Posted by: martinworster | September 9, 2011

126. RETROMANIA

Where’s the genre bending new music / youth cultural movement? It’s behind you…

Just read Simon Reynold’s excellent ‘Retromania’. Reynold’s is one of my favourite music / pop culture writers and his previous works ‘Rip It Up and Start Again’ (post punk) and ‘Energy Flash’ (rave culture) are required reading.

‘Retromania’s central premise is that we are at a crucial juncture in the history of music and popular culture. With the advent of the digital revolution in both means of production and consumption, artists (and consumers) are both liberated and constrained. Generally, in the past, music has been propelled by new musical movements emerging out of different youth sub-cultures. Jazz, rock and roll, punk, rave culture and acid house, goth etc etc – started as small musical youth cults that eventually percolated through to the mainstream. On both sides of the Atlantic this is the typical emergence pattern.

In the current musical landscape it does seem like nothing really new or revolutionary has really emerged in the past 5-10 years. Sweeping statement, I know. Maybe dubstep? In my opinion, the last epoch changing scene to be created was the whole acid house rave explosion which I was privileged to experience first hand. Reynolds main point is that there might indeed be nowhere left to go – hence our current fixation and obsession with the past. Artists now – especially with the luxury of the internet, MP3s, YouTube and the like – can instantly access the whole worlds total musical output. It’s pretty mind boggling. Grunge, new wave, post punk, electronica, ambient, chill out – all the older scenes and sounds can easily be assimilated by artists at the click of a mouse. Hence it’s a lot easier to look back and be influenced by everything that came before than make something new.

Reynolds of course backs his arguments up with plenty of examples (Ariel Pink and Vampire Weekend seem to be favourite case studies), whereby bands basically sound like a pick and mix of their favourite older influences. A bit of New Order, synth pop, distorted vocals, shoegaze-esque production techniques, African drumming patterns – hey presto you’ve got a new band all the hipsters will love for twenty minutes until the next hype band emerges.

I see (and hear) this myself. It’s easy to sounds like an older ‘bloke’ moaning about the paucity of orginailty that lays before him (‘sheesh, them kids‘) but it’s hard to see anything particularly revolutionary at the moment. I know, I’m not the core demographic for new music – I’m sure some teenagers and twentysomethings are having their minds bended and melons twisted by new sounds. But I still think with the hindsight of history, this period (the ‘noughties‘) will be judged as being lacklustre musically. There’s nowt in the noughties.

Another interesting theme in ‘Retromania’ is the whole nostalgia circuit trend. Not just the overwhelming thirst for for reformations of all your favourite 70s/80s/90s bands – Led Zeppelin, Blur, Pulp, Take That, Pavement etc etc. Relive the moment you first experienced twenty years ago for five times the price! It’s the same in the dance music scenes with the whole Back To 88/ 89 / 92 / 95 / 97 / whatever / nights that are still popular. Similarly, the whole phenomena of bands doing gigs centred around playing their biggest albums in their entirety. Step forward Primal Scream with ‘Screamadelica’ and Public Enemy ‘Fear Of A Black Planet’ plus a whole host of other ageing rockers and hip hoppers who have retirement to think about. There’s clearly a ripe market for all this. As the idea of youth extends those whom were once young want to cling onto those youthful experiences. 40 is the new 20. Nothing beats those first powerful experiences of first hearing a song / taking a drug / kissing a girl / etc / as a teen and marketeers are excellent at exploiting our perpetual attempts at trying to recapture that moment.

YouTube is perhaps the biggest enabler of this idea. Every important cultural event, TV show, free party, rave, theme tune, club night, gig, guitar solo, DJ mix, gag, shebang that ever happened is forever accessible in pixel form for us all to relive and share via link. I am very guilty myself of hunting out early 90s club nights (‘I was there!‘) and tunes and the ricocheting paths and meandering memory lanes – via suggested videos – it can send you on. Retromania draws you in like an addiction. The pull of the past is too much. With such a powerful magnet it makes it hard to progress. We (I) should really look forwards rather than backwards.


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