Stranger Things is a 2016 television series on Netflix. In fact, it’s a very good television series on Netflix. If one were to argue Stranger Things Season 1 was the best thing Netflix had ever released, I would maybe be inclined to agree with them. See, if you haven’t heard of or seen Stranger Things yet, you should probably get on that – it’s literally taken the internet world by storm and it’s only 8 episodes. It features kids riding bikes, which is the single greatest qualifier for why it’s a good TV show (E.T., Stand By Me, Goonies, all pretty good movies with kids riding bikes.) It also features Wynona Ryder maybe being a good actress, monsters, a great soundtrack and score, and a lot of Eggo Waffles, all things that we can agree are pretty great individually, but combined make something incredible.
Lost in all of this is Stranger Things, not a television series on Netflix, but rather a 2016 album by 90’s idolizers Yuck. Stranger Things is an okay album. In fact, it’s a good album. If one were to argue that it’s the best Yuck release since their debut, I would maybe be inclined to agree with them. See, if you haven’t heard Stranger Things, you could probably survive but really it’s not a bad use of your time – it’s only 11 songs over 46 minutes. In fact, you could listen to Yuck’s Stranger Things eight and a half times in the time it would take you to watch all 8 episodes of Stranger Things. Don’t do that. But it’s a good album that features mellow Dinosaur Jr.-esque guitar riffs and a lead single that’s confusingly named “Cannonball” and tragically is not a cover of the Breeders.
But there is a question to be answered here: Which Stranger Things is the winner?
Bigger Hype Surrounding The Release
Stranger Things (Netflix) came, seemingly, out of nowhere. Rarely has a TV show capture the hearts and minds of the 21st century so quickly – memes were developed, deep dive analyses were performed, and even Netflix was probably surprised that its biggest hit of the year features a cast of children, a constantly crying Winona Ryder, and the guy from Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 classic Full Metal Jacket who ISN’T Vincent D’Onofrio or R. Lee Ermey. It cannot be overstated how bizarre Stranger Thing’s emergence in the culture is, and it underlines something both the music industry and, ironically, Yuck have known for a while: People don’t want remakes and reboots, they want ideas to be recycled into something new.
Granted making an album and developing a sound are inherently going to have to conform to post-modernism in a way that filmmaking won’t, but in a summer that gave us unasked for remakes including Ben Hur, Ghostbusters and The Legend of Tarzan, Stranger Things was refreshing because it looked like and felt like things we appreciated without ACTUALLY tarnishing or appropriating those things.
Yuck understand this all too well. They’ve been labeled a 90’s band in 2010’s clothing since their emergence on the scene back in 2011 with their self-titled album. Yuck’s Stranger Things is essentially a watered down Dinosaur Jr. record recorded by people whose favorite member of that band is Lou Barlow. It’s a recipe involving Bedhead, Guided By Voices and early-Smashing Pumpkins, but it’s also technically it’s own entity and that’s why Yuck exist.
Yuck’s 90’s rocking was interesting when it was released, but it’s been watered down enough times for people to mostly have lost interest. Hell, I didn’t even realize Yuck had released an album until I was, ironically, looking for the Stranger Things soundtrack on Spotify. A different article should be written about Yuck fans who discovered the new album while looking for the TV shows soundtrack because I’m betting it’s half their audience. While Netflix’s show found overnight success and word of mouth raving, Yuck’s album came out without a peep. No longer signed with Fat Possum, it’s pretty clear that Mamé Records don’t have the resources to support bringing in new Yuck fans seven years into their careers.
Sadder Missing Lead
Will Byer vs. Daniel Blumberg
Will Byer, played by Noah Schnapp, disappears in the pilot of Stranger Things and effectively serves as a Laura Palmer-esque MacGuffin for the entirety of the series. We don’t really know Will, though many of the shows early weak moments come from showing us flashbacks of the young boy.
Daniel Blumberg left Yuck after their first album. That first album is, without hesitation, their best album. Really, it’s some of the best 90’s mimicry we’ve seen in music other than My Bloody Valentine’s mbv, and that’s really more a matter of timing than imitation.
Will’s battle to survive the upside down world and the demogorgon is brutal – no one would want to go through that and clearly it sets the other characters in the show into a tailspin, none worse than his mother Joyce (weepy Ryder.) But Yuck didn’t even hit a tailspin when Blumberg left, instead they hit an emotionless stall that’s only just now seeming to be corrected. Yuck would (or should) be willing to fight and defeat the demogorgon to keep Blumberg in the band, even if it means history has to lose his surprisingly enjoyable solo album Unreal.
The better comeback story here is Yuck. After trying to regain a voice in the midst of losing their lead singer (See: Demogorgon battle above), Stranger Things makes a pretty solid case for not needing him anymore. While 2013’s Glow And Behold was a messy and confused post-indie success record, and their 2014 Southern Skies EP was just plain boring, Stranger Things comes wonderfully full circle to the sounds they were embracing on their debut record. Is Stranger Things the 90’s throwback classic Yuck was? No. Not even really close. But it’s a much more agreeable record than their most recent releases and that’s great for a band that was probably poised to break up sooner rather than later after Blumberg left. Is this going to prove to be an actual comeback for Yuck? It’s hard to tell. But then again, it’s hard to tell for Ryder as well, an actress whose most high-profile work in the past 10 years were bit parts in JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. So while Ryder has more on the line, come next year I expect Yuck to make a small leap on festival posters and that’ll make me happy. Ryder? She’ll always have Stranger Things Season 2…
Better Cover Art
Netflix branded Stranger Things with a poster that is indicative of the 80’s nostalgia you’re going to get, filled with a haunting neon title card, Chief Hopper looking like he’s about to call in a motherfucking air raid, and Drew Stuzan level illustration and design. It’s the second greatest TV poster behind when Battlestar Galactica recreated the Last Supper.
Yuck branded Stranger Things with a cartoon that looks like it should feature pithy New Yorker level bullshit underneath it.
Better Representation of Nostalgia
If there’s a photo finish for this ridiculous comparison piece, it’s going to happen in this category and there are good arguments to be made for both texts as 80’s or 90’s nostalgia.
Netflix’s Stranger Things is a love letter to a number of different films, TV shows, and artists. Its very DNA is filled with Twin Peaks intrigue, John Carpenter mystery, and Goonies wonderment. Spielberg’s influence is undeniable, from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Poltergeist, and the musical aesthetic of the show draws heavily on post-punk bands like Joy Division and Television, and features a score of sweeping modern synthwave. Top to bottom, Stranger Things makes a case for repurposed nostalgia from the vast corners of the 80’s.
But Netflix’s Stranger Things is nostalgic for the 80’s while never coming off as wanting to be a show from the 1980’s. This is perhaps why Yuck’s Stranger Things is a more interesting example of reappropriating nostalgia. Yuck appear as not just wanting to sound like a 90’s band, they want to BE a 90’s band.
Sure Yuck’s influences are just as, if not more, blatant than Netflix’s show (or really most bands, for that matter.) But Yuck’s repurposing of influence and nostalgia on Stranger Things is masterful to the point of hollowness. I listen to “Hearts In Motion” and hear descending guitar riffs that are straight out of the Built to Spill playbook, and this is just what Yuck DO; this band has been pitching themselves as 90’s wannabe for long enough that they’ve made their music indiscernible from the thing they were emulating.
Netflix’s Stranger Things is a love letter to the unremembered 80’s. Yuck basically IS a 90’s band. So in a different analysis of nostalgia and post-modernism and the functionality of art, Yuck would probably win. Yuck are so connected to their 90’s sonics that one time I was at a party that was playing mostly 90’s indie rock, and “Georgia” actually came on. I high fived the guy who put it on but retrospectively he was perpetuating what would eventually make the band seem cold and uninteresting. So when trying to figure out which piece of media is a better representation of nostalgia, it’s hard to ignore the music Yuck is making as cheap in the context of the question. Nostalgia SHOULD be a love letter.