Pop's Not-So-Secret Weapon: How Nostalgia Shaped Music in 2014

Nirvana
Nirvana
Illustrations by Mark Andresen

Boil down the most notable performances and accomplishments of pop's major players in 2014 and what you'll find is a whirring, buzzing, rhyme-spitting time machine.

On her fifth studio album, 1989, Taylor Swift swapped the steel-string twang of her country upbringing for a fully committed foray into pop — with New York City serving as both backdrop for her newfound independence and character in her narrative, turning her into a millennial Marlo Thomas with a microphone. As far as collaborations were concerned, Lady Gaga ditched the bizarre tent of artRAVE: The ARTPOP Ball in favor of the comfortable confines of the studio alongside Tony Bennett for an album of duets that banked on old jazz and musical-theater standards. Meanwhile, on the festival front, OutKast elected to mark the twentieth anniversary of their debut with an unprecedented 40-date fest-headlining tour, one that celebrated the timeless exuberance of their entire catalog while simultaneously — and in spectacular fashion — announcing their own retirement.

Speaking of anniversaries, OutKast weren't alone in celebrating a big one. Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl achieved two major feats of his own in 2014. Nirvana were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame shortly after the twentieth anniversary of their final studio album, In Utero — an occasion for which Grohl and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic invited Lorde, St. Vincent, Joan Jett, and Kim Gordon to perform and sing Kurt Cobain's lines for one of the more incendiary rock highlights of the year (there was something about a killer after-party, too). The Foos would then go on to release Sonic Highways, the band's eighth record, which doubled as the soundtrack to Grohl's HBO miniseries documenting his journey across the "musical map of America." The select run of one-off shows behind Sonic Highways retraced Grohl's rock roots, and the series of surprise gigs included a boisterous, intimate set at Irving Plaza.

A nod to the past has always played a huge part in keeping the pop machine producing, with standard chord progressions, ample covers, and samples getting chopped up and rehashed in order to put an infinite spin on tried-and-true songwriting tropes. 2014 was the year that saw advances in technology (U2's historic Apple deal and the tech giant's release of Songs of Innocence — the subsequent backlash notwithstanding), notable debuts (Meghan Trainor, Sam Smith, Hozier, etc.), and high-profile pop teams (Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj with "Bang Bang"; Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars's "Uptown Funk"), all of it fueled by the mainstream's penchant for nostalgia and familiar sounds — and we had a perfect view for it to unfold before us in New York.

OutKast
OutKast

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When Governors Ball descended upon Randalls Island in June, three acts in particular — OutKast, the Strokes, and Interpol — drew fans for, more than any other reason, the sake of revisiting musical memories. Interpol and the Strokes made triumphant homecomings after brief hiatuses and time spent on other projects. While all three acts incorporated new(-ish, in the Strokes' case) material into their respective sets, the hits they crafted back when they championed New York's indie moment in the early Aughts were what elicited the roars of the sunburned crowd.

Though André 3000 and Big Boi shared top billing with Jack White and Skrillex, OutKast's megawatt performance outshone their marquee-mates and shattered any doubt instilled by their lukewarm presentation at Coachella just a few weeks prior. With their Governors Ball performance of "Hey Ya!" — the euphoric single off 2003's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below double LP — OutKast reinstated their reign as festival kings.

Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga

For Lady Gaga, a return to her roots and former stomping grounds preceded the musical kismet that restored her faith in her chosen profession. Gaga took a break from helming the globe-lapping traveling circus of artRAVE to properly close out the Roseland Ballroom, whose dance floor and bathrooms ("I used to do a lot of drugs here!") she frequented long before Stefani Germanotta became the former part of her a/k/a. Bennett was in attendance for one of her seven Roseland performances in early April, and the pair dropped the debut single from Cheek to Cheek, their duet album, in late July.

"Anything Goes" was the first offering from the delightfully offbeat duo, and Gaga's shock-and-raw tendencies gave way to a return to classical technique and theatrics that shone a benevolent spotlight on her range. If there's anyone who can launch a record to No. 1 while boasting "The Lady Is a Tramp" as a selling point, it's Gaga. That was what her 2014 was about — her neon puke-spattered SXSW performance and exhausting artRAVE charades aside.

And for Grohl and his pursuits with both Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, the year was about retracing steps and piecing together his musical past. The venues he chose in 2014 displayed his intent better than the arenas he regularly sells out: The female-fronted Hall of Fame performance may have gotten the big-stage treatment at the Barclays Center at a point when the fond remembrance of In Utero hadn't waned, but the secret show that sprang up later that evening at Brooklyn metal bar St. Vitus included some of the same special guests while speaking more to Grohl and Novoselic's punk upbringing.

Pop's Not-So-Secret Weapon: How Nostalgia Shaped Music in 2014

Later, when Grohl announced that he and the Foos would be flocking to eight cities known for their contributions to American music to record Sonic Highways, icons who influenced Grohl's growth as a musician — Ian Mac-Kaye of Fugazi, Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick, Dolly Parton, Joan Jett — agreed to lend their insights to the album's accompanying documentary project. An impromptu tour surprised super-fans at small clubs as the band rolled through the haunts and filthy dives of their past as a way to frame their journey.

Between them, OutKast, Lady Gaga, the Foo Fighters — and even Swift, with her wide-eyed wonderment set to synthetic beats — focused not on curating and cultivating the sounds of the future, but on looking to the past to challenge the genius that came before them.

In 2014, when fans bought their festival tickets, filled their iTunes libraries, or set out for their city's darkest venues, the prime motivation to do so didn't come from Iggy Azalea's "Fancy." It didn't come from Skrillex's spaceship. More often than not, fans were buying a chance to dance their asses off to an eleven-year-old hit like "Hey Ya!" Sometimes we need to glance over our shoulder before looking ahead, and last year pop music did just that: It took one step back in order to move forward.

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