TikTok on the Clock, We’re in the 80s Again

This article was originally published on Popjuice.

You’ve seen it. You’ve heard it. The 80s have come back in a big way in the pop music of today. While one might argue that 80s pop has been in the good hands of modern artists like Lady Gaga and Carly Rae Jepsen, never before has it had this much of a revival in mainstream music as it does today. And at the root of this trend might well be the rise of the video sharing platform TikTok.

As TikTok continues to gain steam among the masses despite a looming ban in the United States, the sounds of the 80s found themselves getting increasingly relevant too. In recent memory, we’ve seen challenges on TikTok fuel the rise of such songs by Dua LipaThe Weeknd and Doja Cat, propelling them to chart success.

For Doja Cat’s ‘Say So’, the 80s influence is instantaneous. There’s that funky four-on-the-floor drumbeat; a groovy bassline and the guitar licks that drive the song (courtesy of a disco Chic sample, no less). What’s new is a more prominent usage of synthesisers, and the result is a sweet spot somewhere between synthpop and disco. We also see variants of these features in songs like Kim Petras’ ‘Malibu‘; Tayla Parx’s ‘Dance Alone‘; Iggy Azalea and Tinashe’s ‘Dance Like Nobody’s Watching‘ and Victoria Monet, Khalid and SG Lewis’ ‘Experience‘. And the references don’t end with the music. Often, the accompanying music videos also hark back to the golden ages of the 70s and 80s, an aesthetic that has perhaps incorrectly been labeled ‘disco’.

It was in the late 70s that the disco club scene saw a huge boom, and the era is remembered for opening doors to social reformation, sexual liberation and self-realisation, especially for members of the queer community. Free from discrimination in these spaces, the disco counterculture was what they turned to to evade the long arm of the law. Its prominence was short-lived, however, as multiple factors like political changes and fatigue from the hedonistic lifestyle led to a swift decline in disco’s popularity.

Disco influence on pop culture, however, remained undeniable. It changed the rules of dancing as a social activity, allowing for people to dance in crowds rather than be limited to a partner. The characteristics of the genre made it one well-suited for dancing—which has also become trendy thanks to TikTok. Today’s disco-influenced songs often have expressive, larger-than-life lyrics that allow for moves to match. Take Dua Lipa’s ‘Don’t Start Now’ for instance, whose TikTok dance capitalises on lines like, “Aren’t you the guy who tried to / Hurt me with the word ‘goodbye’?”.

Still, not all of such songs released today find themselves on the platform. British artists Jessie Ware and Kiesza both released stellar albums this year that dipped into an 80s sound, arguably not to achieve success on TikTok but merely as a homage to and appreciation of the genre. 80s remixes have also become popular on YouTube, showing how the era is back in style. Notable ‘disco queens’ are making a comeback, too. Swedish singer Agnes, responsible for the classic ‘Release Me‘, has a new disco song titled ‘Fingers Crossed‘. Australian singer Kylie Minogue, a pioneer of nu-disco in the 90s, is set to release her fifteenth studio album in November, the aptly titled ‘Disco’, which signals her return to the genre. And as Esquire explains in greater detail, the 80s revival isn’t just happening in music but in our cultural zeitgeist as a whole.

This week, K-pop group BTS becomes the latest pop act to contribute to this. ‘Dynamite’, their first English release, is a playful and funky 80s-inspired song that has already become a trending challenge on TikTok. These days, that’s almost become par for the course with big releases—just look at Cardi B and Meghan Thee Stallion’s ‘WAP’.

That the most successful band in the world right now has chosen to adopt such a sound for a landmark release is significant, and will surely set a trend for songs to come. For K-pop, however, an 80s touch long precedes this current trend. Prominent artists like T-ARA, Brown Eyed Girls and Kara, just to name a few, have long looked to funk, disco and synthpop for inspiration. TikTok, if anything, is really just playing catch up.

Finally, it would be remiss to discuss this revival without taking into account the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. When lockdowns and quarantines began, people took to TikTok as a means of coping, participating in challenges of all kinds. In the first quarter of the year, the platform saw a whopping 315 million downloads—the highest number since it started in 2017. Love it, hate it, or want to beat it, such short-form video content is here to stay. And as the music that soundtracks such content pivots towards the sound of the 80s, it seems inevitable that we’ll soon be gliding around in roller skates and bringing out our glitter balls.

We’re turning back the clock, and it sounds like the 80s again.

Feature image by Raphael Cheong


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