It’s undeniable: 80s nostalgia has been in full force for years now, and with it have come the sweet synthetic sounds of polished analog synths and smooth hooky pop choruses. The music industry has settled into 80s synth-pop ever since COVID hit in 2020, but the trend won’t last forever. Already, the slick sounds of Madonna-influenced pop are fading, and a new era of nostalgia emerges.
The shift into nostalgia sounds in mainstream pop was sudden. In the late 2010s, breezy R&B/hip-hop fusions, reggaeton beats, and the dark and reserved alt-pop of Billie Eilish filled the Billboard Hot 100. When 2020 hit, and the pandemic along with it, nostalgia overtook the industry. And it wasn’t just the 80s, it was the 70s too.
2020 saw the rise of disco-infused pop and hip-hop with Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now,” Harry Styles’ “Adore You,” and Doja Cat’s “Say So” topping the charts. The most notable piece of nostalgia comes from the year’s biggest song: The Weeknd’s moody and irresistible “Blinding Lights,” which seems to be the instigating force in bringing the 80s back to mainstream pop. “Blinding Lights” went on to break multiple chart records and it was named the #1 Greatest Hot 100 Hit of All Time by Billboard in 2021.
It’s hard not to connect 80s pop trends to the pandemic. “Blinding Lights” was released in December 2019, but it didn’t hit the number one charting spot until March 30, 2020, the same month that the US began lockdown. It makes sense, The Weeknd’s moody, reserved vocals underneath the dark, cinematic synths makes for a perfect lockdown soundtrack.
“Blinding Lights” began a certain pattern with hit songs during the pandemic years — a pattern that is still ongoing: most hit songs during the pandemic call back to previous music trends, evoking nostalgia rather than focusing on pushing modern sounds forward. Look no further than the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 in 2021. At the #1 spot is “Levitating” by Dua Lipa, a disco song. Following that is two 80s inspired singles by The Weeknd, “Save Your Tears,” and “Blinding Lights;” at #5 is “Good 4 U” by Olivia Rodrigo, a song that calls back to late 90s and early 00s pop punk; at #6 is Doja Cat’s “Kiss Me More,” which is disco infused pop song; Silk Sonic’s 70s soul-inspired “Leave The Door Open” sits at the #7 spot. Most of the top 10 this year takes from previous eras in pop.
Music trends don’t happen randomly, they often reflect the state of the world and the consciousness of the public. For example, the surge of EDM and party anthems in the late 2000s-early 2010s are often attributed to the financial crisis of 2008. Hooky club and house-influenced bangers about leaving your worries behind and partying the night away ruled the radio, providing an escape to the average consumer. When the world shut down in 2020, and we all got sick of hearing the word “unprecedented,” it isn’t a stretch to say that we turned to the familiar, nostalgic sounds of the 70s and 80s in order to find comfort.
The 80s still seem to be running mainstream pop. 2022 produced 80s inspired synth-pop from songs like “Heat Waves” by Glass Animals, “Stay” by Justin Beiber and The Kid Laroi, and “As It Was” by Harry Styles. “About Damn Time” by Lizzo is yet another disco-influenced pop track that charted high in the summer. Finally, there is Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” an actual 80s pop song which reentered the charts for the first time since 1985 after it was heavily featured in the new season of “Stranger Things,” the show that arguably kicked off mainstream 80s nostalgia when it came out in 2016.
But the 80s can’t stay forever, and it’s just about time that the pop music industry moves on to another source of nostalgia, especially as pandemic restrictions gradually decline. It is very difficult to predict the direction of mainstream pop music, but there are a few hints that have been showing up in pop music that might forecast where the industry might head from here.
The first possible direction is that music will return more-or-less to where it was in 2019, with modern-sounding genre-bending hits that carry wide appeal. Steve Lacy’s new single “Bad Habit” has been a massive success this year, and its acoustic lo-fi R&B form fits right into the attitude of pop music pre-pandemic. Another recent hit, “Anti-Hero” by Taylor Swift, uses retro analog synths but in a more modern context, stepping away from 80s worship. A more interesting route is projected with two of 2022’s other big pop hits. Beyonce — an unyieldingly giant force in the music industry for decades now — revived EDM and House in mainstream pop with “Break My Soul.” A song that samples a 2014 dance song by Big Freedia, “Break My Soul” mainly takes influence from diva-house music, which was prominent in gay clubs in the late 90s. Hand-in-hand with “Break My Soul” is Sam Smith and Kim Petras’s “Unholy,” which stands as one of the most unlikely hit songs of the year. Piecing together both 2010s EDM, and the futuristic and grating sounds of hyperpop, “Unholy” is a black sheep in the current landscape of mainstream pop.
To echo what I said earlier: music trends are not random, and often they are reflections upon the state of the world and the attitudes of the public. The last time that dance music ruled mainstream pop was the early 2010s, when pop music went full party-mode, serving as an escape from the effects of the 2008 housing crisis. It’s possible that pop music is witnessing a repeat of this era. With an EDM track and a house track becoming hits, and post-lockdown economic turmoil creating nation-wide financial insecurity, there might be more dance hits on the horizon. We are only a decade away from the early 2010s, but it might already be time to return to the energetic, youthful, and party-centric attitudes of Teenage Dreams and Bad Romances.
Or maybe the 80s will be around forever. Only time will tell.
Jess Williams is a Sophomore Journalism major who has a playlist of every Billboard Top 100 since its creation. They can be reached at [email protected].
Art by Julia Young.