By Grant Sharples
Everyone knows that sound. Immediately after pressing play, that unforgettable melody materializes and bubbles up to the surface just in time for the first chorus. Itâ€™s not exactly welcoming; itâ€™s high-pitched and uncanny, peculiar characteristics for one of the most ubiquitous pop songs of the new millennium. Still, itâ€™s one of the catchiest hooks on any song from the 2010s. â€œMidnight Cityâ€ is special in that way, and thereâ€™s no way M83â€™s musical architect Anthony Gonzalez could have predicted its staggering popularity.
â€œWhen I first made that, I felt stupid,â€ the French indie-pop artist told Pitchfork in 2011, the same year he unleashed the song. â€œItâ€™s my voice under heavy distortion, and I was feeling so dumb doing those high-pitched vocals while my girlfriend was sleeping downstairs.â€ The song that made Gonzalez feel â€œdumbâ€ ended up being the lead single for M83â€™s magnum opus, Hurry Up, Weâ€™re Dreaming, released 10 years ago today. â€œMidnight Cityâ€ was everywhere, appearing in Victoriaâ€™s Secret and Gucci commercials and TV shows such as The Mindy Project and eventually Black Mirror. It charted on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. It received its very own EP of remixes. With its immense media presence, no one could avoid that seismic hook. â€œMidnight Cityâ€ led plenty of unassuming listeners into M83â€™s dreamworld. It provided a gateway into Gonzalezâ€™s music at the exact right moment.
Although Gonzalez had been making music under the M83 moniker since 2001, he wouldnâ€™t cement himself in the indie-pop canon for some time. There was the digital shoegaze of 2003â€™s Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts; the tremendous Before the Dawn Heals Us, Gonzalezâ€™s first record without M83â€™s co-founder Nicolas Fromageau; and 2008â€™s Saturdays = Youth, Gonazlezâ€™s catchiest, poppiest batch of songs at the time. Though he gained more notoriety with each release, he took his cinematic pop approach many steps further with Hurry Up, and â€œMidnight Cityâ€ embodies that perfectly.
The climate was right for the songâ€™s release. Festival-sized indie-pop was at its apex, with bands like Phoenix, Passion Pit, and MGMT dominating the genre. In particular, songs like â€œ1901,â€ â€œSleepyhead,â€ and â€œKidsâ€ primed the masses to dance to keyboards and synths again. Neon-tinted â€˜80s nostalgia was also in full swing, with prominent releases such as Arcade Fireâ€™s The Suburbs, Destroyerâ€™s Kaputt, and eventually The 1975â€™s eponymous debut serving as watershed releases in the 2010s. But Gonzalez was an expert by the time this strain of homage became a trend. The best encapsulation of this is Fitz & the Tantrums member James Kingâ€™s memorable saxophone solo toward the end of â€œMidnight City.â€
Just as everyone knows the songâ€™s idiosyncratic hook, everyone also knows that sax solo. Like the song itself at its time and place, Kingâ€™s horn work arrives at the perfect moment. After another chorus, Gonzalez holds back his vocals for one final moment, and the sax steals the show. King interlocks himself with the hook from the beginning of the track, playing over it but not overshadowing it, and his warm timbre conjures images of a nocturnal Los Angeles that inspired â€œMidnight Cityâ€ in the first place. Itâ€™s an effortless, masterful conclusion, and itâ€™s just what Gonzalez intended to do. â€œSometimes, a song needs an element to be finished,â€ he told The Guardian in 2011. â€œYou know that this element has been overused in the past and is considered clichÃ©d or cheesy, but the song needs it. With this album, the whole idea was to do something and have no regrets.â€
Despite that Hurry Up, Weâ€™re Dreaming remains Gonzalezâ€™s most accessible, pop-centric work yet, it is also his most ambitious. Itâ€™s his first and only double album, split into a â€œsister sideâ€ and a â€œbrother side.â€ These are two companion albums treated as siblings, and each track has a mirrored version on its counterpart. For instance, â€œIntroâ€ is the companion track to the second albumâ€™s opener, â€œMy Tears Are Becoming a Sea.â€
Itâ€™s a lofty proposition, but it seldom feels condescending or dense. These are straightforward pop songs with a handful of interstitial tracks that act as necessary connective tissue. Though Gonzalez was inspired by â€˜90s records like My Bloody Valentineâ€™s shoegaze classic Loveless and Smashing Pumpkinsâ€™ landmark double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, he evokes â€˜80s acts like Peter Gabriel, Tears for Fears, and Depeche Mode in songs such as â€œOK Pal,â€ â€œSteve McQueen,â€ and, of course, â€œMidnight City.â€
Even in the albumâ€™s music videos, Gonzalez establishes a grandiose, sci-fi narrative with motifs like youth and innocence. â€œMidnight City,â€ which currently has more than 342 million views on YouTube, lays the foundation for an episodic trilogy that continues with two of the albumâ€™s other singles, â€œReunionâ€ and â€œWait.â€ Although its story skews more toward impressionism rather than concreteness, it reinforces Hurry Upâ€™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 Gonzalezâ€™s â€˜80s synthpop vision, demonstrating his bass chops on tracks such as â€œClaudia Lewisâ€ and â€œRaconte-Moi Une Histoireâ€; for the latter, he recorded his daughter speaking about magical frogs. Still, this is Gonzalezâ€™s show with his singular, cosmic pop songwriting, which is fully translated in â€œMidnight City.â€
The rather simplistic lyrics of â€œMidnight Cityâ€ also aggrandized its mass appeal. With such an assertive hook for its chorus, there are very few words in â€œMidnight Cityâ€ at all. For most of its four minutes, Gonzalez ruminates on â€œwaiting in the car, waiting for a ride in the dark.â€ But the songâ€™s directness isnâ€™t a fault; it conveys exactly what Gonzalez meant it to: the sense of wonder and tranquility that arises while gazing at a luminescent skyline. As he exclaims in one of the trackâ€™s most vivid moments, â€œThe city is my church.â€
Hurry Up, Weâ€™re Dreaming remains one of the definitive indie-pop albums of its decade, and â€œMidnight Cityâ€ is the key to it all. It was the entry point into M83â€™s discography, and its timing couldnâ€™t have been more auspicious. This album and its 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 severe understatement. It helped establish an identity for indie-popâ€™s trademark sound.