Fluidity in the Pop Cycle: How the Search for Futuristic Beats Has Led Artists to the Past


What is one left to do when the current state of their industry is the artistic equivalent of beating a dead horse? For those in the music industry who do not want to further explore the tired venues of EDM, or electronic dance music, they must search for an alternative to a sound currently dominated by the likes of the Guetta’s, Harris’ and Dr. Luke’s.

A small collective of young singers and producers are working together, however, to pull from the ‘80s and bring a levity to a music scene focused on how hard the beat drops during the middle-eight and just how loud the bass sounds when the song comes on in a club. For these artists, the struggle may not be effectively creating the music, but getting the sound to actually catch on.

Solange Knowles, the famous younger sister to Beyonce Knowles, has gone under several changes in her image over the last couple of years, but it wasn’t until finding her voice on 2008’s SolAngel and the Hadley St. Dreams that she found her home in the modern take on psychedelic soul. These were the arguable beginnings to where she finds herself in 2012, with her new EP True, in which the singer collaborates with Dev Hynes to find herself slotted into the position of the new ‘cool girl’ in music. Her new EP being her unlimited arsenal of ‘80s references and catchy melodies.

“I love it, [but the sound] is nothing new for music – just a revamp of what Afro-cubano soul was in the 90’s, mixed with classic synth funk from ‘80s,” said Nina Lemonnier, a music journalist who finds Solange’s projection further into an ‘80s sound a better move for her. “If anything she has more respect from fans because she isn’t in a mainstream box.”

These attempts to curve mainstream music into a direction with more depth have been long in the works though, but have never really found their place in a mainstream music scene. Even with the slow decline in dance music’s popularity, more conventional genres have slipped into the top positions on charts. In 2012, only three of the 13 songs to hit the top slot on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart were dance songs, like LMFAO’s “Sexy And I Know It” and Flo Rida’s “Whistle”. The other 10 were songs that fall more under the category of another standard in mainstream American music, pop-rock. The likes of Fun (“We Are Young”), Taylor Swift (“We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”), Carly Rae Jepsen (“Call Me Maybe”) and, most famously, Gotye (“Somebody That I Used To Know”) were some of the acts to hit the top of the Hot 100 among a year that felt like the final stretch for dance and electronic music.

“I like a lot of music, but I feel like a lot of the stuff out at the moment is too similar sounding,” said Brianna Williams, an avid music listener and student. “I personally like a lot of rap and R&B, so the slow turning away from the dance stuff is a good thing to me. Solange’s new track is really good and one of my favorites out of all the new stuff out.”

Even those who found success with dance music are moving more and more away from it. Rihanna hit the top spot in America twice in 2012 – once early in the year with the dance hit “We Found Love”, off of her album Talk That Talk, and again with the lead single off her new album Unapologetic, titled “Diamonds.” What separates the two is that “Diamonds” is the first time Rihanna has led an album with song that features a slower beat. Even Unapologetic features more ballads and urban tracks that deviate more and more from the dance sound Rihanna was working on with producers like David Guetta and Dr. Luke.

“There’s a huge resurgence of house/techno/trance beats that I think almost every artist with regular play on the radio has been doing,” added Lemonneir. “Everything has to be faster, louder, heavy in the bass, and have an assortment of different synths to be “hit” material. Definitely not my favorite trend right now.”

Radio success might still be possible for those who are distancing themselves away from dance, thinks Lemonneir, even if their new direction is ‘80s referenced.
“There are some people like Solange [who] are moving away from mixed music samples and back to instruments and full creation of a music piece,” said Lemonneir. “I think that the way radio sounds music is going to become very much like the 80s in a sense of being watered down… There is definitely something about the 80s that’s being revisited that I love and that’s experimental sounds.”

For others, the referencing of ‘80s and even a ‘90s sound in music borders too far on copying instead of reimagining – see last year’s dreadful comparisons between Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” and Madonna’s “Express Yourself” for an example of critics being mixed on the topic of just when a song is too influential on another song’s sound. Sky Ferreira is a young artist who has received media attention from the likes of Pitchfork, Billboard and other magazines for her recent EP Ghost, which featured the artist straying away from electronic beats and focusing more on a mixture of acoustic-folk music and eights-pop.

Though none of Ferreira’s music has garnered any accusations of being too similar to anything else out of the moment, many feel as though the image she’s been portraying comes off as lazy instead of inspired. After receiving criticism for the music video for “Everything Is Embarrassing”, Ferreira responded to accusations of being “dull” by arguing that too many of the music journalists who covered the song and video were misogynistic in how they viewed women, focusing too much on Ferreira’s pout and thin frame to notice the references to classic 80’s Madonna. For others, they claim to see the references, but just don’t find them to be thoughtful ones.

“I just feel like it’s too similar to the actual thing,” said Lindsay Tagliareni, a self-proclaimed Madonna expert and lover of all things pop culture. “I get [the references], but I don’t feel as though it’s doing anything by being exactly the same. What makes this different from anything that Madonna did during her albums like Like A Virgin or True Blue?”

Arguably there’s some comparisons that can be made between Ferreira’s image and the image of Madonna. V Magazine even asked Ferreira to pose in a fashion story tribute for the magazine, which featured Ferreira in outfits and looks inspired by some of Madonna’s own most iconic looks. Yes, even one that featured Ferreira in a dress made similar to the iconic “Like A Virgin” wedding dress that Madonna rolled around in at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards. Though Madonna’s discography spans decades and covers countless genres, Ferreira’s musical soundscape seems far more inspired by people like Aimee Mane or Fiona Apple, which becomes apparent in the folkier stuff on Ferreira’s EP.

Not everything in the eighties was focused on pop music, though. Tunes off of Ferreira’s EP like “Lost In My Bedroom” feels like a techno-inspired take on the punk energy of the times, and even “Red Lips” feels like a pure pre-90s punk anthem. Just as Solange’s take on the ‘80s was more about the mixture of synths with Afro-cubano tunes, Ferreira’s take on the ‘80s seems more about the experimentation that came about in that decades response to music labels wanting to craft more finetuned acts.

Even Pitchfork has noted that the resurgence in the sounds of the ‘80s and ‘90s in modern music seems more like a response by the young artists today as a way to get the mainstream’s attention without having to subject themselves to the routine of formula pop and writing camps, where songs are worked on like a factory line to sell to the highest bidder, who is usually a major label’s rising popular female artist. At the center of this artistic collective seems to be Dev Hynes, who also goes by producer name of Blood Orange, and spoke to Pitchfork’s Carrie Batton back in October, for her article “A Small Pop”.

Hynes speaks in detail in the article about feeling uncomfortable with the assembly-line process of it all and how he didn’t like the feeling that occurred when a project he became invested in was so easily cut because other writers or producers didn’t feel like it could be a hit. His solution? Pulling more and more away from the restricted world of major label acts and pulling punk band mentalities about collaboration.

Whether a form of escapism to avoid the realities of how to make it big in the music industry, or a viable new direction in popular music, the ‘80s seem to be offering something to the new artists of today and, if you ask Hynes, the artists in the forefront know that the public seem to be listening.


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