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Every day as students walk between Northeastern University’s West Village Quad and main campus, they hear Top 40 pop music from speakers outside the Visitor Center. Erin Nfonoyim sits on a bench well within hearing range of these current hits. But with earbuds in, she’s transported back to a time before she was born: the 1980s.
Wearing jeans cuffed above black Doc Martens, the fifth-year behavioral neuroscience student scrolls through her Spotify playlists featuring artists such as Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and David Bowie.
“I appreciate old music because it took more time and mentality – more than computerized EDM (electronic dance music) now. [Older artists] took time to create beats to match people’s unique voices,” Nfonoyim said.
Whether because of a dislike for current pop music’s electronic shift, the availability of thousands of songs from the past decades on streaming services or a combination of both, many young people have shuffled their tastes to older music.
Nfonoyim, born in 1994, recently started listening to ’80s music on Spotify when she felt dissatisfied with remixes on SoundCloud, a popular online music platform.
“I realized my favorite parts were the original parts of songs,” she continued. “Music now can be too electronic. EDM is good when you’re in the club dancing, but it doesn’t capture the fluidity of the sound and what those sounds do to a person’s mood.”
Most people born after the 1980s can still name at least a few artists and hits from that decade, from Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” (1983) to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” (1989).
Andrew Mall, an assistant professor of music at Northeastern who is currently working on a book about the culture of popular music, explained, “The music industry in the ’80s revolved around superstars and their hits: multi-platinum albums and singles. The artists and producers that worked with them had this focus on image. MTV ascended during this time. Celebrity culture was really big.”
Third-year Northeastern health science student Hannah Jeffrey said she does not identify with 80s pop culture, describing, “All I think about when I think about the ’80s are leg warmers, the classic poufy hair, white sneakers with colored leggings. It’s probably stereotypical but that’s my first thought.”
Elements of ’80s culture – from fashion to music to movies – have resurfaced over the past decades. The Netflix show Stranger Things, set in the ’80s, pays homage to the decade’s pop culture through nostalgic music and film references. The popularity of the series after its summer premiere even inspired a sold-out Stranger Things party in September at Torrent Engine 18, a repurposed Boston fire station.
In contemporary music as well, the prominent analog synthesizers and drum machines that drove much of ’80s music are making a comeback, Mall noted. “In the ’80s that stuff was in Top 40 pop and new wave and commercial hip-hop. Artists (now) are incorporating those into indie rock genres,” he said. “The people that are incorporating ’80s sounds are not trying to be the next Michael Jackson. They’re speaking to a smaller market and audience.”
Jeffrey shared similar observations. “I definitely see interesting parallels with the electronic aspects (of music) coming back. Ours is less pop-y now, with more bass. [The ’80s] was more bubblegum-y,” she added, citing Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” as an example.
“The record labels today would love to have these kinds of giant superstars that dominated the ’80s charts,” said Mall, “but scholars and professionals in the music industry have increasingly talked about how the entertainment industry is becoming fractured. A hit in ’80s and 2016 is very different, looking at how much it sells.”
Instead of buying physical or digital albums, students such as Nfonoyim and Jeffrey rely almost exclusively on streaming services. Spotify, which announced 40 million paid subscribers on Sept. 14, allows users to choose from its extensive collection of playlists or create their own.
On Sept. 27, 13 of the 100 most popular user-created Spotify playlists on Playlists.net were exclusively ’80s music. They range from “Best Songs of 1984” to “Doom & Gloom of the 80’s.”
Though Jeffrey prefers the ’60s-’70s music from her parents’ generation, she does listen to some ’80s rock. She specified a professionally-curated playlist she listens to called “80’s Hard Rock,” which includes artists such as Survivor, Aerosmith, Mötley Crüe and Bon Jovi. “With the rock in the ’80s, there was a rebellious aspect. Today we’re seeing young people taking political steps and getting involved in their futures. That parallels with the revolution of rock in the ‘80s,” Jeffrey said.
Mall also remarked, “There’s a lot of talk among college students in my classes about music that has some sort of political importance.” He named Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean as examples of artists who address current topics in their music.
“I like this trend of social justice as an issue in entertainment. Often trends are divorced from social impact, like fashion trends taking from other cultures but not responding to them,” Mall continued.
Jeffrey expressed her appreciation of this trend, saying, “It’s cool that people are voicing their opinions.” And whether through radio and MTV in the ’80s or streaming services in 2016, she concluded, “Music is a really good way to reach so many people at once.”