Do Your Homework: Musings From a Very Long Phone Call with John Maus

Take a second and do a thing: Turn up Ready For You by HAIM. Done? Cool, now try Elevate by St. Lucia*. Last one: The Less I Know The Better by Tame Impala.

If you actually took the 10 minutes or so to listen through those (I know you didn’t. You should.) you’ll hear a common thread: the 80s. Specifically, some serious synth action. And if you pay attention when you’re just listening to the radio or whatever, you’ll hear a synth element in an absurd portion of the pop songs produced in the last few years. Perhaps to state the obvious, the 80s are now current.

If you’ve been wondering *why* the 80s are back (or if you just started wondering in the last paragraph), I’ve got a quick answer for you: John Maus.

Maus is commonly referred to as an electro-pop god. In his late 30s and from Minnesota, he’s a philosophy PhD, and it’s safe to say he’s intellectualized himself into his current musical position. John is into some heady shit: he loves Medieval and Renaissance music, and his basis for thinking about anything--and notably music-- is philosophy. At the beginning of his career he was making some weird, sparse stuff, and then he met Ariel Pink, the first signee to Animal Collective’s record label, and realized that in order to make a cultural impact as a musician these days you have to speak in popular language, so he started creating pop music that’s way heavy on 80s synths (he insists they’re not 80s-related but we’ll get to that later).

Maus’s 2011 album, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, made him into kind of a cult figure, precisely because of those synths; they were the foundation for all the 80s-throwback stuff you’re hearing all over the place now. He did one more small release in 2012 and then went dark-- the music world hasn’t heard anything from him since, until now.


While John wasn’t making music, everyone else was; since 2012 we’ve seen the ballooning careers of fellow synth-users like BØRNS, Chromeo, Bleachers, Future Islands, Soulwax, Little Dragon… Actually, during his quiet years, John was instead getting his PhD, theorizing his way into why movements like this take off. He shared his doctoral thesis with me to explain a theory of his**: whatever kind of music a society is making at a given time, it’s inextricably linked to the preoccupations of that society in that time.

As an example***, Beethoven’s music totally embodied the ruling class of the day, and the degree to which everyone in that class identified with those sounds meant that a ton of composers then went on to make music that was very similar. By the same logic, something about (hipster-pop-listening) society right now really resonates in the sound of a synth. John put his finger on that truth in the early 2000s, and now virtually every pop musician after him has gone on to incorporate that sound into their music. While John resists the idea that a synth *must* evoke the 80s (it’s still an instrument now, so whatever we do with it is contemporary, right?) it’s impossible to avoid acknowledging the sonic parallel, and the fact of its popularity.

Regardless of whether synths belong to an era, it’s useful to investigate where sonic movements originate, and also to explore: why is a bygone decade back on our minds? Or, why are we now attracted to the same sounds as we were then?

He may not answer these questions for you directly, but you can catch John Maus on his grand return tour this month; it’s his first in six years, with one stop at the MoMA PS1 Warmup this Saturday. Do your homework, kick around some time ideas, and keep your mind open to revelations as you listen.

Lastly, it’s only fair to leave you with the philosophy reading list that John left me: Theodor W. Adorno, Hegel, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch.

Happy studying,


*When I asked my friend Samantha to proofread, her first response to this was, “Omg, elevate is like the song of Brooklyn summer for me. My roommate remixed the song for St. Lucia and played it for hours every day for weekssss.” We’ll take this as proof of the point to come.

**There are many more than one.

***In his thesis, Maus quotes a philosopher named Theodor Adorno. It’s a little TL;DR, but here you go:

"If [Beethoven] is the musical prototype of the revolutionary bourgeoisie," writes Adorno, "he is at the same time the prototype of a music that has escaped from its social tutelage and is aesthetically fully autonomous, a servant no longer: His work explores the schema of a complaisant adequacy of music and society. In it, for all its idealism in tone' and posture, the essence of society, for which he speaks as the vicar of the total subject, becomes the essence·of music itself."