Unterberger also cites two popular ’80s comedies, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Back To School, as being instrumental in pushing the Beatles’ 1963 song “Twist And Shout” back onto the Hot 100. Key movie placements of the time also helped older songs — Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” (Good Morning, Vietnam), the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” (Dirty Dancing), the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” (Ghost), Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Wayne’s World) — back into the Hot 100, as did significant radio play from a group of Contemporary Hit Radio DJs and program directors. Later in the decade, Puff Daddy launched a trend of scoring huge hits built on obvious samples, a phenomenon that didn’t usually send the original songs back up the charts but represented a similar hunger for the old and familiar.
I think what separates earlier instances of “bringback” culture from the one we’re currently in is that this one feels much more permanent. We might see more microtrends b/w/o dance challenges and memes, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that older music is way more accessible for all in 2022 than it was in 1992. That’s why “genre-fluid” musicians such as Billie Eilish, Post Malone, and Lil Uzi Vert have been popping up right and left over the last few years. Today’s popular artist frequently draws influence from across the genre spectrum because they’ve spent their lives immersed in 10 record stores’ worth of material. It used to be that rap producers had to go crate-digging to find obscure funk and soul tracks with which to build a new song. Today, it’s literally never been easier to find old music and treat it as new.
When it comes to new music, I think both artists and label people have started to look at the ecosystem as a trip to the slots. Pump enough money (new songs) into the machine (TikTok), and you could win the jackpot (land a viral hit). Even well-known names such as FKA twigs and Florence Welch have recently complained about their labels forcing them to do TikTok promo, and Halsey accused Capitol Records of holding new single “So Good” hostage unless it went viral on the platform. For less established artists, the music industry higher-ups like to romanticize this process as a “You could be next!” rags-to-riches scenario. As YouTube’s head of catalog Ryan Thornton recently told Billboard:
Part of what excites me about my role is the phenomenon and potential of any song to go viral. Whether it’s because of social trends, short-form video or prominent syncs, the possibility of watching or taking part in a viral hit is an especially fun part of the catalog segment of the industry. I’m also excited about the role YouTube Shorts can play in amplifying these moments even more and for the full circle music discovery experience fans can have all within the YouTube ecosystem.
Psychologically, we also tend to like older sounds more than newer ones. Discussing the ’80s mixtape selections in a then-new Guardians Of The Galaxy, a 2014 Mic article notes:
In numerous scientific experiments, researchers have shown that subjects are much more likely to report positive feelings from a given piece of music if they’ve heard it before. Songs score even higher marks if they can trigger a specific, storied memory — like a late summer night spent driving around with “Fooled Around And Fell In Love” on the radio. Familiar music is also a much more reliable way for people to induce good moods in themselves — in fact, the emotional centers of the brain are more active when one listens to familiar music.
The act of industry types looking for the next music phenomenon recently got deconstructed in Vox’s “We tracked what happens after TikTok songs go viral” video, where data analysts looked at how many new artists actually got signed and went on tour after having a big song rake in organic views and streams. The analysts ultimately concluded that new artists who get big via TikTok have the advantage over labels, as they’ve already proven their chops minus any label marketing or promotion, which could translate to a bigger cut of the overall profits.
So yes, the next viral streaming phenomenon could literally be anything. Trouble is, that also applies to old music. As Gioia notes in The Atlantic, the entire industry is founded on repeating itself and playing it safe:
In fact, nothing is less interesting to music executives than a completely radical new kind of music. Who can blame them for feeling this way? The radio stations will play only songs that fit the dominant formulas, which haven’t changed much in decades. The algorithms curating so much of our new music are even worse. Music algorithms are designed to be feedback loops, ensuring that the promoted new songs are virtually identical to your favorite old songs. Anything that genuinely breaks the mold is excluded from consideration almost as a rule. That’s actually how the current system has been designed to work.
By investing in older sounds, the major industry titans are playing the safest bet there is. This new trend of older music tidal-waving new music is technically an updated version of the same tactic. Time is meaningless, and the snake eats its tail.
Now, you might argue that Stranger Things takes place in the ’80s and therefore must choose era-appropriate syncs, which may therefore birth a rediscovered hit. There’s nothing wrong with that; I personally love that the Gen Zs are so into Kate Bush now. (Do PJ Harvey next!) It feels like cosmic justice that Bush would get a resurgence, given how ahead of its time Hounds Of Love was in the ’80s and how famously reclusive she is. I can’t think of anyone more deserving. We should always be looking for ways to help Bush cash those royalty checks without having to hit the road, as she has never been about that touring life. But Stranger Things is basically a mish-mashed love letter to all things ’80s sci-fi and horror, and its newness is also fundamentally encased in the old. It’s part of a similar phenomenon that’s been emerging in Hollywood for years, in which sequels, reboots, well-known IP, and tributes to nostalgic favorites have gained something close to a monopoly.
Looking ahead, it seems pretty clear that new music is just not the priority. I can’t tell you how many times over the last 10 or so years I’ve heard publicists complain that no website/blog/magazine wants to cover new music anymore — and although sites like this one disprove that notion, our posts about new and/or obscure artists are not exactly big traffic drivers compared to our retrospective columns. If a label wants to invest money in a new artist, they’d better have a robust classic catalog to pay the bills. In the meantime, creators will keep pouring quarters into the slot machine, hoping to eventually strike gold, silver, or platinum.