Pharrell, Bruno Mars and the Age of Pastiche Pop

Are chart-topping retro-style hits honoring the past or simply retreading it?


On a recent drive, I flipped on Z100 and had a curious case of déjà vu. Each song the station played was technically “new” — the hottest product on the market in 2015. But many of the sounds blaring through my speakers felt decidedly retro, new tracks that played like a survey of the last half-century of pop music.

In fact, my ride illuminated just how many hits from the past five years — Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” Bruno Mars’ “Treasure,” Pharrell’s “Happy” and Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk”, to name just a few — sound curiously plucked from bygone eras.

To be certain, pop music, a craft that relishes in the familiar, has clearly utilized homage before. But this current trend feels deeper than mere homage. In fact, I realized that the first five years of the 2010s represent an entire Age of Pastiche Pop.

Indeed, unlike any pop epoch before it, innumerable definitive tunes from the 10s have mimicked sounds from other decades without altering or updating them in any significant fashion. In many ways, it’s a large-scale rendering of what punk pioneer Malcolm McClaren called “cultural karaoke” — the act of replicating cultural artifacts devoid of the urgent context that bore them.

So is “pastiche pop” a problem? At the very least, it raises questions about when honoring the past becomes simply retreading it, perhaps to the detriment of innovation. We may be reacting to an emptiness in contemporary pop culture, a dearth of creativity that forces us to look backwards for substance. Or we may just be tirelessly and shamelessly reiterating tried-and-true formulas in pursuit of hit.

Whatever the case, the Age of Pastiche Pop has its drawbacks. Because while pop has always traded in the familiar, it is equally obligated to define the present and usher in the future. The way a lot of pop sounds in 2015, though, means we may look back on this period with very little to show for ourselves.

“Get Lucky” team of Daft Punk, Pharrell, Nile Rodgers | [Photo: Theo Wargo/WireImage]

Pop is inherently about reinterpreting recognizable ideas. In one sense, it can be seen as an endless cycle of birth and rebirth, where new genres spawn directly from the rotting bones of their predecessors. Disco split off into house and new wave, which then later fused back together to create the sub-genre Nu-Disco. It’s a ceaseless dialogue and, often times, an exciting one that allows for constant reinvention and recontextualization of older ideas, a unique melding of the familiar and the novel.

For example, Michael Jackson’s definitive run of albums — 1979’s Off the Wall, 1982’s Thriller and 1987’s Bad — are canonized for the way in which they fused myriad popular music tropes from the preceding century: disco, rock, new wave, funk, even show tunes, jazz, and later on, hip-hop. And to be clear, hip-hop, one of pop’s definitive mediums for the last three decades, is largely centered around a sampling culture in which actual pieces of music are repurposed in new compositions.

What’s more, pop is defined by interplay, musical interactions between contemporaries as well as across time. “True Blue” found Madonna mimicking the wall-of-sound and doo-wop girl-group formula of the 50s and 60s, but with the addition of muscular synthetic drum programming, a signature of the mid 80s. Likewise, Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” and Megan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” swing like the Shirelles but are fluent in 21st century hip-hop lingo and deal in decidedly modern issues: rehabilitation culture and body acceptance, respectively.

In rendering these tweaks, “Blue,” “Rehab” and Bass” prove their vitality. They are also perfect examples of homage, cherry picking elements that nod to their forebears and altering them for their respective presents.

Mark Ronson, Amy Winehouse [Photos: Tim P. Whitby, Matt Cardy | Getty Images]

Unlike homage, however, many hits in the Age of Pastiche Pop are not renovations on genre tropes from the past, but rather perfect imitations. For instance, Bruno Mars’ “Treasure” is not a Nu-Disco song like Breakbot’s “Baby, I’m Yours,” or a disco-house/EDM hybrid like Madonna’s “Hung Up.” “Treasure” is simply an ersatz 70s disco song rendered in 2013, expertly mimicking the style and form of the genre to the letter.

The same could be said of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” Or of Ronson and Bruno Mars’ massive “Uptown Funk,” a remake of the Minnesota Funk sound of the early 80s. Or of Pharrell’s “Happy,” a Motown-era gospel soul song in lyrical content, production and form. Or of Mars’ “Locked Out Of Heaven,” a knowing recreation of peak-era Police hits like “Can’t Stand Losing You” and “Roxanne” (Both Mars and Pharrell are repeat practitioners of pastiche).

The same could certainly be said Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s “Blurred Lines,” a smash hit that mirrors the texture and swing of Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got To Give It Up” so closely that it recently lost a highly publicized lawsuit to Gaye’s family over the question of originality. It was a landmark case that may bring the cultural dangers of creating pastiche into a legal arena.

In fact, never before in pop music history has turning on Top 40 radio sounded so proudly similar to an oldies stations. It’s all eminently recognizable, easily enjoyable, but it’s also edgeless and, devoid of these genre’s original contexts, rather empty.

Meghan Trainor | [photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for iHeartMedia]

So what, exactly, is creating this trend toward pastiche? It could be that the Age of Pastiche Pop exists, as the cliche goes, because of the internet.

In his book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, music critic Simon Reynolds explains, “Not only has there never before been a society so obsessed with the cultural artifacts of its immediate past, but there has never before been a society that is able to access the immediate past so easily and so copiously.” Indeed, participants in contemporary popular culture, both the creators and the consumers, have an unprecedented ability to study the recent past. Maybe the mere access to that information has driven us to clone old music we love.

Mostly, though, Reynolds helps highlight that if one listened to songs like “Get Lucky” and “Locked Out Of Heaven” ten, twenty or one hundred years down the road, they would tell you little substantive information about our current decade, aside from the fact that we’re obsessed with the past.

But our appetite for pastiche may run deeper even than just pure access to information. In his Ted Talk “Authentic Creativity vs Karaoke Culture,” punk pioneer Malcolm McLaren hints at something slightly more insidious. “All popular culture today,” McLaren explains, “is a world in which life is lived by proxy, unencumbered by the messy process of actual creativity… In a karaoke world, you’re free from responsibility beyond the moment of performance.”

In his talk, McLaren links karaoke culture to the “popular culture industrial complex.” He argues that as art is being made increasingly for profit, the need to innovate or to create something authentic is relegated in favor of the most easily bankable product, material that delivers in the “moment of performance.” “In a Karaoke World,” McLaren concludes, “everything and everyone is for sale.”

If you apply McLaren’s principle to popular music, it stands to reason that the music business, famous for its ceaseless attempt to locate a formula for success, has simply reached its natural conclusion in the Age of Pastiche Pop. Indeed, creating a culture of pastiche is simply the search for a successful blueprint, boiled down to its essence: Direct replicas of hits from the past, endlessly replicating.

This may create a staid popular culture, where music is filled with retreads and television and movies rife with reboots, but it is certainly proving to be profitable. The evidence is all over the charts: “Uptown Funk,” recently became the 2nd longest running #1 single of all time on the Hot 100. “Blurred Lines” is #4 and “Happy” is #6.

Robin Thicke | [photo: Timothy Hiatt/WireImage]

So returning to the original question: Is pastiche pop really a problem? It certainly could be. Indeed on the one hand, the appeal of pastiche is totally understandable. It’s comfortably worn and beaten in and hearing it is akin to pulling out an old, soft sweatshirt from college.

But pop music, at its best, is as much about celebrating the past as it is about is about paving the way to the future. Luckily, mixed in with these pastiche tunes is still a healthy amount of exciting newer genres: there’s electro-funk, there’s trap, twerk and ratchet music, forms that are doing their part to move music longitudinally, not just laterally.

But when we look back at the Age of Pastiche Pop, way may just see a huge, blank void. Actually on second thought, perhaps the biggest hits of the 2010s will tell a story about our current times: maybe that story is that we’ll do anything to escape our present.


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Top Image: Bruno Mars and company | [Photo: Elsa/Getty Images]

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