The Null Device

2011/6/2

Simon Reynolds writes about popular culture's increasingly revivalist tendencies:

Head into the post-indie musical zones of NME/Pitchfork and most of what you encounter is "alternative" only in the sense of offering an alternative to living in the present: Fleet Foxes, with their beards and balladry modeled on their parents' Crosby, Stills & Nash LPs; Thee Oh Sees' immaculate 60s garage photocopies; the Vivian Girls' revival of what was already a revival (C86 shambling pop). In indieland too we're starting to hear 90s vibes creeping in, from Yuck's grunge-era slacker-isms to Brother's Gallagher-esque "gritpop".
Head into the post-indie musical zones of NME/Pitchfork and most of what you encounter is "alternative" only in the sense of offering an alternative to living in the present: Fleet Foxes, with their beards and balladry modeled on their parents' Crosby, Stills & Nash LPs; Thee Oh Sees' immaculate 60s garage photocopies; the Vivian Girls' revival of what was already a revival (C86 shambling pop). In indieland too we're starting to hear 90s vibes creeping in, from Yuck's grunge-era slacker-isms to Brother's Gallagher-esque "gritpop".
(I'm not sure I'd lump NME and Pitchfork in together; while each does convey a formula for what "indie" is, there's an order of magnitude of difference in how cynically formulaic it is. Pitchfork, whilst being a musical equivalent of Stuff White People Like, at least aspires to a demographic which purports to be somewhat more thoughtful about its aesthetic preferences. NME, meanwhile, has long ago abandoned any ideal of "indie" being driven by any sort of independence of tastes; its oeuvre is marketing-driven Indie® reduced to a cartoonish lowest-common-denominator of facile lad-rock in skinny jeans and striped deep-V T-shirts, the messages of the original source material reduced to a series of cool stances, with ads in the back for where to buy the uniform.)

Reynolds' contention is that popular music (and other aspects of popular culture; witness retro fashion, for example, or pixel art, or the prevalence of apps that make your smartphone simulate a stylishly crappy old camera) has increasingly become focussed on the past. The mainstream has all but stripmined the obvious things (garage rock, Motown, synthpop), turning them into pattern-books of conventions (I'm not sure if anyone has described 1980s synthpop as "timeless" yet, though it's bound to happen). Meanwhile, once bounteous treasure troves of leftfield cool and edgy weirdness such as krautrock and tropicalia now look as despoiled as Nauru's phosphate quarries, leading retro cool hunters to look further afield, from exploring foreign tributaries of the collective past recently opened by the advent of YouTube (apparently the next big thing among hipsters is Soviet new-wave post-punk known as stilyagi) to the cultural equivalent of tar sands oil extraction, digging up and reviving what was considered terminally cheesy (the yacht-rock revival could be considered in this regard), to the point where one considers whether we may, indeed, run out of past. And now, as the 1980s revival is exceeding the duration of the decade it revived, the revivalists are moving into the 1990s, with indie bands doing grunge and R&B/pop artists detuning their polyphonic synths and riffing off cheesy Eurodance.

The question is: does popular music really look backwards a lot more than it used to? Is it because, as recorded music (which, a few decades ago, was relatively new) has accumulated more past, it is increasingly difficult to do anything totally novel without referencing the past, or because recorded music is becoming an elderly pursuit, with the more forward-looking diverting their attention to newer endeavours?

Anyway, Reynolds (who has a new book titled Retromania out) is chairing a talk on the subject tonight at the ICA in London.

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