Entertainment October 2011

Everything Old

Our obsession with musical nostalgia is strangling pop.

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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