When it comes to popular culture, we all know history tends to repeat itself. Music critic Simon Reynolds calls it the “Twenty-Year Rule of Revivalism:” it takes about two decades for something to have a chance to be “cool” again. We can see it in fashion, film, design and perhaps especially music.
The early 2000s saw the return of the 80s in full force. Bands like Franz Ferdinand, The Killers, Bloc Party, Interpol and LCD Soundsystem (among others) mined influences ranging from Gang of Four to Duran Duran. Of course, this makes some sense: most of these guys were born in the ‘70s and grew up in the ‘80s when post punk and new wave were all the rage.
But here we are in 2012, meaning twenty years ago was 1992. It seems we are more than due for a second helping of the ‘90s, yet it has just not happened. Sure, echoes of the era are emerging on occasion: My Bloody Valentine with The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Deerhunter, or Pavement with Yuck and Cymbals Eat Guitars. However, this remains the exception. The ‘90s are still far from supplanting the dominance of the‘80s influence on the current musical landscape.
In fact, one could argue we are actually witnessing a second ‘80s revival with the emergence of “chillwave” and even the continuing prevalence of dream pop. While dream pop is often associated with the shoegazing of the ‘90s, in fact its roots more accurately lie in the ‘80s atmospheric rock of the Cocteau Twins, Spiritualized and Galaxie 500. The hazy, ethereal aesthetic currently remains in favor with tastemakers such as Pitchfork and especially Gorilla Vs. Bear.
Chillwave actually stems largely from the work of Ariel Pink and his associates around the same time as the first ‘80s revival in the early 2000s. Instead of post punk, Pink along with John Maus, Gary War and others began drawing from both the more obscure and the more pop elements of the 1980s while co-opting the ethos of lo-fi pioneer R. Stevie Moore. They traded in new wave for its earlier synthpop predecessors and replaced chic new romanticism with the populist appeal of Hall and Oates. This music presented a sonic template for the current lot of retro-minded bedroom musicians commonly labeled as chillwave. From Washed Out’s sample of Gary Low circa 1983 for the now ubiquitous “Feel It All Around” to the analog synths of Neon Indian and Toro Y Moi, the ‘80s continue to live on.
While chillwave presents the ‘80s through the fogged lens of a Polaroid camera, the decade’s influence remains pervasive even outside the genre. Cut Copy, MGMT, M83, the list goes on and on. So, are the ‘80s especially transcendent, or are the ‘90s simply unsuited for reinterpretation? John Maus, who is enjoying more success than ever from 2011’s We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, has gone so far as to emphatically pronounce his disdain for the 1990s contribution to popular music. While there are certainly quality contemporary bands drawing from the Clinton years, it seems we are simply not ready to let go of the ‘80s.