By: Darren Ranck, Brennan Carley, Charlotte Parish
When Britney Spears’ new single premiered last month, it was clear that she had bought in to the revitalization of the electronic sounds from the ’80s and ’90s. The style permeates our pop world today, from the futuristic synthesizers of Katy Perry’s “E.T.” to Lady Gaga’s supersonic “Born This Way.” Its current incarnation owes a debt of gratitude to bands like Depeche Mode, Talking Heads, and Daft Punk. Its sounds, from computer-altered effects and heavy synthesizers to a thumping baseline, are familiar to anybody. Today, artists are both sampling (think Kanye West’s “Stronger”) these effects, or integrating them in a way that evolves who they are as artists (think Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”). Maybe the resurgence follows the old adage that trends tend to repeat themselves every 20 or 30 years, or maybe it’s because one artist remembered just how fantastic the ’80s and ’90s were. No matter the cause, it seems that electronic music is here to stay.
Over the last few years, the rapid rate at which mass culture has embraced electronic music into its Top 40 atmosphere is astounding. However, what listeners may not realize is that all of today’s synthesizer-infused songs owe something to the seemingly unremembered ’70s, ’80s, and even ’90s.
Some say it began with the rise of disco in the ’70s, a style of music infused with computer blips and supersonic bleeps. However, with the invention of faster and more advanced computers in the ’80s, music experienced a sort of technological revolution. Bands like Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, and New Order took on the task of introducing the world to synthpop. After the breakup of the Talking Heads, a pioneer in of the movement, several remaining members rebranded themselves as the Tom Tom Club. Their classic song “Genius of Love” paved the way for today’s electronic movement resurrection. Artists like Mariah Carey and 50 Cent have heavily sampled the track, proving the style’s true staying power.
Mainstream artists seemed hesitant to jump onboard the electro train, with a few key exceptions. Rapper Grandmaster Flash seamlessly integrated techno beats with his iconic raps on one of the most influential albums of the 1980s, The Message. Madonna and Bjork were both instrumental in the genres’ thrust into the mainstream consciousness.
Artists like Moby and Daft Punk kept the movement alive in the ’90s, with hits like “We Are All Made of Stars” and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” respectively. U2, R.E.M., and Radiohead all intertwined computer beats with their signature alternative sounds. Still, it never really took off as anything more than a subculture of music, an oft forgotten style that was left in the clubs after dancing the night away.
However, over the last decade, electronica has finally garnered the attention it deserves. Interpol and The Killers drew upon the sounds of the ’80s in their music, while Justin Timberlake proved that these beats could burst out of the club with his hit “Sexyback.” Outkast adapted the sound in their 2006 hit “Hey Ya,” while Kanye West grounded his entire “Graduation” album in computer-generated beats, relying on Daft Punk for the chorus of his massive hit “Stronger.” LCD Soundsystem mocked the hipsters who thought they knew everything about the genre with his witty “Losing My Edge,” and is now poised to take a victory lap when he plays his last show ever at the sold out Madison Square Garden in April. Electro-Swede Robyn took the world by storm with her three-part Body Talk trilogy in 2010. Its infiltration into the mainstream is just one more notch in the belt that is its continual and hopefully never-ending rise.
The amped synthesizers and strong thumping beats of electro-based sound crosses the boundaries of genre. Electro-hybrids are continuously forming, bringing together the most recognizable aspects of popular music and the hypnotic sound of electronic music. What makes these new genre hybrids so infectious and who uses them to maximum effect?
The catchy, toe-tapping nature of electro-pop offers a dance beat in its most dizzying and immersive form. No matter how melancholy the song, MGMT’s “Kids” for instance, the electronic elements entrance the listener, putting them under the spell of the music. This infectious force leads to remarkable popular success, and now, everyone’s cashing in on the shocking sound.
Wiz Khalifa promisingly uses electronic sampling to expertly drench the listener in his aural culture. Although currently known for his rhythmically strong “Black and Yellow,” Khalifa’s best song off of his EP Burn After Rolling, titled “The Thrill,” uses the beat of Empire of the Sun’s “Walking On a Dream.” Mixed with the dreamy synth chords, Khalifa’s gritty lyrics feel delightfully commonplace and nearly humorous, but interminably listenable.
Similarly, R&B music veers away from the smooth, slow beats and moves toward flashy, emotional production values, driven by synthesizer beats. Usher exemplifies this steady progression, transforming from a baby-faced crooner to a hip, digital mastermind. His record “O.M.G.” brought to life some of the most brilliant aspects of electro-pop, most specifically the looped crowd chant that doesn’t just incite a crowd to party but brings the party to you.
The R&B/hip-hop electro movement surges on, but electro slowly but surely seeps into the bubblegum pop realm. Britney Spears’ latest sound is more manufactured than ever, but also couldn’t be more centering or club-ready. What’s the next hybrid-genre? Country electronica? Electro-punk? The digital beat goes on.
Many troops are rallying around the change in pop sound, and leading the charge on this synthetic calvary is new British pop sensation Jessie J. Her new album is hitting stands in a little over a month, but already she is changing the female pop icon with her gritty, Minaj-esque single “Do It Like A Dude.” Jessie J is a master mixer of vocals and autotune, creating a wealth of sound that is enhanced by digital effects without falling into the pit of a T-Pain computer voice that sounds like the super computer Watson with extra inflection.
And though they’ve yet to release a full album, MNDR looks to be a forerunner in this new sound, turning from the hip-hop variation of Jessie J to her own metallic sound. Part techno, part dreamy lyricism, MNDR boasts the style that tectonique dancers favor with a flair for synthy background beats.
Even old artists are reworking their sound to join in this new movement. Britney Spears is certainly stepping away from her “Hit Me Baby One More Time” roots and focusing on the electronic manipulation of her voice and electronic keyboard and guitar in “Hold It Against Me” rather than the sugar-glossed pop hits of her debut. Another bandwagon joiner is Chris Brown, who certainly needs a new image makeover as he attempts to make a comeback. With “Beautiful People” and “Look At Me Now,” Brown is beginning to change his sound, as well. His seamless integration of rap and techno would have been a weird mix a year ago, but excels. The ultimate test of these artists will be creating unique music that does not relinquish too much musicality to computer creation.