Music

The take on a 1998 Europop hit by three artists highlights a contemporary desire to find comfort in nostalgia and the innocence of a bygone age. By Shaad D’Souza.

Three versions of ‘Blue’

Sydney-born, Los Angeles-based producer Harley Streten aka Flume.
Credit: Frank Hoensch / Redferns

For a few weeks earlier this year, everywhere I went, I was followed by the melodic strains of “Blue”, the 1998 hit by Italian Eurodance group Eiffel 65. It rattled from car radios and buzzed from Spotify discover playlists. Like some alien spectre, the 22-year-old song had come back to haunt me. Its return wasn’t the strangest part; instead, I was interested in this phenomenon because none of the songs I was hearing was actually “Blue”. These were new – each an attempt to transpose the song’s indelible, iconic melody from its original context of squelching Europop into the clean, Valium haze of 2020 pop.

In 1998, “Blue” tapped into the possibilities of the new millennium, speaking, somehow, to the infinite possibilities proposed by the advent of personal computers. More than two decades later, its rose-tinted optimism about internet-aided connectivity seems hideously facile. And yet, inexplicably, three songs that run the gamut from the impenetrable fringe to the hyper-mainstream – “Some Say”, by Swedish songwriter-for-hire-turned-pop star Nea (Linnea Södahl); “By My Side”, by avant-garde pop conceptualist GFOTY, pronounced Girlfriend of the Year; and a straight-up remix by Australian future bass star Flume – have dragged the track, warts and all, into our present day, ready to delight and traumatise a new generation.

Nea’s version of “Blue”, first released in 2019 and given a boost in popularity in 2020 by a new remix, is the most logically dissonant of the three. The interpolation is surrounded by all the typical foundations of our current era’s white pop music – looping strummed guitar, ultra-compressed rhythmic vocals, a spare beat, the handclap – and by extension removing Eiffel 65’s melody from all traces of its original context. There is no discernible aesthetic nod to the late ’90s or early 2000s, no heavy-handed nostalgia. Listening to “Some Say” gives the impression of time collapsing, aesthetic and cultural boundaries being played with like a skipping rope.

Alternatively, “By My Side”, by British musician GFOTY, the stage name of Polly-Louisa Salmon, places “Blue” back into the realm of ’90s trance-pop, cribbing its melody and placing it over an amphetamine-addled re-creation of the Eurodance that brought the original song to life. A former member of the bizarre, boundary-pushing mid-2010s art collective PC Music, Salmon’s music has always hinged on heady explorations of nostalgia such as this – reframing Day-Glo ’90s and ’00s pop in the context of the pessimistic late-capitalist pop landscape. Sadder and weirder than the original, “By My Side” is like a funhouse mirror version of “Blue”, its optimism warped into emotional desolation.

Sydney-born, Los Angeles-based producer Flume’s re-creation of “Blue” is the most straightforward of the three. Marrying many of the core elements of the original song with harpsichord, cavernous drum hits, and a wonky, woozy drop typical of his music, Flume, real name Harley Streten, makes no attempt to couch the more bizarre elements of the original song in any sincerity or sadness. Instead, it simply accepts “Blue” as it is, pulling it wholesale into the realm of alternative pop.

As opposed to pop’s usual mode of trend-proliferation – wherein a sound filters up from the underground – all three of these songs have reclaimed “Blue” about the same time, seemingly with no dialogue between the artists. Speaking to Salmon, Streten, and Södahl by phone, each tells me their song began as a joke or an experiment, as opposed to any intentional statement. Still, it’s not hard to believe that some subconscious lust for the innocence of the late ’90s is manifest in these three songs. Of all the hits of that era, “Blue” spoke to the then-dominant ideas about technology and culture that informed – and, in many ways, created – our current moment.

Eiffel 65 has stated, explicitly, that the blueness of the song’s lyrics does not refer to sadness. It reads instead as a metaphor for newly omnipresent connective technologies, the blue standby screen of a computer monitor or television. The blue world is one in which we can connect with those like us through the power of the internet. A utopian view of technology was built into “Blue” – Bliss Corporation, the record label that released the track, had its own computer graphics arm, which created the song’s strange music video that featured an army of strange blue men dancing in a blocky, 3D superclub. Both Streten and Södahl noted that the video is still burned into their consciousness.

When I ask Tim Laurie, a lecturer in the school of communication at the University of Technology Sydney, about the resurgence of “Blue”, he is quick to note the song’s idealism. “Optimism about technology is in the actual composition of ‘Blue’,” Laurie says. “The popularity of the synthesiser is about the power of artificial technologies to transcend the world of the analog, transcend everyday life. Digital technologies will allow us to communicate with anyone, and be connected with the rest of the world.

“EDM from the ’90s is a really good shorthand [for the optimism around the era’s tech]. People thought that there were going to be digital communities or clubbing communities that were enabled by artificial technologies that would somehow be more utopian and much more egalitarian. I don’t think anyone could plausibly believe that in 2020.”

The impossibility of the song’s concept feels, to me, exactly why the song is ripe for revival in 2020. As the world burns, culture has begun to revolve less around new frontiers and more around the comforts of nostalgia. Products enjoyed by millennials as children have become a billion-dollar industry: Friends is still one of the most streamed shows in the world; Queer Eye for the Straight Guy has been revived for a new era. Charlie’s Angels was rebooted last year. Before the pandemic hit, a stadium show featuring Green Day, Fall Out Boy and Weezer was set to tour Australia later this year.

It is not unreasonable to think that Nea, Flume and GFOTY, and their collaborators, all born around the early ’90s, would, in some way, be reaching for the comfort of youthful innocence they associate with “Blue”. “Music always comes in cycles, and I think the ’90s and early 2000s is a good throwback right now,” Nea tells me. “If you’re my age, early 30s, and you hear ‘Blue’, you get a huge nostalgia kick – I think that’s why it works so well.”

Nostalgia, when leveraged in this way, can often be a copout, an easy means to talk down to an audience all too ready to accept the comforts of the past. But I can’t help but feel there’s something larger at play in the case of “Blue” – far from Disney wringing out a constant regurgitation of cynical, diversely cast adaptations and reboots, there is no real financial incentive for any of these artists to reference “Blue” – the majority of the royalties will likely filter back to Eiffel 65. Instead, these artists have used the song as shorthand for their longing for connection and universality to replace disconnection and isolation.

While Salmon says her use of “Blue” is less of a throwback and more of a natural reference to the kind of music she enjoys listening to, she acknowledges the utopian potential Europop signifies. “I was too young to experience it, but I feel like the ’90s and 2000s rave scene was more of a naive time, in a way,” she tells me over the phone from her home in London. “Maybe that’s what people want – more positive times, as opposed to depressing shit.”

For Salmon, “Blue” speaks to an era of music that was profoundly tied to technology in all its forms. The melody of “Blue”, like those of similar hits of the era, was perfect for the polyphonic ringtones popular at the time. It’s clear that, for many millennials, “Blue” and other songs of the era are trapped in a vortex of formative experiences – first phone, first party, first album. Streten, too, associates the song with some kind of tech: “Eiffel 65’s Europop was one of the first CDs I ever bought,” he recalls. “It had the film clip on the CD, and I remember putting it in the computer and watching it over and over.”

There’s something delightfully innocent about this recent spate of attempts to re-create “Blue” – one final earnest attempt to grasp at the future we were promised by technology and progress, as opposed to the one we got. In the face of a pop landscape dripping in irony, “By My Side”, “Some Say” and “Blue – Flume Remix” are brazen displays of sincerity. Far from a memeification of ’90s culture, these songs embrace an idealism that has long since been sucked out of culture. “Maybe people are sad about the world and want something to dance to,” theorises Streten. “Or maybe we’re just overanalysing it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 1, 2020 as "Blue moods".

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Shaad D’Souza
is a music critic for The Saturday Paper.