switched on pop

How ‘Blinding Lights’ Used Retro Sounds and Modern Bass to Break Records

Illustration: Illustration by Iris Gottlieb; Courtesy of @switchedonpop

Wouldja look at that, Vulture got a new podcast. We’re delighted to welcome the superlative music show Switched on Pop and its hosts Charlie Harding and Nate Sloan to our digital shores. Today they kick off their Vulture tenure with a look at the Weeknd’s megahit “Blinding Lights.” After you’ve listened (… and subscribed?), you can enjoy their vast back catalogue

This article originally ran on February 2, 2021. It has been updated and republished following The Weeknd’s Super Bowl halftime show performance.

On Sunday, the Weeknd performed his distinctly dark (though highly meme-able) brand of pop at the Super Bowl halftime show. On the surface, the alter ego of Abel Tesfaye was a strange pick for the ostensibly family-friendly main stage — for more than a decade, the Weeknd has fused the sounds of pop, R&B, and trap into a cinematic horror-thriller about drugs, sex, and the excess of fame. While his sheer volume of Hot 100 hits have rightly earned him mainstream status, even his most commercial material is hardly PG — the 2015 hit “Can’t Feel My Face” is an ’80s throwback laced with on-the-nose cocaine metaphors.

But over the last year his subversive image has been rewritten by the song “Blinding Lights,” from his 2020 album After Hours. The song vaulted up the charts in March 2020, supported by a viral TikTok challenge. Using the song’s opening instrumental as inspiration, countless families performed the dance together while sheltering in place. Since then, seemingly every radio format, adult contemporary included, has played the song on repeat, making it the longest-running entry in the Hot 100 top five and top ten. (Given the song’s success, the Weeknd is justly aggrieved by his recent Grammys snub).

On Switched on Pop’s first episode as part of Vulture, we break down how “Blinding Lights” blends lyrical relatability with musical familiarity, earning the Weeknd the biggest, and perhaps most misunderstood, hit of his career. Listen here, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify, and read an excerpt from the conversation below.

Charlie: “Blinding Lights” connection to the ’80s comes from the “Maniac” beat and its “Take On Me” synthesizers. It is comforting nostalgia — like when he mined an ’80s pop sound on 2015’s “Can’t Feel My Face.”

Nate: He’s also working with one of his collaborators from “Can’t Feel My Face,” the kind of dean of modern pop, Max Martin. The guy’s composed for everyone from Brittany Spears to Taylor Swift and has a magic touch.

Charlie: Right. Martin is able to very easily slip between styles. The only way that I know that I’m hearing a Max Martin production and songwriting is that everything just clicks. Listening to “Blinding Lights,” it’s clear that the Weeknd, Martin, and their other collaborators are choosing very deliberate points of reference in the 1980s, but still making the song sound entirely contemporary. But one of the ways that we can hear that contemporary quality is the underlying 808 bass sound.

Nate: Yeah. It’s so deep. It’s almost subterranean. It’s a very modern sound because it’s almost at the edge of audibility, as much felt in your gut as it is heard. The 808 is the hallmark sound of a lot of modern bass production.

Charlie: It’s the connective tissue across Billboard’s Hot 100. If you’ve listened to songs across genre, you hear that 808 bass sound. Let’s take a random song: “34+35” by Ariana Grande.

Nate: Another frequent Max Martin collaborator.

Charlie: That’s true, but she’s not alone. Let’s see what else we have: AJR’s “Bang!” The song is called “Bang!” — it’s got to have an 808 style bass.

Nate: Yeah. And now we’re in a very different style than Ariana Grande’s R&B. We’re in some, I don’t know what we call this, post-rock polka or something, but still there’s that deep, sludgy sub-bass once again.

Charlie: Right. And of course this sound can be heard most prominently in the world of hip-hop and trap, which pioneered that deep 808 bass. Let’s see, what’s on the Hot 100 …

[Scans Hot 100].

… Lil Baby, “On Me.” I’m sure it’s got it.

Nate: Yup, there’s the deep 808.

Charlie: The Weeknd, Max Martin, and the rest of the songwriting team are smart to realize that you can use this sound to make an ’80s kind of production sound totally modern.

Nate: Is the “Blinding Lights” bass an 808 drum machine technically?

Charlie: That’s an interesting question. The 808 drum machine is known for its very deep bass sound. Producers figured out that they could pitch that bass sound really low. And it becomes a bass sound, not a bass drum, but actually like a bass instrument. Now people use samples and synthesizers to sort of approximate that sound and to make it even more rich and harmonic. So my guess is no.

Nate: Okay, cool. Just wanted to clarify that this is cool, ’cause I’m hearing this very familiar song in kind of a new way, right? These classic ’80s elements. The pulsing drums, the screaming synthesizers, but underneath it, this very modern, familiar bass sound. The lyrics have just enough ambiguity that they can touch on our present moment in this surprising way. I understand why this song has been a hit with such longevity.

How ‘Blinding Lights’ Blended Old and New to Break Records