The Audio of Nostalgia

We are no strangers when it comes to associating sound with memory. For those growing up in and after the 1980s, this phenomenon holds a particular significance. Their generation was marked by visual and aural domination in a way that the generations that preceded them had never experienced. Music videos defined the medium, superseding the art of the performance. Bigger, brighter, and bolder were the fundamentals of the decade.

The smallest things are capable of evoking the most potent emotions of our youth: the arresting logo startup sounds before watching a movie on VHS. Or the hazy and muffled music our parents listened to in the next room late on Saturday nights when we should have been sleeping. For the most part, the warm, fuzzy feeling that accompanies sonically-influenced nostalgia reminds us of a time when things were simpler and easier.

However, these aren’t just idyllic trips down memory lane. The science is there to help us understand why music evokes such strong emotions. Music is exceptional, in that when we listen to a song, all of our brain’s key lobes are activated. The process is nonlinear but simultaneous. As the brain’s emotional centre is engaged, we experience a dopamine (that’s the happy chemicals) rush. This is enhanced by stimulation of the visual cortex, as we try to visualise a performance, and the motor cortex – that’s why we want to move.

It’s no wonder then that memories and music are so intrinsically linked. When we recall memories, there is no singular designated repository – memories are spread throughout the brain. Combine this with the extensive brain exercise when we hear music and we have the perfect neurological conditions for a seriously intense dose of nostalgia.

The link between memory and music has been scientifically proven time and time again. But what about emulating feelings of nostalgia and times gone by, when the listener wasn’t even around to experience those times? Or is it possible to rewrite musical memory? Take, for example, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a game that singlehandedly created the cultural phenomenon of generating the same sentimental response in today’s 24 year olds, with their parents upon hearing Hall and Oates’ Out of Touch.

A group of artists have not only successfully permeated that boundary, but created it. The genre, referred to as retrowave, has been around for a little over ten years. It relies on reviving the iconic, era-defining motifs of the Eighties. While these trend-oriented genres have a way of burning out, see: the rise and fall of vaporwave and chillwave, retrowave has done quite the opposite.

A quick scan of the demographics of people actually discovering retrowave music reveals the main perpetrators are, of course, the digital native Millennials. Surely then, making music aimed at basking in the memory of the gaudy assault of the 1980s, they’re firing at the wrong targets?

Since the mid-2000s, a handful of artists set to work reinventing, rewiring and manufacturing both an image and sound of ‘the past’. MySpace, the musical discovery platform du jour in 2007, was a hotbed of artists trying to make the next big nostalgia trip. Electronic masterminds Kavinsky and Danger capitalised on the frenzied synth of Atari and Sega System 16 arcade games, creating loud and frantic pieces that made you want to do something reckless and glamorous. This style has been faithfully carried on by acts like Carpenter Brut and Judge Bitch, providing us with car chase music for miles.

Others took a less alarming approach, choosing to allow listeners a glimpse into the shimmering, lavish beach lifestyles of California and Miami, circa 1984. Pink and purple hues dance around images of palm trees, fast cars and shadowy silhouettes. The French music label Valerie were the forerunners here: Anoraak, Stephen Falken, College. Valerie enjoyed a stint of mainstream success with the use of College’s A Real Hero in Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive

The dedication of these producers to their craft is what makes it one of the most escapist and satisfying mediums to dive headfirst into. There are good guys, bad guys, and entire worlds constructed in themselves. The work of James Kent, alias Perturbator, exhausts every 1980s supercharged and retro-futuristic cliche in the book. But he does it impeccably. His artwork depicts sexualised cartoonish women and threatening, sinister cityscapes, reminiscent of the box art of Sega Megadrive games. Even when he makes use of guest vocalists, they are eerily in tune with the vocal stylings of the era.

We are then offered an escapism that matches the fantasy of losing ourselves in video games and comics all those years ago, when the simplicity of youth enabled us to vanish from reality entirely. These songs allow us to go on fantastical odysseys into outer space (à la Lueur Verte) or dance and schmooze in a glittering Los Angeles nightclub to the likes of Tesla Boy or Tokyo Rose. Where synthpop has remained a constant on the pop scene for the past decade, retrowave artists have reached new heights of musical simulation. 

The prominence of this style is far from over. Neon Indian’s most comprehensive effort to date, 2015’s VEGA INTL. Night School, is a stunning exercise in building a glowing and passionate future that never was. Kurt Feldman, former The Pains of Being Pure at Heart drummer, established lush dream-pop outfit Ice Choir with a view to recapturing the breezy and lovelorn pop tunes of the 1980s. Unprepared, a track from their upcoming album, is lifted straight from the Stock Aiken Waterman hall of fame. It surpasses imitation – the production is almost indistinguishable. Aphasia Records, for example, is now one of go-to sanctuary for the especially devoted retrowave artists. A quick glance at the ‘Outrun’ tag on Bandcamp reveals new releases practically every day. Outrun is a very specific subgenre of retrowave, generally reserved for the darker, neon-fuelled compositions, set in the dilapidated underbelly of the city.

The beauty and delight of the dedicated retrowave collective is that they do not simply produce concept albums around a theme. Rather, they form a consuming persona, an entire identity, making it an easy task for the listener to become truly immersed. The mass of activity in the brain when we hear music, the catalyst of sensors triggered when we indulge in music, and the rich, full contribution of these artists combine to make the perfect conditions for constructing a new wave of nostalgia. Calling these efforts to recreate the synth-driven, vulgar, flashy paradises of the decade merely ‘revival’ is reductive. In many ways, they have effectively exhibited a retelling of the past to an entire generation, with no signs of slowing down.

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