TRACK MARKS 2020: “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd

Track Marks is a recurring feature that invites writers to briefly discuss a song that is meaningful to them in any way. Though they can appear on the site at any time, we always run a bunch of them in December and/or January and/or February, looking back at the year in music.

1. History and Context

Do you ever listen to an old song and ask, if this song came out today, would it still be a hit? Sure, there are songs that are clearly of their time — a grunge anthem that typifies the ’90s or an early hip-hop song of the ’80s that might not translate well. But then, there are those songs from whenever they came out that make you think, yeah, this is still a banger.

“Blinding Lights” answers a different question: If you created a perfect ’80s synth pop song with post-2000s production technology in the year of a quarantine, would it be popular?

Sure, the ’80s has its gems. Yes, Pitbull can sample Ah-ha’s classic “Take On Me” in “Feel This Moment” to push out a party anthem, but Abel Tesfaye (aka The Weeknd) along with Max Martin and Oscar Holter (with a few others) did something remarkable: They created a song for 2020 with its roots clearly in the 1980s (if not a little before), and they made it slamming.

They made it so reminiscent that there is a common Google search about whether this song is a remake. There is another common search for the samples that make “Blinding Lights,” but, no, this isn’t sampling: This is playing with musical motifs and methods of the 80s. These aren’t sampled hooks; these are hooks that mimic a style. This is a masterclass in how music shifts and evolves.

Which leads me to a Reddit Thread where Redditors ask what 80s songs “Blinding Lights” is similar to. The best fits are Ah-ha’s classic “Take on Me” (again!) and Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks” (a tune often forgotten in his five-decade-plus career).

But, there is also another name on that list of songs that keeps coming up, whether directly or not: Giorgio Moroder. The more I found myself digging into Moroder’s solo catalog from 1978-1985, I kept hearing the echoes of what would become “Blinding Lights.”

Moroder was a huge influence in dance music in the 70s, producing many of Donna Summer’s hits, but he also had tremendous success in film soundtracks and film songs of the ’70s and ’80s. (Moroder has 3 Oscars — that’s one more than Randy Newman.) It was Moroder’s own work defining synth sounds in soundtracks for Midnight Express, American Gigolo, Flashdance, and Scarface that I feel best anticipates “Blinding Lights.” Tracks like “The Chase,” “Night Drive” (with its re-use of the “Call Me” motif), and “What a Feeling” all have the sonic synth elements that when sped up, mixed (and mixed again and again) with Ah-Ha and Stewart’s “Young Turks” you get “Blinding Lights.” (Check out this playlist.)

And, historically or technologically, that’s how “Blinding Lights” happens — it exists in a time when you can mix track over track and layer synth on top of synth. It is a song that sounds of the 1980s, but could never have been made with the technology limited to laying down less than 100 tracks and without the use of Auto-Tune.

2. Context and the Present

“Blinding Lights” came out at the tail end of 2019, a murky time for year-end lists.

Lyrically, it’s difficult to piece out together what is going on: A call. Withdrawls. Turn me on with a touch. The song continues:

City is cold and empty
No one is around to judge me
I can’t see clearly when you are gone

And then the chorus:
I’m blinded by the lights
No, I can’t sleep until I feel your touch

Drowning in the night… sure, The Weeknd tells Esquire this is a song about driving to meet someone you love. But lyrically it better outlines a love song to Quaaludes (keeping with our ’80s theme) or Benzodiazepine. (And, has a real scoop there.)

Luckily, no one pays attention to the lyrics with such an upbeat and infectious intro, hook, and chorus. No, when the country went into lockdown, we made it a TikTok dance craze:

And, therein is our history lesson: A song built from the best of ’80s synthpop, amped up with the infectiousness of late 2019, maybe about driving across town intoxicated, but we all experienced it dancing in our rooms during quarantine.