Why Neon Is Suddenly Everywhere in Pop Culture

Slate's Culture Blog
April 5 2013 3:10 PM

Why Neon Is Suddenly Everywhere in Pop Culture

Nicolas Winding Refn’s upcoming film Only God Forgives and Deerhunter’s new album Monomania don’t have much in common, but I was struck by something that is shared by the previews for each of them, which both came out on Wednesday.

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Neon. Suddenly it’s everywhere in pop culture, in movies, TV, and music. This is most obvious in movie trailers, where neon has become almost standard.

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Neon titles also showed up in Hype Williams' seizure-inducing video for Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” and Girls took a similar approach for its opening titles for its big party episode, “Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a. The Crackcident.”

So why all the neon now? The most obvious influence, as we noted in reference to those Girls titles, is designer Tom Kan’s assaultive, unforgettable opening title sequence for Enter the Void (2009). Many though not all of these title sequences—including in Girls, the “All of the Lights” video, and the trailer for Only God Forgives—are paying clear homage to Enter the Void, making their neon signs blink and strobe, often in different languages and typefaces, just like in that film. Spring Breakers has another, more direct connection to Enter the Void: To achieve its distinctive look, director Harmony Korine hired Enter the Void’s cinematographer, Benoît Debie.

It’s possible that some of these films and videos and ad campaigns are drawing on other sources, in addition to Void’s opening sequence. For example, they might be inspired by the work of artists like Tim Etchells. Neon art has been around for decades, in the work of artists from Stephen Antonakos to Bruce Nauman, but Slate designer Andrew Morgan pointed out to me that Etchells' work has become popular on many design blogs in the last three or four years, the same years that this has become a trend.

Of course, there’s no way to diagram too precisely how these trends come and go. They could be equally inspired by Dirk Diggler.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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