Where Lady Gaga and Bon Iver Collide

What do Lady Gaga and Bon Iver have in common?  Well, um, give me a minute…

Okay, they’re both musicians, have released albums in the last month or so, and are both very talented in very different aspects.  And both of them apparently enjoy a nice saxophone solo.

The two artists are on completely opposite ends of the genre spectrum; one wears dresses made of meat, rides into the Grammy’s in a giant silicone egg, and writes lyrics that express her views on immigration reform and LGBT issues, while the other records his albums in a converted swimming pool attached to a veterinarians office in Wisconsin, wears plaid button-ups, polo’s and khaki pants, and surprises his fans by popping up on a Kanye West track.  But on both of their new albums, one can hear striking similarities in heavy saxophone solos and synthetic keyboard instrumentals that would play nicely on a mixed tape between Phil Collins’ “One More Night” and Madonna’s “Open Your Heart.”

Lady Gaga’s Born This Way features several 80’s inspired tomes; the track titled “Black Jesus + Amen Fashion” calls to mind Madonna’s interpretation of the black saint in “Like a Virgin,” while its instrumentals might encourage a cameo by Paula Abdul’s MC Skat Kat.  The single “The Edge of Glory,” features a fantastic saxophone solo by the late Clarence Clemons of the E-Street Band.  The video, which you can watch below, is simple by Lady Gaga’s standards, and seems to be inspired by basically every Michael Jackson video made in the 1980’s.

Bon Iver’s self-titled sophomore album is considerably more complex than Born This Way.  The alt-indie group led by Justin Vernon has touches of 80’s noir, blended with the strong folksy sounds we’re accustomed to hearing from the band.  In a surprising mix, Vernon fuses the decidedly 80’s sounds of the keyboard, electric guitar and saxophone with the twang of a country-esque slow jam on the albums closing song “Beth/Rest.”  You can watch the official video for Bon Iver’s first single “Calgary” below.

So this is 2011, what’s with the flashback?

1980’s music rode heavily on the revolution of the industry with the premiere  MTV; heavily digitized and highly visual, the most successful artists of the era left their mark by making loud statements and challenging the mainstream (See: “Like a Virgin”).

Collectively, the US spent much of the 1980’s recovering from a global recession, conservatives idealized American Exceptualism and President Ronald Reagan, technology was rapidly evolving with the creation of portable devices such as the mobile phones and the Sony Walkman, there was ongoing war in Iraq and the US military bombed Libya.

Pop culture is often at its best when it accurately reflects reality, so it’s no surprise that our music, like our history, is repeating itself.  Additionally, many of those who make up pop musics core demographic were born in the 1980’s — like myself — and while obviously well aware of Madonna and Phil Collins, our experience of the decade is limited to second-hand knowledge.  This 80’s sound, the political outcry, the visual/metaphorical messages people once saw only when they tuned into MTV are now disseminated rapidly through the internet.

To many engaged listeners this music isn’t a revival, but revolutionary.


4 Comments on “Where Lady Gaga and Bon Iver Collide”

  1. weston says:

    I’ve been trying to rationalize this return of the 80s sound for some time now and this piece has really helped put things in perspective. First really heard the heavy revival of this sound in Justin Vernon’s side project Gayngs (“The Last Prom on Earth” will explain everything), but it’s become ubiquitous. Though, it appears as though a lot of the attention-seeking trends–musically and otherwise–thankfully aren’t coming along for the ride (and your MTV example explains why). Great piece!

    • Loren A Lynch says:

      Thank you for the compliment! I’ve read a few things about Vernon’s side project, but haven’t had the chance to take a listen yet, but I certainly will now. I don’t mind the revival of the saxophone solo or even the Phil Collins-esque keyboards, as long as no one goes full throttle Paula Abdul, I can get on board with the trend. I agree with you about the attention-seeking trends; I may not remember the 80’s but I’ve seen the pictures, we don’t need to relive that again to its fullest…

      I really enjoy your blog belated,baby by the way! Thanks for subscribing!

      • weston says:

        Thank you too, glad you’re enjoying the blog! Yeah the Gayngs stuff is definitely worth a listen. I didn’t possess the cognitive ability to appreciate the 80s either, but I refuse to adopt the “80s music was the worst” mentality.

        Though, I can’t decide where to draw the line relative to this (a 2011 release)…

  2. Loren A Lynch says:

    Ok so I literally just realized there was an actual video at end of your last reply… Wow, that’s just, wow. It’s like early, early MTV like before they realized it wasnt the 70’s and that dropping acid wasnt cool anymore. Or maybe that’s the point, they want to apply tripy-looking images to the 80s pop synth sound, some sort of play on the generation gaps. Hmmm strange. It definitely sound 80s but that video…thats what throws the wrench in…

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