by: Nico Lang
Last week, the song “Midnight City” by M83 officially broke onto the Billboard Hot 100 and is currently sitting at a modest #74 on the chart, not yet Adele-stellar but far from terrible. If you somehow missed out on the massive outpouring of critical love for “Midnight City” last year, let me catch you up on why you should love this song. “Midnight City” placed at #1 on PopMatters’, Stereogum’s and Pitchfork’s lists of the Best Songs of 2011, at #2 on Paste’s list (after “Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes) and at #4 on the Village Voice’s massively influential Pazz and Jop poll (behind three songs with far more mainstream pull). In equally important matters, it placed on my very objective list of ludicrously overplayed songs my IPod, and most of the music nerds I know developed an unhealthy obsession with it. A friend of mine claims to have logged over 20 hours listening to it, and I almost can’t challenge him on that assertion. It’s a natural reaction to such blissful musical brilliance.
M83 is a great band and has been putting out consistently stellar work over the last decade, notably the tracks “Graveyard Girl,” “We Own the Sky” and “Kim and Jessie” from 2008’s Saturdays = Youth and “Don’t Save Us From the Flames” from 2005’s Before the Dawn Heals Us. Although the latter is my personal favorite of their tracks—a song that I feel is arguably the track of that decade—none of these have quite struck a chord with listeners in the way that “Midnight City” has. The song is surrounded by terrific tunes on Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, and the 80-minute, 22-track double album features the dance-party ready “Reunion,” the gorgeous ambience of “Steve McQueen” and the Zola Jesus-assisted “Intro.”
However, nothing quite stands out as starkly or as radiantly as “Midnight City,” a triumphant, almost symphonic tune that blends shoegaze, dream pop and New Wave with the current trend of electronic pop to create what will be remembered as one of this decade’s masterpieces. As Pitchfork mentioned, the song most recalls “1979,” the Smashing Pumpkins’ 1996 ode to youth—a song that really pushed the Pumpkins out of their alterna-rock niche to create a popular classic.
And like “1979,” which captured the mixture angst and hope of its generation in the same way that “Midnight City” does so perfectly, “Midnight City” has the potential to become a massive crossover hit. “1979” had incredible critical backing at the time, placing at #3 on the 1996 Pazz and Jop list and later at #21 on Pitchfork’s songs of the decade. Helped also by the band’s large and dedicated following and the wide support for Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, this perfect storm of factors helped “1979” become a sleeper hit and break the Billboard Top 10, an impressive feat for introverted critical darlings.
However, such success for alternative bands was hardly unprecedented, as Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Beck’s “Loser” had accomplished earlier in the decade, when they reached #7 and #10, respectively. Two of the most widely-acclaimed songs of they decade, they approached the summits of the chart during a time when R&B and ballads dominated the Hot 100, churning out hit after hit by Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion. In 1994, the year “Loser” landed in the Top Ten, the R&B/pop bands Boyz II Men and All for One spent a combined 26 weeks at #1. (For our friends counting at home, that’s half of the year.)
Other critically championed songs throughout the decade would show similar success, including Oasis’ “Wonderwall” (#2), The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” (#2) and Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” (#21). However, high-profile indie hits and critical favorites routinely underperformed throughout the aughts, despite the deafening buzz surrounding them. Although The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” went to #10 and Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” reached all the way up to #5 with critical backing—both landed on Pitchfork’s end-of-the-decade list—they performed far better than songs even more acclaimed than they were. Beloved tunes like Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out” (#66), The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” (#76) and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” (#87) all failed to get even close to the top 40. Elsewhere, indie faves like Modest Mouse, The Vines, The Hives, The Strokes and Death Cab For Cutie found success in the Alternative, Modern Rock and Heatseekers circuits—but not on the Hot 100, the benchmark of crossover success.
However, the fortunes of critics’ bands and indie favorites have changed considerably in recent years. Although singles by Phoenix, MGMT and Animal Collective never quite got the wide mainstream recognition they deserved—Phoenix came closest with “1901” (at #84), which had been featured in a car commercial— Florence and the Machine, MIA, Fountains of Wayne, Cee-Lo, La Roux, Feist, and Mumford and Sons have all spawned tracls in or right outside the Top 20, while earning great reviews for their work. Of course, Adele is the mother of all of these cases, spawning three number-ones off a hugely acclaimed album whose titanic sales basically saved the music industry. (Also of note, indie acts fun. and Foster the People have recently reached the Top Five with almost no initial critical buzz behind them, and their albums currently hold fine-but-not-great respective scores of 66 and 69 on Metacritic.)
What changed during this time span? You did. Although putting a song in a car commercial or covering it on Glee—a program I personally hate, but that’s no matter—can help a song reach a wider audience, it cannot continue to find success without wide listener support. Due to such outlets such user-driven outlets such as iTunes, Amazon, Sirius XM and music streaming sites like Pandora and Spotify, the ways in which we consume, share and raise awareness about music have revolutionized. With the recent inclusion of data from music-streaming sites in Billboard statistics, we (the listening public) have more critical power than we ever did. What we blog about on the internet, what we think about culture and what we choose to listen to matter; we vote with our ears, and if we choose to listen to songs we deem to be masterpieces, that’s what we will get back. (Surely, there must be room in the Top Ten for both the LMFAOs and M83s of the world.)
Thus, if you—like many pop-culture savants I know—adore M83, don’t just listen to “Midnight City” on your iPod a hundred times in a row. Share the video on Facebook or listen to it on Spotify. Make an M83 Pandora station. Tweet or blog about it. Start a Facebook group to help get “Midnight City” to #1 and ask others to join. Request it on your local radio station. Because however you are listening to music, you have the power not to listen in a vaccum. You have the power to change what’s on the radio and what America listens to, one masterpiece at a time.
Nico Lang is the Co-Creator and Co-Editor of In Our Words and a graduate student in DePaul University’s Media & Cinema Studies program. Lang is a Change Coordinator for LGBT Change, the Co-Founder of Chicago’s Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and a film critic for HEAVEMedia, where he talks about nerd stuff on a weekly podcast called Pod People. Nico is also a contributor at Thought Catalog and the Huffington Post and has been featured in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, the New Gay and on his mother’s refrigerator. Nico is poly, pansexual and genderqueer but really just identifies as whatever David Bowie is. Follow Nico on Twitter @GidgetLang or on the Facebook.