Every day, as students walk between Northeastern University’s West Village Quad and the main campus, the Top 40 tracks from pop music charts are heard from speakers outside the Visitor Center.
Fifth-year student Erin Nfonoyim sits on a bench well within hearing range of these 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 behavioral neuroscience major 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,” Nfonoyim said. “[Older artists] took time to create beats to match people’s unique voices.”
Whether it’s because of a dislike for the current shift to electronic pop music, the availability of songs from past decades on streaming services, or a combination of both, many young people have shuffled toward listening to older songs.
Nfonoyim, born in 1994, said she recently started listening to ’80s music on Spotify after 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 a few artists or hits from that decade, such as Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” (1983) to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” (1989).
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. Celebrity culture was really big,” Andrew Mall said.
Hannah Jeffrey, a third-year Northeastern health science major, said she does not identify with ’80s pop culture.
“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,” Jeffrey said.
Elements of ’80s culture—from fashion, music and 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 fire station in Dorchester.
In contemporary music, 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, noting 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 has 40 million paid subscribers, allows users to choose from its collection of playlists or create their own.
On Sept. 27, 13 of the 100 most popular user-created Spotify playlists were exclusively ’80s music. They range from “Best Songs of 1984” to “Doom & Gloom of the 80’s.”
Though Jeffrey prefers the ’60s to’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 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 addresses current topics through their music.
“I like this trend of social justice as an issue in entertainment,” Mall continued.
He said trends are often divorced from social impact, like fashion trends that are inspired by other cultures but don’t respond to issues within them.
Jeffrey expressed her appreciation of this trend, saying “It’s cool that people are voicing their opinions” whether it’s through radio and MTV in the ’80s or streaming services in 2016.
“Music is a really good way to reach so many people at once,” she said.