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Sunday, 03 July 2022
By Shephali Bhatt

How Stranger Things got Gen Z humming 80s music

Screenshot from Stranger Things (Netflix)

Vipasha Malhotra cannot stop humming Kate Bush's Running Up That Hill and Musical Youth's Pass the Dutchie. The 25-year-old has company. “All my friends are making Instagram Reels with these tracks,” says the Delhi-based musician and stand-up comedian. Until two months ago, Vipasha, who is also a digital creator with over 250,000 followers across YouTube and Instagram, wasn't aware of the English pop hits from four decades ago. Like many others from her generation, Gen Z, she discovered these songs while watching the latest season of Netflix's most popular show, Stranger Things.

Set in 1980s America, Stranger Things is a science-fiction horror show popular with the “nostalgia generation” (many of whom were pre-teens in the 80s) as well as Gen Zers (10-25-year-olds) as the main cast comprises tweens and teens. Right from the first season, which aired in July 2016, the show has been instrumental in reviving many international chartbusters. Period songs are woven into the plot in what the show's music supervisor, Nora Felder, describes as “additional and unseen main characters”.


In season 1, Should I Stay or Should I Go (1982) by the English rock band The Clash becomes a means of communication between a mother and her son stuck in another dimension. Cyndi Lauper's Time After Time and Every Breath You Take by The Police are two 1983 hits that end season 2 with hints of a budding tween romance, all while reminding the protagonists as well as the viewers that there's a rocky road ahead. The timing of Limahl's Never Ending Story (1984) in season 3 is a testament to kids saying (read: demanding) the darnedest things at the most inappropriate times, and the series shows how, just like in real life, those darnedest demands turn into one of those classic stories everyone can laugh about later. Shortly after the season's release in July 2019, the song's YouTube video reportedly saw an 800% surge in views and Spotify noted an 825% increase in the track's listenership.

In the show's recently concluded season 4, Kate Bush's Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) undoubtedly emerges as a full-fledged character. Not only did the 1985 soundtrack top Spotify and iTunes charts shortly after the first seven episodes of the penultimate season were released in May 2022, but it was also widely appreciated by Gen Zers for its powerful lyrics. This also ended up upsetting many older “cultural gatekeepers” who couldn't fathom how the young did not know of the “legend” Kate Bush.

Many Gen Z fans of the show--who may or may not have heard these tracks in their homes growing up--are now adding 80s songs featured in Stranger Things into their playlists. Some, like 19-year-old Dhruv Jain, are actively looking for songs from that decade via curated 80s playlists on YouTube and Spotify. “When I watched the series during the first lockdown, I wasn't aware of the 80s music scene,” says the psychology student from Solan in Himachal Pradesh. The show's portrayal of the 80s made him “more inclined to find out about the music of that decade,” he says.

Dhruv, by his own admission, only listens to western music. But Yogeswari Alla, a 19-year-old student of biotechnology from the same university, says that the popularity of Stranger Things has even made her peers, who weren't exposed to international music, aware and appreciative of the 80s global music era.

Screenshot from Stranger Things (Netflix)

Old songs resurfacing in public memory, through remixes or popular movies and shows, is nothing new. “Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy franchise has done that rather well with showcasing music from the 60s and 70s ,” says Karthik Srinivasan, a communications consultant who also runs a music discovery and review platform called Milliblog [This quote was rectified after publishing, an earlier version mentioned that the movie franchise showcased music from the 80s as well which is inaccurate]. Even Reels and TikTok have enabled this phenomenon of old songs turning into trending audios in recent times. “These discoveries work in the same way as reading a good book. They make you want to look for more books from the same author/artist.”

Stranger Things, Karthik says, “has been able to do that for an entire period (the 80s) instead of just one artist”. The global popularity of the show and the scope for reel-ification make it possible for Stranger Things to have this impact at a higher scale. It explains the many curated 80s playlists--with hundreds of thousands of subscribers--that have come up across platforms like YouTube and Spotify in the last one month.

Additionally, old YouTube videos of other 80s songs featured in the show, like Africa by Toto, Rock You Like a Hurricane by Scorpions, The Bangles' Hazy Shade of Winter, Devo's Whip It, and Never Surrender by Corey Hart, now have comments from users revealing they were born roughly two decades after the song's release but are thrilled to have discovered the melody via Stranger Things.

Music streaming apps and their algorithms also help Gen Z discover 80s artists that weren't featured in the show (like Michael Jackson or Fleetwood Mac).

For people born two decades later, like 22-year-old Prajata (they/them), discovering 80s music via Stranger Things has been a means to understand their parents' taste in music. “You know how parents say the music was better in their time, it all starts to make sense now,” says the engineering student from Kolkata.

Does the decade or year a song belongs to matter? Vipasha from Delhi says it does. “It makes us feel connected to our elders and helps us realise that our parents or grandparents have also been a part of some youth culture. That they were also cool at some point and that this was their way of being cool.”

But what is so special about the 80s music era, you ask?

Screenshot from Stranger Things (Netflix)

“The 80s is essentially when synth-based pop (synthesizer-based beats) became big,” recalls Krish Ashok, a technology professional, culinary author, musician and columnist for Mint Lounge. It was also perhaps the most polarising time for musicians as most “serious musicians” didn't take a liking to the use of synthesizer-based music, he explains.

The 80s music era also coincided with cassettes becoming popular around the world. Before that music was played on LPs, or long-playing vinyl records, which were fragile and expensive and thus not as accessible as audio cassettes. The 80s also saw the Sony Walkman going global, making music a more personalised experience. “A combination of factors made that generation of musicians a part of mainstream international pop culture. In fact, it was probably the first generation of music that the rest of the world had access to,” says Ashok.

Prajata now prefers 80s music to the current music. “Their lyrics, though upbeat, spoke of real experiences, I feel,” says the Gen Zer who is waiting to see which 'new' old songs will feature in the final season of the show.

As for me, I'm just waiting to see which 80s songs from volume 2 of season 4, released on Friday, will trend on TikTok abroad and consequently on Reels back home. Will it be Metallica's iconic Master of Puppets from 1986? Or will people find a way to reel-ify the 1983 pop-rock hit Separate Ways (Worlds Apart) by Journey? I guess we'll know by next Sunday. Until then, stay good. Or as El would say, “bitchin”.


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Shephali chronicles how the internet is changing the way we live, and how our changing ways force tech companies to transform themselves. You can write to her on Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin.

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