By Grant Sharples
Everyone knows that sound. Immediately after pressing play, that unforgettable melody comes to life and bubbles to the surface just in time for the first chorus. It’s not exactly welcoming; they are high and eerie, idiosyncratic characteristics for one of the most ubiquitous pop songs of the new millennium. Still, it’s one of the catchiest hooks on any song from the 2010s. “Midnight City” is special in that way, and M83’s musical architect, Anthony Gonzalez, in no way could have predicted its staggering popularity.
“When I first made that, I felt stupid,” the French indie pop artist said Pitchfork in 2011, the same year he unleashed the song. “It’s my voice under heavy distortion, and I felt so stupid doing those high-pitched vocals while my girlfriend was sleeping downstairs.” The song that made Gonzalez feel “stupid” eventually became the lead single from M83’s magnum opus, Hurry up, we’re dreaming, released 10 years ago today. “Midnight City” was everywhere, appearing in Victoria’s Secret and Gucci commercials and TV shows like The Mindy Project and optionally black mirror. It charted on the US Billboard Hot 100. It got its own EP with remixes. With its immense media presence, no one could avoid that seismic hook. “Midnight City” led numerous humble listeners to the dream world of M83. It provided a gateway to Gonzalez’s music at just the right time.
Although Gonzalez has been making music under the name M83 since 2001, he would not settle into the indie pop canon for the time being. There was the digital shoegaze of 2003 Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts; the great Before the dawn heals us, Gonzalez’s first record without M83’s co-founder Nicolas Fromageau; and 2008 Saturday = Youth, Gonazlez’s most catchy, poppy series of songs of the time. While gaining more fame with each release, his cinematic pop approach took him many steps further with Hurry up, and “Midnight City” embodies that perfectly.
The climate was good for the release of the song. Festival-sized indie pop was at its peak, with bands like Phoenix, Passion Pit and MGMT dominating the genre. In particular, songs like ‘1901’, ‘Sleepyhead’ and ‘Kids’ got the masses ready to dance on keyboards and synths again. The neon 80s nostalgia was also in full swing, with prominent releases such as Arcade Fire’s The suburbs, Destroyers Kaputt, and eventually The 1975’s eponymous debut, which served as a turning point in the 2010s. But Gonzalez was an expert by the time this kind of tribute became a trend. The best summary of this is Fitz & the Tantrums member James King’s memorable saxophone solo towards the end of “Midnight City.”
Just like everyone knows the song’s idiosyncratic hook, everyone knows it too Which sax solo. Like the song itself in its time and place, King’s horn work comes at the perfect time. After another chorus, Gonzalez withholds his vocals for one last moment and the sax steals the show. King locks himself with the hook from the beginning of the song, playing over it but not overshadowing it, and his warm timbre evokes images of a Los Angeles nighttime that inspired “Midnight City” in the first place. It’s an effortless, masterful conclusion, and it’s exactly what Gonzalez set out to do. “Sometimes a song needs an element to finish,” he told the guard in 2011. “You know this element has been overused in the past and considered cliché or cheesy, but the song needs it. With this album, the whole idea was to do something and not regret it.”
Despite Hurry up, we’re dreaming Gonzalez remains Gonzalez’s most accessible, pop-centric work to date, it is also his most ambitious. It is his first and only double album, split into a ‘sister side’ and a ‘brother side’. These are two companion albums that are treated like siblings, and each song has a mirrored version on its counterpart. For example, ‘Intro’ is the track accompanying the opener of the second album, ‘My Tears Are Becoming a Sea’.
It’s a lofty proposition, but it rarely feels condescending or compact. These are straightforward pop songs with a handful of interstitial tracks that act as necessary connective tissue. Although Gonzalez was inspired by 90s records like the shoegaze classic My Bloody Valentine Loveless and the historic Smashing Pumpkins double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sorrow, he summons 80s acts like Peter Gabriel, Tears for Fears and Depeche Mode in songs like ‘OK Pal’, ‘Steve McQueen’ and of course ‘Midnight City’.
Even in the album’s music videos, Gonzalez depicts a grandiose science fiction story with motifs such as youth and innocence. “Midnight City”, which currently has over 342 million views on YouTube, lays the foundation for an episodic trilogy that continues with two of the album’s other singles, “Reunion” and “Wait”. Although the story leans more towards Impressionism than towards concreteness, it is reinforced Hurry up‘s status as a unified experience.
To aid him in this immense undertaking, he recruited producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, whose portfolio now includes Paramore, Jimmy Eat World and, most recently, Deafheaven. He helped realize Gonzalez’s synth pop vision of the 1980s, demonstrating his bass chops on songs like “Claudia Lewis” and “Raconte-Moi Une Histoire”; for the latter, he recorded his daughter talking about magical frogs. Yet this is Gonzalez’s show with his unique, cosmic pop songwriting, which has been fully translated into ‘Midnight City’.
The rather simplistic lyrics of “Midnight City” also boosted its mass appeal. With such an assertive hook to its chorus, there are very few words in “Midnight City”. For most of his four minutes, Gonzalez muses about “waiting in the car, waiting for a ride in the dark.” But the directness of the song is not a flaw; it captures exactly what Gonzalez intended it for: the sense of wonder and tranquility that arises as you gaze at a luminous skyline. As he exclaims in one of the song’s most vivid moments, “The city is my church.”
Hurry up, we’re dreaming remains one of the definitive indie pop albums of its decade, and “Midnight City” is the key to it all. It was the starting point in M83’s discography and the timing couldn’t have been more favorable. This album and lead single inaugurated M83 into the synthpop hall of fame and showed the world what Gonzalez was capable of. M83 was behind what is now recognized as one of the best pop songs of the 21st century. To call it pure serendipity would be a gross understatement. It helped establish an identity for indie pop’s trademark sound.