Monday, July 2, 2012

Is retro the future of music?

Keep telling yourself that, Neil.

Is that all there is?

Yesterday, I wrote a blog about remix culture and where to draw the line between mashup and copyright infringement.

Having settled nothing, I'm on to tackling the other big, unanswered question: why is pop music, and our culture itself, so fascinated with what's come before?

The question has been on my mind a lot since reading Simon Reynolds' great book, Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to its Own Past. In the book, Reynolds tracks rock's fascination with itself from the 1960s to today, and makes the case that we're living in a post-everything world in which music is no longer a catalyst for cultural change, but shallow nostalgia.

For evidence, look no further than the mashup, YouTube, the cover version, the iPod shuffle, the return to vinyl records, tribute bands, and the Stone Roses reunion.

Reynolds admits that he himself's not immune to nostalgia and I'm guilty of the same crime. Maybe we all are! Among the latest "new" music that I've bought: Men Without Hats, PiL, Dexys, and Joey Ramone. The new bands I've bought are practically retro tribute acts: Edward Sharpe, the Cribs, the Raveonettes, Field Music, The Shins, Oberhofer, the Hives, Hot Chip, and Fun.

Don't get me wrong: I love all of these bands. The Dexys' new album, for instance, has already been heralded as the best record of Kevin Rowland's career. It's just that I wonder the same thing as Reynolds: shouldn't all art "be constantly pushing forward into new territory?" I have a nagging feeling that it should.

Being about my age, Reynolds recalls the punk invasion of 1977 in which some of my favorite bands - the Ramones, the New York Dolls, the Clash, and the Sex Pistols - burst onto the scene and made the rest look like they'd been sleeping (you're well advised to read his other great book about what happened next, Rip it Up and Start Again).

Of course, you can make the case that these bands, for all of their promise of endless cultural rejection and change, were throwbacks too. Lest we forget: even the Beatles were a skiffle band. And on Nirvana's hit that brought grunge to the masses, the band cribbed from the Pixies and Boston (Gouge Away + More Than a Feeling = Smells Like Teen Spirit).

The Who's Pete Townshend has been complaining about rock and roll getting boring since at least the early 1970s. As he's quoted in Dave Marsh and Kevin Stein's 1984 the Book of Rock Lists:
"Above all pop desperately needs a new messiah who will take things right back to the glamor, power, and insanity of the Elvis Presley age." 
Is he talking about Bieber? Wah, wah, wah.

It may just be that it's harder than ever to break through now that everyone's music collection is the same. There's no longer a musical generation gap, because the music of yesterday and today is all mashed up in the iPod. "What's new" doesn't much matter anymore, because it's mixed up with what's old.

My friend's nephew listens to music on his iPod, as compiled by his uncle. His favorite artist is David Bowie. My young niece's favorite artist is Led Zeppelin: shhhh, she doesn't know they've broken up or that one of them is dead. She also wishes they'd tour with the Pixies.

The unspoken question: why don't these damn teens reject what's come before and create their own culture? Or is the new culture defined by historical ignorance and malaise?

If that sounds a bit harsh,  Reynolds also considers the possibility of nostalgia as protest. By buying old clothes, vinyl records, and magazines from 1970, could it be that you're sticking it to the man? A tantalizing possibility.

In a rebuttal to Reynolds' book in Q Magazine, musician Billy Bragg suggests yet another possibility: if you hate what the kids are listening to, "it could just be a symptom of middle age."

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