By T.J. Grant, Staff Writer
Imitation is the highest form of flattery. This holds especially true when it comes to music. Inspiration remains the key to almost all music trends, but what does it sound like when a past decade’s artists inspire the artists of today? More specifically, what does it sound like when the musicians of the 1980s influence a generation of artists who weren’t even alive – or at the very least, conscious – to hear their music when it originally debuted?
The soundscapes of the ’80s recently found their way into several records ranging from the end of last year into the beginning of this year. Mitski’s Laurel Hell, Japanese Breakfast’s Jubilee, and John Mayer’s Sob Rock all reference the production, songwriting and instrumentation of the ’80s. They include their own personal touch in these particular records, of course, but each of them pull different pieces from the puzzle which makes up ’80s music.
JOHN MAYER — SOB ROCK
John Mayer’s particular puzzle piece aligns with his own guitar playing and compositions. Sob Rock is all about contorting heartbreak into irony, and Mayer accomplishes this through extreme dramatism, both lyrical and musical.
The powerful synth arrangements and booming reverb add more than a touch of ’80s influence to his original sound. Songs like “Last Train Home” and “Shot in the Dark” cue into this heartfelt and almost laughable sense of theatrics which characterize a lot of the music from the ’80s. The frequent arpeggiating and chaffing guitar on “Shot in the Dark” resembles the guitar featured on Thriller, and the thumping four-on-the-floor drumming on “New Light” harkens back to “Every Breath You Take” by the Police.
Music videos from Sob Rock poke fun at the sense of self-importance that the songs express by using absurd green screen backgrounds and wind machines. Mayer walks the line between being genuinely heartbroken or hysterically comical in his acting during these videos.
JAPANESE BREAKFAST — JUBILEE
After Sob Rock’s debut, in June of 2021, Japanese Breakfast released their third album, Jubilee. However, before it came out, the lead single, “Be Sweet,” reached number 7 on the Billboard charts and remained there for 23 weeks. The slinky bass and rhythm guitar on the single scream ’80s, and the glittery synthesizers fully represent the decade as well. Michelle Zauner’s layered vocals during the chorus fit perfectly with the mock-detective-themed music video, co-starring Marisa “Missy” Dabice from Mannequin Pussy.
“Be Sweet” pays homage to “Rapture” by Blondie in various ways. Both feature syncopated and danceable drum beats, although they’re each at slightly different tempos, and their bass lines are suspiciously similar in both timbre and rhythm. “Be Sweet” doesn’t have a quasi-rapping section, thankfully, but they sound like they come from the same tree, or rather, the same studio. “Rapture” would also suit well inside a detective-themed music video, with Debbie Harry sporting a gray suit and aviator glasses as Dabice and Zauner did. There are differences between the two, but the overall feeling one gets from listening to them (the feeling of wanting to strut up and down your own basement stairs or through the hallways in your house fiercely) is almost identical.
Another addition to the ’80s motif on Jubilee is “Slide Tackle.” Plucked, muted guitar and tamed saxophone work neatly within the confines of a simple, pulsating drum beat, but they’re eager to break free by the end of the track. Again, Zauner’s whispery and ghost-like harmonies during the chorus make an appearance, adding texture and emphasis.
MITSKI — LAUREL HELL
Although Mitski, born in 1990, never lived to see a single day in the decade, the sounds from the ’80s resonated with her so deeply that they emerged in full bloom on her latest record Laurel Hell. Iconic motifs such as heavy synthesizer use, immense reverb, and punchy drums dominate the record stylistically.
The opening track, “Valentine, Texas,” begins with a similar synthesizer timbre as “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince and the Revolution. In a recent video from Pitchfork, Mitski breaks down each song off of Laurel Hell, and she actually notes Prince as a key influence on her track “Heat Lightning.” Baroque-esque, regal harpsichord and piano flourish in “Should Have Been Me” in the same way the keyboards do on Prince’s song, “Let’s Pretend We’re Married”.
There are also some less obviously reminiscent patterns from the decade such as the syncopated cowbell groove on “Stay Soft'' and “That’s Our Lamp,” which strongly resemble the cowbell groove in “Africa” by Toto. Also, the industrial and dystopian sounding percussion in “Everyone” comes close to the more energetic but similarly produced percussion in “Shout” by Tears for Fears. The trap beat in “Heat Lightning” takes us back to a present-day soundscape, but the following, “Only Heartbreaker,” is enveloped in ’80s cliches from top to bottom with a thumping dance beat, arpeggiating and shimmering guitar riffs, as well as a strong synth presence.
WHAT DOES AN ’80S REVIVAL TELL US? WHERE ARE WE GOING?
The reason for the re-emergence of ’80s trends in music is unknown, but it does offer insight into the particular significance and nostalgia that the decade embodies.
Other trends from past decades are sure to conquer future records. The accessibility of streaming services, which allows listeners to hear everything from Gregorian Chants to Billie Eilish and everything in between, plays a definite role in the influences of modern artists.
Inevitably, and mostly unconsciously, musicians want to make music similar to the kinds of music they hear and enjoy listening to. This is neither bad nor good, but it is sure to continue as long as artists are able to reach back and become inspired by something they weren’t alive to hear when it first came out.