“This song didn’t set out to be anything and became something."
Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was -- the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period -- with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
Today’s music world leans heavily on efficiency -- given the weekly barrage of content at listeners’ fingertips, artists face the challenge of quickly and effectively entertaining. Long, experimental tracks have gone by the wayside in favor of ones that slam the gas pedal.
Should it have been released today rather than in 2011, M83’s “Midnight City” might stick out like a sore thumb. Several periods of steadily-building instrumentation that eventually burst at the seams; no incessantly loopable lyrics in the chorus for listeners to latch on to (there aren’t any words in the chorus); a minute-plus saxophone solo that emerges from nowhere like a bat out of hell.
Then again, “Midnight City” doesn’t specifically fit in any other era, either. Limiting it solely to only one period of time disservices its greatest quality: durability.
“It’s timeless,” says Morgan Kibby, who co-wrote the song and is a former M83 member. “That’s something you don’t aim to create. That’s something that naturally happens when you’re making music that’s really authentic to your ethos and who you are as an artist.”
The standout from the same year’s double-album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming serves both as an ode to city living (“The city is my church/ It wraps me in its blinding twilight”) and as the mainstream radio breakthrough for the Anthony Gonzalez-helmed collective. It’s M83’s only Hot 100 hit to-date, as well as its highest-charting effort on other Billboard tallies such as Alternative Songs, Hot Rock Songs and Dance/Electronic Digital Song Sales (peaking at No. 5, No. 7 and No. 9, respectively).
Producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, a frequent M83 collaborator, notes that such achievements were never on Gonzalez’s radar. “‘Radio is not a conversational word at any point during an M83 record,” he laughs. “It’s almost like a taboo.”
“Midnight City” didn’t sound a whole lot like what was being played on the airwaves at the time, either. It came at the tip of a sonically ambiguous period in alt music — as the pop-punk and emo rock waves that soared in the early ‘00s began to dwindle, the next big sound to usher in a new era of alt music remained a question mark. Of course, the genre-blending is stronger now than ever on a wider level, but at the time, such an amalgamation of sounds wasn’t as typical, particularly in the once relatively homogenous world of alt-rock radio.
“It was really important for Anthony to make a record that wasn’t easily pigeonholed as dreampop or shoegaze,” says Meldal-Johnsen. “We would talk about making something exciting and pop and compelling without it having to sit so neatly in a confined space.”
M83 wasn’t the originator of such a movement — alt crossovers blending elements of pop and electronic existed well before “Midnight City” did, which Meldal-Johnsen readily admits. Even around the time when the single was released, bands like MGMT and the xx were dipping their toes in similar waters. But it’s hard to ignore the lasting impact that a track like “Midnight City” has when nearly a decade later, one of the defining musicians in the current mainstream landscape is Billie Eilish, an artist who similarly blurs together subgenres and still finds a safe home at alternative radio.
“This song didn’t set out to be anything and became something,” adds Kibby. “That’s the beauty of really good art: it doesn’t try to be something that it’s not. It just is.”
“Midnight City” ultimately feels something like a musical equivalent to a Jackson Pollock painting — in theory, throwing layered vocal samples as a substitute for a chorus, a massive wave of synths on top of an underlying melancholic lyric, and well over 60 seconds of blazing horns at a blank canvas shouldn’t work. But when you hear that final explosion of auditory color, it’s nothing short of euphoric — an ethereal feeling that demands both internal and external exploration.
“The individual feeling of the relationship between a soul and their surroundings is very hard to capture and can go into a really cheesy territory,” says Meldal-Johnsen. “There are a thousand ways to f--k up a song, and there are a dozen ways to do it right. Somehow, we were able to do it right.”