Nostalgia Tracks: On M83’s “Midnight City” as a Generational Indie Memento

Hurry Up, We're Dreaming - M83
“Midnight City” may have been an unplanned success, but it’s nice to think the song’s ubiquity was destiny for not only M83 – a band that’s always been invested in the beauty of being a kid – but for millennial indie lovers who are tightly gripping their passing youth, and still promising to treat their childhood sonic mementos with care.

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Earlier this month, a Twitter account claiming to be SZA’s – ironically dubbed @RealSZAtweeted a sentiment about hearing a song and having one’s conscious flooded with specific memories from a past, unforgettable moment in time. This marvel is not unique to the brain behind the faux-SZA account; everyone, of course, can attest to experiencing the vivid, tingling tidepool of flashbacks that certain music pulls us into. And this common ground was one that Questlove (yes, the real Questlove) felt poeticizing on: “That would be called ‘a classic.’ Songs are just audio Polaroids. Framing a moment in time.” After quietly chuckling at the peanut gallery of Twitter users throwing shade at Quest for wasting his wisdom on a parody account (that no longer exists), I found myself nodding in agreement with the hip-hop legend’s words; referring to songs as audio Polaroids was a modest metaphor on Quest’s behalf, but nonetheless powerful.

Watch: “Midnight City” – M83


The fascinating thing about the conceptual “snapshot of sound” is that it applies to both entire societies and private lives. Decades of chart-topping earworms like “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles and Aaliyah’s “Rock the Boat” are identifiable to diverse populations that connect the songs to pop culture’s unshakeable episodes – MTV’s shining debut and the death of a young, rising R&B talent are prime examples of this – whereas lesser-known creations so often contribute to the framing of certain moments in certain lifetimes. Sometimes it feels as though the secrecy of these tracks increase their sentimentality; we’d all like to believe such works of art belong to only us, our friendships and romances. Other times, it’s a rare combination of multiple characteristics – confidentiality, unification and legitimate sonic brilliance – that hook us in. In these instances, music becomes more than vessels of antique imagery, but mementos themselves. For me, indie selections from this last decade have developed into audio Polaroids, as Questlove would aptly say, and more than any other cut from my late-teenaged years of hipster pretension, M83’s “Midnight City” stands out the most.

It’s hard to talk about my attachment to French electronic band M83’s biggest hit without elaborating on my cringeworthy past self’s relationship with indie music – admittedly, I was the absolute worst. My after-school evenings and weekend afternoons were largely spent sitting at my desk, shuffling through iTunes catalogs and curating mixed CDs that only I would enjoy; there was this odd hilarity in watching my mother or best friend’s neutral expressions morph into scowling ones as I blasted semi-obscure, yet totally enjoyable electronica via my car’s stereo speakers. Not only did I feel humored in their displeased moments, but reassured of my own musical sensibilities, those of which I thought were “totally different and misunderstood and deeper” than most of my peers’. In retrospect, my posturing was very much a façade, though not intentionally: I was naïve to what “indie” meant, and I believed the word was, indeed, basically synonymous to “totally different and misunderstood and deep.” For me, indie was a sound and aesthetic – not the core spirit, attitude or ethic that I now regard it to be (for more enlightening details on the nuances of indie, I recommend reading this 2015 Guardian feature by Jude Rogers, Kathryn Bromwich and Rivkah Brown). I rode my misinformed high horse straight to high school graduation and early college, where my interest in music blossomed into passion rather than pastime, and with that passion came the education that I desperately needed before.

Hurry Up, We're Dreaming - M83

Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming – M83

On the rare occasion that I tune into one of my old, favorite Pandora stations, I’m chilled with nostalgia reminding me of my origins, the music that posed as gateway drugs – a shuffle of Phoenix, MGMT, Phantogram, Empire of the Sun, The 1975 and, of course, M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (2011 via Naïve / Hostess), the act’s most commercially and critically successful LP to date. More notable is that the epic of a record has become an unavoidable millennial classic six years post-release, with “Midnight City” specifically acting as an entry point to true indie music for thousands of youth, whether they recall how they discovered the song or not. The fact that I can’t pinpoint my first time hearing it – or where, exactly, it was playing – somehow makes its existence even more significant, like frontman Anthony Gonzalez’s most famous creation was there all along, an omnipresent facet of my adolescence. So it’s weird to think that “Midnight City” wasn’t supposed to be as life-changing as it was, for both himself and so many listeners. “I was obviously happy about the success, but also mad, because I had a career before that,” Gonzalez told DIY Magazine last April while briefing his newest record – and first since Hurry Up, Junk (4/8/16 via Mute). “I had albums, and I wanted people to recognize that, instead of this one song.” Yet, Gonzalez still conceded that regardless of his personal wishes – for people to acknowledge a decade of music presented as M83’s five previous full-lengths – the media and the band’s followers were steering the wheel in whatever direction their ears loved most. That direction was not the darkwave-y instrumental buildup of Saturdays = Youth’s “Couleurs” (2008) or even the celebratory gloss of Hurry Up’s second single “Reunion.” Instead, it was toward “Midnight City” and its glorious histrionics.

I was fortunate enough to witness this drama last October when a friend asked me if I wanted to see M83 with her at SOMA, a soggy-but-classic mid-sized venue in San Diego. I said sure – at the time, I was no M83 super-fan, but rumors maintained that Gonzalez and his touring bandmates put on a spectacular show, and tickets were reasonably priced, especially for such a large indie act playing in a relatively intimate venue. I walked out of the venue’s doors in a daze of tiredness and euphoria – the usual feelings following a great concert’s conclusion – and to this day (and numerous shows later), I’m quick to argue that M83’s performance was the best I’ve ever witnessed. Unconcerned about worsening my tinnitus or hoarse voice, I drove home blasting Junk too loudly in a hasty effort to preserve the emotions Gonzalez’s music had evoked just minutes before. But that determination (along with the beloved, shaky iPhone clips I took during the show) forever fails to elicit how I felt that exact Saturday evening, bunched, sweating and smiling with hundreds of other M83 followers. And, as expected, the audience was most bunched, sweaty and smiley as one specific song had its turn – “Midnight City,” indeed.

Not a soul stood still or silent during those four minutes; everyone seemed to know the track like the back of their hands, like it had been saved to their digital libraries for all these years, only to appear in the physical at this very fleeting moment. When Gonzalez’s distorted voice rang through the room – the famous opening riff of doots – the crowd erupted. As obnoxious shouts of “waiting in a car” echoed the stage each time the Frenchman sang the phrase, it was impossible to not hear our own musical grins. When that final minute of distorted vocal riffs sparkled beneath Ian Young’s saxophone solo, we couldn’t help but stare with starry eyes because the lively end of the synthesized dream somehow sounded sexier that we thought fathomable. And at once, every memory I’d ever pasted to “Midnight City” rushed to my head: from making indie mixes in my purple bedroom as a 16-year-old to hilariously screaming those doots as my old college friends and I cruised down highways on a cool San Diego night.

I mention my experience at SOMA because it was another exposure added to my own strip of “Midnight City”-related memories, and as I peeked my surroundings that evening – at my friend who said that seeing M83 live was her “high school dream,” and at other millennials on the verge of happily shedding tears at the song’s kickoff – manifest was the inestimable power of Gonzalez’s accidental success. It only makes sense for a band like M83 – habitually creating music centered on the beauty of adolescence – to remain close to the hearts of so many young people, even if only through a few melodies. If anything, I’d like to believe that the unfading ubiquity of “Midnight City” is not accident, but destiny for both its creator and the generation of indie lovers that are tightly gripping their passing youth, and still promising to treat their childhood audio Polaroids with care.

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Sydney is a staff writer at Atwood Magazine. She studies journalism in San Diego, California, and mostly reports on arts and culture. Talk to her on Twitter (@syderature) or Instagram (@syd.oh).