Pop artists from any era have always approached the matter of production with the cherry-picking strategies of a magpie. Sounds that we think of as brand-new or iconic in retrospect often sit in the mix alongside ideas sourced from the banner styles of previous decades. In truth, pop music plays host to the idea of the sonic collage more completely than any other style, as hit tracks recontextualize samples of past classics or clash together contrasting tonal palettes each inspired by some prior legacy. While some of this music ends up pioneering new waves, the pop we worship tends to tastefully plant itself along a continuum of production ideas, as if to show that its makers have studied it all, considered everything to be fair game, and came out the other end with something that expresses a fragmented and wide-reaching view of music history at any given moment.
Two recently released marquee pop albums by The Weeknd and Dua Lipa each represent an artistic and commercial peak for the artists, and both happen to fully inhabit sonic palettes sourced from bygone eras of production. The former album finds The Weeknd shedding some of the trappings of contemporary R&B and rap in favor of a twilit '80s synth palette more indebted to the likes of Tangerine Dream or Kraftwerk than to any of the artist’s present-day contemporaries. The latter album taps into a wellspring of bass-heavy and club-ready disco pop that can be traced back to the style’s first incarnations in the '70s through the work of such headliners as Daft Punk and Jamiroquai and out into the modern landscape of combinatory pop masters such as Charli XCX or Lady Gaga.
At this point, the everyday listener probably couldn’t care less about the origins of disco or kosmiche production styles, as these ideas have been filtered and re-filtered through so many hits at this point that they can seem both new and timeless at once when we encounter them again. That being said, both The Weeknd and Dua Lipa (and their stables of producers) so fully commit to their respective throwback palettes that they seem to build their own miniature, anachronistic worlds that move beyond typical tropes of resurrected pop ideas to sketch highly specific visions of past-meets-future creation.
Upon first listening to The Weeknd’s After Hours, you might notice that the synth tones on display in each track are completely insane. Album opener “Alone Again” kicks off with a hyper high-definition flurry of analog (or analog-seeming) arpeggios and pure electronic textures, and shifts through a network of interlaced synth patches in which every tone provides a burst of raw color in the mix while sketching out a piece of the song’s harmonic backbone. Say what you will about Abel Tesfaye’s chirped falsetto vocal style (as long as you don’t say, once again, that it sounds like Michael Jackson), but the man and his team know how to curate their productions to an undeniably professional level of detail.
The presence of scene-defining underground-meets-mainstream electronic composer and “vaporwave” progenitor Daniel Lopatin a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never on three tracks here, and the specter that his brand of hazy yet baroque synthesis casts over the album as a whole, speaks to the tonal touchstones on display throughout After Hours. The production channels cinematic synth maestros such as Mike Oldfield and Jonn Serrie, Berlin-school legends Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, and, in the album’s brighter moments, shades of more Billboard-friendly hits from any number of '80s pop luminaries, among them Wham!, early Janet Jackson, and even Hall & Oates. Aside from his direct production work on the album, Lopatin feels like a spiritual overseer of the album, to the point that the tracks spearheaded by mega-pop producers Max Martin and frequent The Weeknd collaborator Illangelo feel somewhat like cosplays of the Oneohtrix Point Never style, still dressed in extreme big-budget sound design but focused around the type of warm, whirring synth tones that one might imagine coming from Lopatin’s trusty Roland Juno 60 keyboard.
While the album spends plenty of time in smoky, pre-dawn atmospheres fit for a solitary drive down a deserted highway, it also shifts into slightly brighter and more open sonic territories. This isn’t to say that the perennially sleazy, over-sexed attitude of The Weeknd is gone here, but rather that it’s been molded into a new configuration, occasionally ornamented with sounds that land closer to a John Hughes movie soundtrack than to anything in modern R&B. “Snowchild” features a disarming line in which Tesfaye offers “futuristic sex / give her Philip K. Dick,” essentially encapsulating the whole vibe here: tongue-in-cheek and referential, a past-meets-future dystopia that’s still horny as hell. Elsewhere, "Blinding Lights" comes galloping out of the gate with a bouncy, major-key electro synth hook and a simple but effective kick/snare beat that sounds like it would fit in nicely against a training montage in a coming-of-age sports flick.
“Escape from LA,” whose John Carpenter-referencing title might single it out as the most potentially apocalyptic track here, actually proves to be one of the most by-the-numbers Weeknd tunes – and I mean that in a good way. The melting, descending vocal melodies and the cloudy production colored in with disembodied voice samples and giant bass swells speaks directly to the smeared grandeur of Tesfaye’s career-making early mix tapes, while the track’s six-minute running time gives it plenty of space to stretch out into the most developed narrative of the album. Against sweeping strings and dubbed-out slo-mo beats, Tesfaye drops some more of his psychosexual, impish science on us: “LA girls all look the same / I can't recognize / The same work done on their face / I don't criticize.” As an isolated observation, no one can praise Tesfaye for this one. But the line hints at overarching themes that go hand in hand with the album’s production decisions: the rejection of contemporary pop standards alongside a paradoxical embrace of even older pop standards; the trope of the identical androids that populate such '80s classics as Blade Runner; the vapidity at the heart of Hollywood culture and the need to “Escape from LA.”
Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia pumps through your speakers with throwback fetishism laced directly into its DNA. “The past,” or some version of it, blares from the title of the album itself and trickles down through its neo-disco production and earworm pop-hook constructions that channel any number of American household names (Cher, Mariah Carey, Madonna) and some U.K./Australian icons as well (Kylie Minogue, Charli XCX). That title proves to be appropriately ambiguous to parse. Does it mean that this album will one day be looked back on with fond nostalgia from a future vantage point? Is it simply describing the album’s throwback qualities as “future” the way you would describe a fancy new car or a high tech refrigerator as “future”? Is it just purposefully contradictory nonsense? The title track’s first line fuels the ambiguity: “You want a timeless song, I wanna change the game / Like modern architecture, John Lautner coming your way.” Here Lipa pits the notion of timelessness against progress or “modernity,” and positions herself as the modernist architect and minimalist forefather John Lautner … a pretty heady name-check for the first song on your disco-pop album, no doubt.
Does the album live up to its title? I think that’s the wrong question to ask. Is it fun and well made? Hell yes it is. Compared to The Weeknd’s baroque and often claustrophobic synthscapes, Future Nostalgia’s production feels bright and wide open, primed for a beach party by day (right now, if only) and a club excursion at night (I’d take that, too). From the first track we’re hit with Zapp-esque robo-vocoded harmonies, jaunty organ tones right out of Prince’s “Delirious,” and a litany of bone-thick bass lines that animate virtually every song with an overt Saturday Night Fever groove. These bass lines and the steady, regimented drum patterns prove to be just as central to this music as any vocal hooks, and they guide every track down a post-disco production path previously traced by the likes of Daft Punk and Jamiroquai. While the former have been informing pop music for over two decades now, the latter might not be as cool to reference in today’s pop landscape. But Jamiroquai’s live-band disco aesthetic seems closest to Lipa’s music here – especially the front-of-the-mix octave-tracing bass playing in the style of Stuart Zender. Bass lines aside, the production leans heavily into tropes culled from house music (see: pre-choruses heralded by the emergence of massive, dry piano chords) and orchestral pop (see: the Burt Bacharach-like string swells floating behind many verses).
Dua Lipa holds these diverse stylistic touchstones together with her versatile vocal performances. Her melodies, all of which she co-wrote with a stable of writers and producers, pack the kind of sugar-rush gratification and tumbling, scale-spanning arcs that stick in your head after one listen – songs that you feel like you’re learning as you hear them for the first time, so when the hook comes back around again, you’re already prepared to sing along. With a wordy, tongue-twisting style of singing more closely aligned to '90s stars Britney or Christina than to any disco-era singer, Dua Lipa isn’t afraid to pack the syllables into her choruses, often approaching an almost rapped cadence before launching back into the multi-tiered melodies that make up each song’s peak. The Albanian-English singer (side note: what is up with Albania as the origin for international pop-star exports at this point?) makes it a point to over-enunciate her lyrics, as if to make sure we catch every word as the songs imprint themselves in our long-term memory. More than a casual fling of an album, Future Nostalgia seems mature and considered at every turn – an impressive feat for a rising pop star’s second album, to be sure.
If we look at the trends that come to define the decades of modern pop history, we see the '70s as the last gasp of live instrumentation as it comes to serve an increasingly streamlined and regimented disco groove. The wider availability and cultural rise of consumer electronics and affordable synthesizers made them the de facto tool for '80s pop, defining its emphasis on crystal-clear melodic frameworks and atmospheric production touches. The '90s, when every pop song had a trip-hop beat or an amen break planted behind an acoustic guitar and hip-hop’s sampling practices started to present major commercial opportunities, felt like the decade of novel recombination, with influences thrown into a blender and allowed to intermingle, sometimes with bizarrely catchy results (see: Len’s “Steal My Sunshine”).
The '00s were a free-for-all when anything could be considered pop – when rock, emo, pop-punk, R&B, dirty-south hip-hop, country, and nu-metal all hit the Billboard charts and blurred lines between genres, proving that anything could be a hit if it was produced well and forced upon the masses enough. The '10s saw a retreat away from this kaleidoscopic approach and down the rabbit hole presented by EDM and dubstep, when every pop song started to have the same icy synth backdrop, giant washes of bass, and club-friendly house beats, and every hip-hop track started to have the same trap hi-hats and 808 kicks. In a way, this hearkens back to the '80s, when electronic production was king and producers relied less on samples to construct their sonic architectures. With more in-the-box production centered on software synthesis, suddenly big-name producers could emerge from basically anywhere with a fully formed sound and have tracks they made alone on their laptops make it to the radio on an international scale.
Where does that leave us now? In the '20s, I think pop musicians understand that everything in musical history is fair game to hijack for their own purposes, and that any attempt to create something brand-new has the potential to fall flat on its face. So we find The Weeknd retreating into the '80s and emerging with something dark and novel in its detailed construction. We find Dua Lipa going full disco and channeling that energy into her certified earworm pop jams. To teens and young adults listening to this music today, who represent the largest demographic of these artists’ fan bases, these temporal touchstones probably don’t mean much, or carry any pointed significance. Pop music has always been like this for them: cherry-picking references to mine for inspiration; fused to the bone with electronic production elements such as drum programming and high-definition synthesis; sounding vaguely “'80s” in the wake of Stranger Things but also vaguely like anything you could possibly single out. As After Hours smashes streaming records on Apple Music and Spotify and Future Nostalgia peaks in the top 10 in 11 countries, I imagine this notion of boutique and pointed throwback production will inch closer to the standard approach that defines the pop music of the 2020s.