From ‘Thriller’ to ‘New Rules’: The Return of the Big Sound

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If you’ve tuned into the radio anytime in the last few months, chances are there’s a particular sound you’ve heard again and again as they tick down through the charts. It took me a while to pick up on it, but when I discovered what it was it grabbed me by the teeth and still hasn’t let go. Take another listen – to ‘The Louvre’ by Lorde, or to ‘tonite’ by LCD Soundsystem, or most obviously to ‘New Rules (Initial Talk Remix)‘ by Dua Lipa. Now put on ‘Thriller’ by Michael Jackon; ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ by Simple Minds; ‘In The Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins. Notice anything? That big 1980s sound – major notes that seem to ripple around the high school hall, space-age synth that takes you back to the days of E.T. and space shuttles, and most widely that vapid, reverberated drum beat that seems to cut through the entire song – is making a comeback, and how.

We are living in an era of real 1980s nostalgia when it comes to pop culture. Stranger Things took over our TV screens for the second summer running this year, there are genuinely good Star Wars films showing every Christmas in movie theatres, and Dungeons & Dragons, a classic 1980s board game, has recently seen huge streaming numbers on Twitch; so it’s no surprise that the music world would follow suit. What’s interesting is how music producers aren’t going after pure nostalgia, as perhaps other players in the entertainment world are.

That’s not to say nostalgia isn’t a factor in the return of that big 1980s sound – it almost certainly is. Jack Antonoff of Bleachers was born the year Prince’s Purple Rain was released, and it’s clear when listening to his 2017 album with Bleachers (and to Lorde’s Melodrama and Taylor Swift’s aptly-titled 1989, which he produced) that growing up around reverberating synth and in particular those cutting drums has influenced his work; Ariel Rechtshaid, who produced Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2015 album Emotion, said of the sound that it’s “just something that I’ve always kind of had in my head”. And those millennials who were brought up on Michael Jackson and David Bowie will always be keen on the sounds that take them back to their childhood (is that not why so many students pour into Oceana’s cheese room every Wednesday night, to listen to those late-’90s and early-’00s hits from our youth?). But why is this sound selling to the younger generation?

Well for one thing, it’s new. True, peak reverb was a thing – listen to any 1980s playlist for longer than an hour and you’ll see what I mean – but compared to the dry drums and grungy or rocky guitar of the 1990s and 2000s, dazzling synthesizers and that oh-so-noticeable drum beat provide a change of pace. But more than that, today’s producers are doing exciting things with the sound to attract a whole new audience who has never come across gated reverb or its cousins before. To use my previous example, Lorde’s ‘The Louvre’ is clearly not a 1980s song – there’s none of the pluckiness or dreaminess that characterized much of the music of that decade – but those cutting drums still manage to set it apart from anything else from even as recently as five years ago.

True, there are exceptions to this – nostalgia was clearly very much a factor in producing Initial Talk’s remix of Dua Lipa’s ‘New Rules’ – and it’s fair to say that the swooshing drum beats and laser gun synths we’re hearing more of aren’t exactly timeless sounds. But then again, they are very cool, and I think most of all that’s why I’m excited to go back in time to explore the future of music.

Watch the music video for Dua Lipa’s ‘New Rules (Initial Talk Remix)’ below:

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I play/watch/listen to things, then write about playing/watching/listening to things. Special powers include downing two litres of tea at a time and binging a 13-episode Netflix series in only 12 hours. Records Editor 2018/19 OMG

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