Saturdays = Youth Turns 10

Saturdays = Youth Turns 10

At this point, we’re used to it. After years of living with one revival after another, retro culture is inextricably woven into our contemporary experience. Hosts of DIY bands recall ’90s indie, while classicist-minded rock bands exhume the ’60s and ’70s and rise to festival headliner status. In an era where we have access to all of pop history at any time, it feels normal, legible, to have all these decades collapsed together. But one decade still casts a particularly long shadow, and that, of course, is the ’80s.

Any decade you didn’t live through can have a sort of altered, mythological status. You get the artistic or historical highlights without the understanding of day-to-day life back then; you get an idea of the time filtered through and in conversation with a society having had a few more decades of existence. But there’s something different about the ’80s. Perhaps that, for a particular generation — yes, the millennials — the ’80s are either the distant reaches of early childhood, or the era directly preceding us. That is, the seemingly simpler and more innocent time, the era right before the nascent rise of digital culture and its radical ramifications on how we interact with each other and perceive the world.

Perhaps it has something to do with the pop culture of the ’80s itself often trafficking in nostalgia, looking back to what they perceived as a more innocent past for them as they were on the precipice of great technological advancements while the prospect of nuclear annihilation lingered in the air. That, at least, is one way to understand it. And that’s the constant lure of the ’80s: More than any other key decade of the American Century, it can make us feel a completely different version of it than what really existed.

It feels increasingly difficult to recall, but it wasn’t always quite this way. Even if James Murphy mocked a generation’s “Borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered ’80s” in his 2002 self-laceration opus “Losing My Edge,” the decade wasn’t exactly present in pop culture in the same way. He was talking about a kind of slick, downtown post-punk “rock ‘n’ roll” dream, specific to an aging hipster’s experience in New York. Reclamations of the ’80s, for some time, felt like a put-on, a quirky embrace of cultural detritus that had been codified as unhip and gauche, just before the era where no part of the past felt as such, no part of the past was off limits.

Ten years ago this Sunday, M83 released their fifth album Saturdays = Youth. A decade later, it is a work that feels singular relative to the predominant indie mentality of the time, and yet so emblematic of where we were headed. If you recall, it is an album that was talked about a lot with concern to ’80s revivalism. And, it’s true — Saturdays = Youth dove straight into the sounds and ethos of the ’80s. Or, at least, our notion of the ’80s.

Beginning as an electronic French duo in 2001, M83 had already gone through some transitions. After two albums, Nicolas Fromageau departed and M83 effectively became the project of Anthony Gonzalez. Across those early duo albums and the ones that followed, M83 touched on star-gazing electronica as well as shoegaze-indebted synth epics, on maximalist post-rock as well as restrained and heady ambient music. They’d covered a lot of ground by 2008, and Saturdays = Youth still felt like a significant turning point.

Looking back at the reviews of Saturdays = Youth from 2008 is almost amusing. At a time when a lot of people still boiled the ’80s down to signifiers of cheap, fake things, even the positive assessments of the album approached it with some degree of suspicion, all while comparing individual tracks to such legendary artists as Cocteau Twins and Kate Bush. (There are assertions that simply don’t register today, like a 2011 interview that relegates Vangelis to one of the “less cool” influences Gonzalez cites.) References to John Hughes films appear in just about every writeup, whether noting the album art’s similarity to a Breakfast Club-esque depiction of the Brat Pack or drawing a through line from those iconic ’80s teen films to the overblown emotion that characterized much of the album. Years later, Hughes is often still a shorthand when discussing the way M83 revisits and mutates the pop of that era to depict the experience of youth.

On one hand, you could understand why people might regard Saturdays = Youth with some degree of apprehension. Across its 11 tracks, the album gives us over an hour of lush, overwhelming synthpop that unabashedly veers into (knowingly?) melodramatic spoken word passages and the kind of reminiscing and glorification of being young that felt destined for a poster slogan. It is an album unashamed of taking the small moments of universal experience and blowing them up into something magnificent, gigantic drum breaks and hyper-driven colors deployed to make the album’s stakes feel higher and higher.

M83 is a band literally named for a far-off galaxy. Gonzalez is not about half-measures. Gonzalez is not about shying away from ambition. And because of it, he created an album that both clarified and amplified things we all go through, so that it felt like this other world. Your own life, but in a John Hughes movie more expansive than any one real John Hughes movie.

This was a conscious, and earnest, drive on Gonzalez’ part. “I think that ’80s music is such a brilliant period for music history. It was the occasion for me to do a tribute to this ’80s music, but also a tribute to my teenage years,” Gonzalez said of Saturdays = Youth in 2008. “Because the main theme of the album is being a teenager, and being a teenager means a lot to me.”

From the start, then, Saturdays = Youth was destined to be an impressionistic echo. Gonzalez was in his late 20s when he said that; he’s a child of the ’80s who came of age in the ’90s. He might’ve been paying tribute to dearly-held memories of the ’90s, but he was digging back to a period of pop culture that, in his own lived experience, must’ve been a touch fuzzier. Even for someone who was actually alive during that time, it would be an interpretation to be passed down to listeners who had only inherited the images and texts of that time. Again: the idea of the ’80s.

Delving into that decade’s pop music of course made sense, both due to Gonzalez’ own biography and for the fact that so much of ’80s pop music was wistful and nostalgic on its own. But aesthetically, too, Saturdays = Youth was more complicated than the handful of new wave and dreampop giants everyone compared it to. Yes, of course, those genres are present, but they mingle with all the other strains of M83’s identity, from ambient drifts to the relentlessly intensifying techno throb of “Couleurs.”

Compared to some of the squigglier synth-indie of the time, Saturdays = Youth did sound like some kind of throwback. But as with our ideas of its source material, the album being filtered through other genres and years made it sound like something new as well, something that could just as easily call out to the future as to the past. It recontextualized familiar storylines and tropes, but made the past feel as if it was playing out, well, in another galaxy.

It didn’t really matter what hang ups those older fans might’ve had about all this, though: Saturdays = Youth was loaded with material that was too hard to deny. One of the most crucial ways in which Saturdays = Youth was a turning point was that this is where Gonzalez started writing songs. There were beautiful compositions on the preceding M83 albums, but nothing with the abundant hooks or pop focus that defined the new album’s signature tracks. Maybe they’d smoothed off some of their experimental edges, but this allowed Saturdays = Youth to be many people’s first introduction to M83.

Saturdays = Youth begins with the curtain rise of “You, Appearing,” all slow-burn piano, synths, and interlocking vocals that you assume will ignite but never quite make it there. Until they do, in the form of the album’s second track. The colossal intro of “Kim & Jessie” is where the album truly arrives, the flash of the movie’s title after the cold open prologue. That drum fill, the whale-songs-as-lasers synth riff — it takes a story (and your own memory) of young love and renders it otherworldly, larger-than-life. It was a perfect mission statement for this album: All the gauzy neon hues felt like the aural embodiment of our perceptions of those John Hughes films with an extra watercolor haze smeared over them.

From there, the album barely lets up. There’s the new wave rush of “Graveyard Girl,” the aforementioned dancefloor-to-dream-state odyssey “Couleurs,” the appropriately floaty “Up!,” the unnerving push and pull and eventual bright resolution of the synth-pop jam “We Own The Sky.” Once Saturdays = Youth roars to life, it doesn’t let you go, hitting you with one infectious, overdriven paean to young adulthood after another, with all the necessarily over-sized sentiments. (Such as naming a song “We Own The Sky,” and following it with one called “Highway Of Endless Dreams,” for starters.)

Aside from potentially “Kim & Jessie,” the peak of Saturdays = Youth is “Skin Of The Night.” Back then, it was a masterful example of Gonzalez taking what he’d learned on past albums and corralling it into something closer to pop music, but adjacent to anything too familiar. “Skin Of The Night” is a deeply spacey and strange song if you try to dissect it, operating within a sort of lustful dream logic. With a drum pattern akin to an unpredictably rippling heartbeat, the song undulates through that guitar flare that opens the chorus, through the overlapping vocals of Gonzalez and Morgan Kibby. That chorus sounds aggrieved and sensual at once; the song remains one of Gonzalez’ more enigmatic compositions.

After all those heavy-hitters, it’s easy to feel as if Saturdays = Youth is front-loaded. It’s not dissimilar from some of Bowie’s Berlin era albums: kick off with the direct songs before wandering into a more diffuse and cerebral (and instrumental) place. Return Of The King-style, Saturdays = Youth appears as if it’s going to end multiple times. “Highway Of Endless Dreams” feels like climactic end-credits music, but then that drops you into the denouement of the airy piano ballad “Too Late.” And then that drops you into the pairing of “Dark Moves Of Love” and “Midnight Souls Still Remain,” a one-two of a final synth eruption giving way to a meditative, 10-minute-plus synth drone.

You could certainly make the argument that the pop focus portrayed earlier on is lost at the end, but there is thematic weight to the structure of the album. Saturdays = Youth emerges from ambience, explodes into a series of technicolor vignettes about being a teenager and nostalgia, and then washes away. After giving you a few concrete but atmosphere-drenched tales, the album pulls you into more amorphous places, compositions that represent the elusive and not-quite-definable shapes that memory, nostalgia, and the past can take.

It felt like a huge sound, a huge album, and it redrew the parameters of what M83 could be. Gonzalez’ next record would somehow one-up Saturdays = Youth in scope and prominence. His 2011 followup Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming was a sprawling, diverse double album that sacrificed none of the magnitude of Saturdays = Youth, but managed to bottle it up even further, so that he had a handful of bite-size pop songs overflowing with ideas and riffs and melodies.

And, of course, it had M83’s fluke hit “Midnight City,” which elevated them far beyond where one might’ve reasonably expected them to go. That song was everywhere, and it recast other music to make you feel as if M83 had seeped into other aspects of the culture in the ensuing years — a cousin to chillwave’s grainy, received nostalgia or to the more lovesick corners of the Drive soundtrack and its brethren. But regardless of any of that and its comparative longevity, “Midnight City” was a huge track destined for festival singalongs and movie montages just like Gonzalez’ new wave forebears a generation or two before. It made M83 a much bigger deal, and in response he made the zonked-out Junk. The next part of the story remains untold.

Throughout all of this, I was the exact right age for all these M83 songs capturing the feeling of youth. I remember all the college parties with “Midnight City” blaring, thinking I was inhabiting that movie montage in real time, that I was nostalgic already for that moment even while I was living with it. Like the John Hughes soundtracks he was endlessly compared to, that’s the power of Gonzalez’ music: If you were the right age, the layers of refracted nostalgia here could make you miss a moment even while it was still happening to you.

In that capacity, nothing in his catalog is still as vibrant as Saturdays = Youth — naturally, for me, because I was at the tail end of high school when it came out. Approaching the end of one supposedly formative era of your youth felt weightier when you had a soundtrack custom-made for that transition handed to you, using the language of all the music you could vaguely remember and interact with but not quite touch yourself.

Thinking back on that, those monologue moments on Saturdays = Youth really stand out all these years later. The dramatic build of “Highway Of Endless Dreams” isn’t the only reason it felt like a conclusion within a conclusion to the album. “Seven AM/ Dusty road/ I’m gonna drive until it burns my bones,” the narrator says. Isn’t that where these stories always end? Youth is about to give way to reality, but there’s one more chance at adventure, romance. Growing up, getting out, defining yourself on your own terms in a new landscape. The narrator is going to drive until it burns her bones; there’s creation through destruction there, erasing the past to start anew. It’s a temptation that may never really go away, but the pragmatic aspects of it are something easiest ignored when you have youth to combat them.

That might make it sound like Saturdays = Youth doesn’t quite hold up once you actually reach adulthood. There’s an even more over-the-top line in the spoken-word interlude in “Graveyard Girl,” delivered by the track’s titular goth character, concluding with: “I’m fifteen years old/ And I feel it’s already too late to live/ Don’t you?” It’s the sort of line that registers as profound when you’re a kid, then nonsensical and embarrassing, then profound again. Once more, Gonzalez taps into a very specific, modern version of nostalgia: This feeling that you’ve lived this before, through all the pop culture you’ve consumed. And if you aren’t doing it right, if it doesn’t look like that pop culture, if it isn’t poetic enough — are you living?

That is, in its way, its own melodramatic way of putting it. But if Saturdays = Youth hit you at just the right moment in your life, it was easy to relate to that. As a teenager with all the perceptual overload of history at your fingertips and social media fragmentation, it could feel paralyzing — like you were watching life simply progress from the outside, narrativizing it like those John Hughes movies you knew so well. There’s also something very real to that. Knowing that Gonzalez was very intentionally referring back to these antecedents, you can look at the album as a sort of meta-document, diving into his own past and our cultural past and adding something to someone else’s youth in that contemporary moment. There’s a careful balance of pastiche, affect, and genuine, heartfelt honesty at play on Saturdays = Youth. That made it impactful then at a younger age, but it makes it linger now, too.

After all, Gonzalez was writing this from his late 20s. There was a distance to it that wound up taking on a larger importance. Looking back, the different kinds of nostalgia that collide on Saturdays = Youth, though figured as straight ’80s obsession by some at the time, made it one of many artworks that helped establish a generational language, that helped expose that this strange, untraceable nostalgia would become a defining thread in our generational experience.

At the time, that meant that a teenager who already knew depletion and disenchantment could hear Saturdays = Youth, and suddenly their “not like the movies” existence could blossom into something grander and luminescent. Gonzalez had a way of taking the small building blocks of a person’s adolescence and giving them the gravity of foundational myths.

And 10 years later, this album can still have that effect on your brain. Turn on “Skin Of The Night” on a solo walk on a winter night, and suddenly you can see the wind taking on tangible blues and greys as it contorts in front of you. Turn on “Kim & Jessie,” and it can make images of first love flicker, allowing you to tap into older and less jaded feelings of romance. Turn on “Couleurs” during a packed subway ride, and suddenly the dehumanizing mob of miserable commuters can start to feel like a current pushing you out, up the stairs, and into a futuristic city you’ll never actually see.

Maybe that makes Saturdays = Youth some kind of escapism. That other galaxy. But I don’t think that’s all it does now, or all it was doing then. For a generation who catalogued every boring, quotidian moment of their lives on social media, maybe youth was never going to be as mysterious and adventurous as the stories we’d been told. But M83 made it feel that way. Gonzalez takes the banal, and makes it feel limitless, cinematic. You don’t need to be a teenager to have it affect you that way. As we, and this album, get older, the revelation is not that it’s using nostalgia and ’80s iconography and a whole array of celestial synths to build a new beautiful world for you to imagine your life in. The revelation is that Saturdays = Youth was a reflection in more ways than one, and that sometimes dreamscapes merely emphasize the beauty in plain sight.

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