I only became aware of the music genre known as retrowave or synthwave a few years ago, though I had been listening to examples of it for longer. In 2018 my appreciation for the genre deepened into love. This is music I jog to. This is music I write to. This is music that makes me nostalgic for the 1980s, but it also makes me question and critique that era. One musical act in particular is responsible for my current retrowave obsession: The Midnight.
In 2018, The Midnight released their latest album, Kids, and it immediately became my favorite album of the year. On the surface, it’s pure nostalgia for movies and video games from the 1980s, but it’s also an insightful interrogation and critique of nostalgia, using its influences from the 1980s to confront issues of today. The Midnight seamlessly weaves together nostalgia and implication about today with lyrics like “He who is free is never alone / The path before us / The world behind us / I’ll wait for you there” from the song “Explorers” that I take as a reminder to appreciate the past, but to confront it, and the present, too.
In the title song, the nursery rhyme-like lyrics and sounds and the earnest backup children singers capture the sadness and horror of abuse and growing up. There were “monsters in the spare bedroom” and “the monsters stay” despite the years since the kids grew up, got high, and moved away.
Confrontation with the present in retro-trappings appears in “America 2,” where decades of “free fallin’” have lead to poverty (“Don’t they see that we’re starving?”) and continued abuse (“Like the dancer with bruises who gathers the cash”) while the narrator seeks relief and empathy (“I’ve come to look for America too.”)
My favorite musical moment in the album is the transition from “Saturday Mornings (Interlude),” with its audio clips of Saturday morning cartoons and commercials, to “Explorers,” a gorgeous song that lists examples of real and imagined explorers and invokes the emotions of genre movies like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Explorers (1985) as a call to action, adventure, empathy, and rebellion.
Every song in the album is fantastic. Kids transforms the retrowave sounds of the 1980s into a thought-provoking confrontation with past and present, but instead of leaving listeners bitter, it propel them toward inspiration and hope.