Entertainment October 2011

Everything Old

Our obsession with musical nostalgia is strangling pop.
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Sean McCabe

Idea for a Saturday Night Live sketch: A group of ’80s post-punkers, famous for spiky guitar noise and grimacing intelligence, reunites to perform its most legendary album at a rock festival in 2011. The original lineup has not played a show together in 20 years. The bassist is now a college professor, the drummer owns a comic-book store, and so on. The charismatic lead singer, meanwhile, has become a surprise hit on the children’s circuit, peddling a groovified canon of kid-friendly sing-alongs to an audience of 6-year-olds. Of all the guys, he seems to have changed the most: in the dressing room he is uncharacteristically spritely, and keeps humming “Nellie the Elephant.” Also, is his voice … higher? It’s showtime, anyway, and the crowd roars—the silvering rock dudes, the love-handled ex-fanatics, the frowning young cognoscenti. But what’s the front man doing? His bandmates watch in horror as he bounces to the microphone, stares out wide-eyed, and yelps “Hey, everybody! Who else hates asparagus?!”

Has pop culture, uh, stopped? Why do the major musical developments of the past decade include Guitar Hero, reunion tours, hip karaoke, the rise of the tribute band, pop stars made entirely from bits of other pop stars, and Van Morrison re-performing Astral Weeks? Lady Gaga, bless her radical retro soul, is Cher after three weeks in Warhol’s Factory. Cee Lo is Motown with swearing. This month, even as Roger Waters breaks temporarily from his transglobal plod-through of Pink Floyd’s 32-year-old rock opera, The Wall, Roger Daltrey sallies forth with a production of The Who’s 42-year-old rock opera, Tommy. One salutes the unkillability of these gentlemen, one reveres their work, but, honestly. And wherefore this pile of rock docs and rock bios, these waves of compulsive historicization? The Making of Frampton Comes Alive! … The Making of The Making of Frampton Comes Alive!The Making of The Making of The Making of Frampton Comes Alive! …

Early in Retromania, Simon Reynolds’s recent compendious and slightly nauseating (in a good way) account of pop-cultural backward-looking, the author visits 315 Bowery—once the site of the punk club CBGB, now a John Varvatos clothing boutique. Reynolds is on the heritage trail: he’s already been to the British Music Experience in London (“giant-size cutouts of Jarvis Cocker and Dizzee Rascal”) and Cleveland’s Rock and Rock Hall of Fame and Museum, where he gazed in discomfiture upon a single severed dreadlock from the head of Bob Marley. Now he’s on the Bowery to see the reunited New York Dolls, more than three decades after their heyday, perform inside the Varvatos store. A nightmarish sense of recursion enters the narrative as he looks around at his fellow attendees and sees “faces that seemed vaguely familiar from rock documentaries.”

Did I say “backward-looking”? That’s not quite right. Here Lot’s wife joyously turns into a pillar of salt, and Orpheus is not so much peeking over his shoulder as marching, lyre adangle, right back into the underworld. Retromania is Reynolds’s term for our obsession with, or enthrallment by, the recent past, and in marshaling his materials he instances—among other retrocities—retro porn, retro ringtones, and a Pret A Manger sandwich called “Retro Prawn on Artisan.” Reynolds writes:

Nostalgia is now thoroughly entwined with the consumer-entertainment complex. We feel pangs for the products of yesteryear, the novelties and distractions that filled up our youth … The passage of our time has become indexed to the procession of rapidly obsolescing fads, fashions, celebrity careers et al.

His particular gripe, however, is that retromania has canceled or reversed the momentum of music. Reynolds is a specialist in musical momentum. As a writer for the British weekly Melody Maker in the mid-to-late ’80s, he was a fiery tribune for the New, unmatched in his exhortations on behalf of bands like the Swiss sampler-punks Young Gods and those Texan super-loonies, the Butthole Surfers (on whose Hairway to Steven he memorably claimed to have found “a guitar solo like the dawn in orgasm”). Later he wrote the rave-culture history/manifesto Generation Ecstasy, and the exploration of post-punk avant-gardism Rip It Up and Start Again. Now he finds himself marooned in the Noughties, where pop culture runs a “deficit in newness” and everybody likes Fleet Foxes (who are similar to Crosby, Stills, and Nash). Reboots and rediscoverings—the synth, the guitar, the blues, the beard—come and go speedily, flittingly, at the rate of fashion, fashion being nothing but “a machinery for creating cultural capital and then, with incredible speed, stripping it of value and dumping the stock.”

And your iPod isn’t helping. Nor is YouTube. Nor Spotify. Music consumers now find themselves with the approximate power of the BBC’s Doctor Who, the hipster Time Lord who, on a whim, directed his TARDIS back to Sheffield, England, in 1979 to catch a performance by Ian Dury and the Blockheads. (That the Doctor—in this particular episode—mangled his coordinates and ended up in 1879, on a Scottish heath, with Queen Victoria and a werewolf, is strictly incidental.) The floating simultaneity and endless availability of all recorded music, the deadening sophistication of the average listener—these are not spurs to Art. “It’s glaringly obvious,” Reynolds writes (indisputably in my view), “that all the astounding, time-space rearranging developments in the dissemination, storing and accessing of audio data have not spawned a single new form of music.” The key word in there is data. Encoded, flattened, trimmed, compressed, and abused, music in the digital age is turning its back on us. It’s a fact, Jack: MP3s sound horrible. I suspect they are bad for your brain. Dionysus will not be treated as information.

We might of course be old farts, Reynolds and I, with old-fart ears and old-fart memories, freaked out by the world that is blossoming at our old-fart fingertips. It may be that to complain (as he does) of feeling “splayed and stuffed” when you go online is merely to say: Yes, I am middle-aged. But Retromania goes deeper. Burrowing backward in search of retro’s first cause, Reynolds traces the reactionary roots of punk rock—its claim to be rescuing rock and roll from the bloatations of the early ’70s. Jerry Nolan, drummer for our friends the New York Dolls, claimed the band was “bringing back the magic of the fifties!” Was that the beginning of the “Rift of Retro”?

It was not. Posterity may regard as the highlight of Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary Woodstock not the health warning about the brown acid, but the spectacle of Sha Na Na doing “At the Hop.” This crew, at the preeminent ’60s event, surrounded by wobbly idols and dazed wielders of the zeitgeist, were shamanistically retro. Sha Na Na channeled the ’50s by overdoing them, performing cover versions—as George Leonard, the band’s brain, tells Reynolds—at “twice the speed of the originals: I insisted we do the music the way it was remembered instead of the way it was.” The singers wore gold lamé; they bopped and jived absurdly, like celebrants of a forgotten rite. They, not Jefferson Airplane, were the future, by which I mean, of course, the past. The irony that their early-morning set came right before Jimi Hendrix “immolating”—Reynolds’s word—“The Star-Spangled Banner” is almost too exquisite to bear.

So far, so Sha Na Na–nian. An English band once existed (inevitably, it has just reunited) called Pop Will Eat Itself. It was not a very good band, its genius fully exhausted by the prophetic clarion that was its name. But now pop has eaten itself. The facts—and no one has presented them as clearly as Simon Reynolds—are before us; the fix is in. What next? Out among the shimmering spires of futurity, on the other side of the retromanic moment, where “pop culture” and “youth culture” have been equally interred by Time, is it conceivable that there might be different ways of selling music, enjoying music, imagining music? It’s not conceivable by me, but then, I’m 43. Bring it on, you cheeky monkeys.

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James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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