Activate that flux capacitor, Doc. We are going back to the future.
It’s everywhere at the moment, isn’t it? The future. As it was, back in the day. The eighties revival continues apace. In fact, it seems to have gone on for longer than the eighties themselves. It’s a decade since the electroclash movement re-soldered the Korg-boards, since pop wizard Richard X numanised the Sugababes and gave Rachel Stevens squelchy bass-lines. Then there was Hot Chip and Annie and lots of electro-Kylie (ironically trading her own particular eighties for a trendier model), not to mention an ever-increasing quotient of blips and bloops on R & B and hip-hop records. I thought it had to be over by 2007. Rihanna’s ‘SOS’ pivoted on ‘Tainted Love’, for synth’s sake! It takes extreme audacity or ignorance to sample one of the most iconic bi-dum-dums in pop music. And then there was Calvin Harris. Calvin, it might well have been acceptable in the eighties, but the noughties may be less forgiving; just like Jim Diamond, you should have known better.
Simon Reynolds’ recent (and highly thought-provoking) book Retromania analyses this phenomenon in impressive detail, but it’s his Guardian article from last year that really nails it, describing contemporary electro’s reversion to simulated analogue textures as ‘yesterday’s futurism today’. Nothing dates a period so much as its projections of the still-to-come. We all know that Harold Wilson’s white heat of technology fizzled out into a dismal period of power cuts and candlelit games of patience. Yet there’s something wistfully attractive about the future as it was in the past. It is an index of the hopes of people who have now passed on, a battlefield strung with the bodies of the might-have-been. This is why it’s not enough to pay tribute to the weird and wonderful eighties by simply aping sounds. When La Roux broke in 2009, I found myself disappointed that this self-styled nouveau Yazoo bore only a superficial resemblance to the synth duos of the past. I went out and bought Upstairs at Eric’s instead. It’s all very well to have what Eleanor Jackson calls ‘gakky’ production values, but where’s that sense of the limitless horizon of early eighties synth-pop? Where the Human League (whose first incarnation, it should be noted, went by the name of The Future) marshalled their empire state humans, and Depeche Mode breezed around ‘operating’ and ‘generating new life’, La Roux preferred to restyle the melody of ‘When Doves Cry’, and subsequently got stuck in the quicksand. The best nouveau-electro mustn’t be rutted in the past. I’m comforted, then, that some recent pop takes a steampunk approach to Moogs and Junos , rehabilitating them in a future that has now actually happened. It goes against the truism that technology is always obsolescent; and it confirms that the Kraftwerks and Telexes of this world were always on the button (not that I was ever in doubt).
More generally, the 2000s at their best saw a marked improvement in the quality of chart pop. Music journos gushed about Xenomania and Timbaland in a way they’d never have countenanced for Stock, Aitken and Waterman; websites like Popjustice raised the wreck of Smash Hits with triumphant irreverence. But now it seems that we have entered an era of wall-to-wall Adele on the one hand and a baffling array of self-subdividing genres and one-day wonders on the other (read Paul Lester on this here). Even the most ‘pop’ of pop stars, Lady Gaga in all her metamorphic weirdness, is severely undone by her bloody awful music. We’re supposed to assume that gaga means mad, but it’s really just an expression of infantilism – generic music for the pappy-gummed. I now find it hard to believe that in 2008 the articles that hyped her imminent breakthrough all put an emphasis on the synthesizers. Much as I applaud Gaga’s vocal advocacy of LGBT rights, and the general blood transfusion she has given to an ailing pop mainstream (particularly in the USA), my real fascination of the last few years has been with Robyn. I like to think of her as the anti-Gaga, the intelligent purveyor of neo-synth. The albums she has made since founding her own label, Konichiwa Records (2007’s Robyn and 2010’s doubler, Body Talk) are funny, eccentric, and barring a few rare misfires, as immaculate as any long-player from Madonna’s purple patch. She is a Swedish queen regnant standing grandly at the prow of a handsome ship, defeating an armada of Ladyhawkes and Little Bootses. She really is dancing on her own; all other movers are impostors.
It’s hard to choose a Robyn track for this blog because her ongoing campaign to make superior pop has yielded so many triumphs. There’s the satirical litany of contemporary ills, ‘Don’t fucking tell me what to do’; or the light-and-dark jitters of ‘Who’s that girl’, a song which cleverly takes an eighties title and subject matter and sends it up to space in a noughties rocket. Then, of course, there’s ‘With Every Heartbeat’, one of those rare tracks that is deliriously optimistic and unbearably melancholy at the same time. The relentless interplay between the song’s sole two chords makes it impossible for the listener to decide whether it is continually travelling up or down; Robyn ‘won’t look back’ but she is clearly tempted to do an Orpheus and throw a glance over her shoulder as the strings swell. These are pop songs for ambivalent, troubled adults, set to music that still expresses the breathless palpitations of youth.
My favourite of all is Robyn’s 2009 collaboration with the Norwegian duo Royksopp, ‘The Girl and the Robot’. In fact, it may be my favourite single of the last five years. It’s a supreme piece of back-to-the-future pop; the lyrical premise could almost be twenty-five, thirty years old. If anything screams ‘eighties concept of the future’, it’s bionic men and remote-controlled automata. Way before the Suede hit, Metal Mickey was a shiny TV star; I even had a toy of him myself. Then there were the movies: Short Circuit, Weird Science, Electric Dreams (whose Phil Oakey theme tune celebrates a much more successful liaison between man and machine), as well as dance trends such as body-popping and hit songs that exploited the vogue for systems of circuitry (The Pointer Sisters’ ‘Automatic’ being only the most obvious). All this lies behind the Royksopp-Robyn collaboration, but despite the cute reference to MTV (who honestly watches it these days?) this is no mere exercise in nostalgia. The singer is desperately unhappy about her partner: he’s a workaholic robot, too preoccupied to show his love. When I first heard it, I presumed this was all metaphorical, that the lover was a slave to his city company (how very Heaven 17!) but the video literalises the lyrics: in a twist worthy of a Daft Punk promo, Robyn is having an affair with an actual robot. Gary Numan, sorry you had to wait thirty years for an answer to your question, but here it is. As you suspected, friends are indeed electric.
But Royksopp’s sequencers are far from robotic. They furnish Robyn’s rather beautiful agony with surprising chords, wrapping that tortured blonde voice in deep, elegant textures. It’s proper Moroder and Summer stuff, a case of apparently mechanised men synergising with women of complex desires and needs. At one magic moment (1:45), Robyn complains that no-one’s singing songs for her, only to be offered a spine-tingling harmony: Svein and Torbjørn allow her to serenade herself. Towards the end, the strings begin to take over, a la ‘With Every Heartbeat’, turning a hitherto implicitly symphonic track into a full-on rhapsodic swoon. This is what happens to electronic music in Scandinavia. In claustrophobic old England and Germany, the keyboards and computers often communicate niggling paranoia and fears of dehumanisation: they soundtrack the intensely industrialised and the densely populated. The imagery of ‘The Girl and the Robot’ flirts with these tropes but the overall impression is of grand vistas, of light and shade on a vast scale, of a northern sun beating down on dark rock. I don’t want to make cultural generalisations or give in to obvious connections, but this strange minor-key euphoria is one of the things I love most about much Scandinavian pop. I’m sure I’m not the only person to have heard Grieg in the toothsome D minor arpeggios of Abba’s ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ or the melodramatic crescendo building up to the first verse of A-ha’s ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’. ‘The Girl and the Robot’ is right up there with those two happy-sad melodic wonders.
The ungreat British public felt very differently. ‘The Girl and the Robot’ reached number two in Royksopp’s native Norway, but failed to chart in the UK. Lady Gaga and her hats were taking up too much room. Clearly there’s no such thing as pop justice, except in cyberspace. Who knows though, in a few years’ time when the retro-cycle has reached 2009, the space-age popstrel and her beardy friends may be plundered for inspiration and the future might be reset. In the case of ‘The Girl and the Robot’, it’s definitely worth going back to.