls, commercials, early video games — with surrealist visual elements not unlike the programs of Adult Swim. When you see and hear chopped-and-screwed versions of its moon-headed McDonald’s mascot Mac Tonight, you know you’re in an interesting corner of the internet!

Of course, mainstream pop culture is always searching for odd and novel things to capitalize on. So it’s not unthinkable that a phenomenon like vaporwave, itself resembling a form of détournement through the subversion of old advertisements and symbols of the status quo, has achieved some sort of media notice and thus been recuperated into something more commercially viable. And, as perhaps the best evidence that the futurist dreams of yesteryear amounted to nothing, synthwave has even been adopted by self-identified fascists and members of the alt-right into so-called “fashwave.”

Perhaps the biggest question raised by the prominence of synthwave and the overall ’80s throwback is “what next”? The ’80s were a decade with an immediately recognizable aesthetic, as were previous decades. If you attend an ’80s Night or a ’60s Night party, you have a pretty good idea of what to wear. But can the same be said for the 2000s, when one of the more prominent musical trends was an ’80s revival? With vaporwave already creeping into the ’90s for its source material, one must wonder if the logical conclusion of this cycle is growing near.

If pop culture truly mirrors culture at large, perhaps the answer to unlocking the “lost futures” that continually haunt us is something new entirely.

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