The 80s Almost Killed Me. Let's Not Recall Them Quite So Fondly
June 23, 2011 8:37 PM   Subscribe

Previously discussed on Mefi Music.
posted by unSane at 8:44 PM on June 23, 2011

(and I don't remember the 80s killing Simon -- I was there for some of it. They gave him his entire career)
posted by unSane at 8:45 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Does he talk about how writing about how music recycles the past is recycling the past? No? Then he's just recycling.
posted by pompomtom at 8:46 PM on June 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

Needs more meta!
posted by pompomtom at 8:47 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've tried to figure out why I love old music so much and the closest I can think of is that it cuts closest to the core of whatever the genre is. The farther back in rock and roll history you go the tighter and more energetic the music gets. As you regress in gaming history you strip away the cruft and backstory and clunkiness and get right into shooting and dodging and jumping.

That doesn't explain why I only listen to music that sounds like pre-electronic rock and roll though. I did grow up on classic rock, so that's there.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 8:47 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

As you regress in gaming history you strip away the cruft and backstory and clunkiness and get right into shooting and dodging and jumping.

Pong didn't have shooting and dodging was a way to lose.
posted by birdherder at 8:50 PM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

The three most atavistic-to-the-point-of-plagiarism acts I can think of are Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, circa forty years ago.
posted by Nahum Tate at 8:51 PM on June 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

As you regress in gaming history you strip away the cruft and backstory and clunkiness and get right into shooting and dodging and jumping.

Pong didn't have shooting and dodging was a way to lose.

Compare Pong to Sega Superstars Tennis or whatever the equivalent hyper-realistic tennis game is and you'll see my point.

I think there's a value in re-creating the past for people who weren't there the first time. I want to go out and see rockabilly or classic rock or Ramones-style bands. I want to go home and play Pac-Man CE or Mega Man 9 on my XBox, with HD graphics and Achievements. I love that I can do that.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 8:52 PM on June 23, 2011


Why does this legendary music critic think that plundering the past is something unique to modern music?
posted by b1tr0t at 8:59 PM on June 23, 2011 [7 favorites]

Just saying, I will punch the first person who brings up dubstep.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 9:05 PM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you want a vision of the future, imagine Alison Moyet emoting into a human face

What on earth does that mean?
posted by davebush at 9:13 PM on June 23, 2011

Threeway Handshake:

Just saying.

posted by daq at 9:22 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

So there's this thing called the threeway handshake, where you mention dubstep to Person 1, and Person 2 punches you (in the face).
posted by ifandonlyif at 9:24 PM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hey Dubstep
posted by stinkycheese at 9:28 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

i don't know - aside from the fact that there's never been a period in popular music where people weren't taking something from the past, i'm getting the feeling that things are changing - top 40 seems to be overrun with autotuned vocals and truly odd arrangements - and that's certainly not a thing of the past - and my local college station, widr, today gave me the impression that today's music is an odd mixture of 60s lounge with avant-garde influences and folk - that's probably just the dj's taste, but there's a lot of stuff going on i hear that seems to be neither pop or rock or anything else - maybe a modern recreation of art-song

up until now, it's seemed to me that with the exception of d&b/dubstep that everything else had ample precedent in the music of the 60s and 70s - but i'm hearing things in both the pop and indie worlds that seem very different - people seem to be taking great pains to come up with unique textures and arrangements - the melodies seem to be based on a different feel than what happened before

i thought after an interesting start that the music of the '00s was kind of dull and too calculated, with a lot of the ransacking of the past that the writer complains about - but that's changing - things that can't quite be classified as rock or hip hop are emerging

it's starting to get interesting again
posted by pyramid termite at 9:47 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think this is where I make a crack about the Everything is a Remix thread.
posted by brennen at 9:47 PM on June 23, 2011

It's telling that this aging pop critic fails to mention (except in passing, in an offhanded reference to the "guests" on modern club hits) what would actually qualify as the zeitgeist-y genre of music today: hip-hop. Maybe he should look there for some examples of creativity, though he might need to redefine the term as something other than the inclusion of a sitar.
posted by MetalFingerz at 10:40 PM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

I sorta thing he's wrong just because modern music is so utterly alien to me. I can't listen to dubstep or modern dance or electro or modern pop for too long, because it sounds like music from an utterly different culture that's built around another set of assumptions. I think the reason that indie gets backward-looking is because there are people like me seeking a refugee from the relentless robotisization of music.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 10:42 PM on June 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

I guess he also mentions Eminem, but doesn't seem to think that the fact a rapper was the best selling artist of the decade warrants further investigation.
posted by MetalFingerz at 10:44 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

it's tempting to see it as a flashback to the glory days when the Beatles and Stones sold black American music to white America. Except that those bands were doing it with contemporary rhythm-and-blues.

That's sort of amusing. Like there was nothing nostalgic about what the Beatles and Stones were doing with black music? Or country?
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:01 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Part of the problem is that 'the past' is seen through rose-coloured glasses. The proverbial cream rises to the top. When some kid born in 1995 thinks of radio in 1991, he probably thinks there was nothing but Seattle music playing and that Siamese Dream, Ten, Dirt and Nevermind were on permanent rotation in some sort of perma grunge-gasm. What he doesn't know, and what he will never know if us crusty fuckers don't harsh his little EMO vibe, is that us 16 year olds were subjected to the constant aural ass-pain that was 'Everything I Do I Do It For You' by Bryan Adams, which was #1 in 1991. That fucking KLF song. Whitney Houston. Michael Jackson's weird pervert apex. GLORIA FUCKIN ESTEFAN.

The past is a myth.
posted by jimmythefish at 11:25 PM on June 23, 2011 [13 favorites]

Simon Reynolds should be better than this. At least I would've expected more from the author of Generation Ecstasy, who introduced me to the idea that music has a functional component: a response to technology availability or pharmacological environment.

The art of our time is busy plundering the past because we're smack in the middle of a large scale exhuming and sharing of decades of sampled history - everything’s informationalizing its way onto Youtube, Tumblr, and Pinterest. Why wouldn't the culture of this moment celebrate a look at stored media the way the culture of previous moments focused on electronic synthesis or studio experimentation?
posted by migurski at 11:26 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

because it sounds like music from an utterly different culture that's built around another set of assumptions.

This is pretty much exactly how I feel when I hear hip-hop music.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:29 PM on June 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Just saying, I will punch the first person who brings up dubstep."

Stop hitting yourself.

Is he talking about plunderphonics?

1. You have widespread availability of recorded music.
2. You have the widespread availability of musical production hardware and software.
3. Music has always borrowed from and been influenced by the past.
4. Marketable/successful properties are usually a better bet than the unknown.

Should I keep going?
posted by Eideteker at 11:38 PM on June 23, 2011

God, another "The first time it happened to me was the first time it happened" essay. What a total fucking wank.
posted by klangklangston at 12:17 AM on June 24, 2011 [5 favorites]

"legendary" !
posted by dydecker at 12:53 AM on June 24, 2011

One of the enjoyable aspects of getting old is laughing like a loon as you notice yourself feeling genuinely aggrieved by all the shit the kids are listening to these days.

I was born slightly too late to see Hendrix or Zeppelin live, so I spent the eighties waiting for something good - anything good - to come on the radio.

I have yet to hear this man, whose first album came out in '87, played on the radio; that's radio's loss, as far as I can tell. Here's what he has to say about getting older and hearing overhyped indistinguishable commodity music everywhere.

He's still happily plundering the past - new album due in September.
posted by flabdablet at 12:57 AM on June 24, 2011

And so it passed last night when I was similarly roused: I saw no cause to be alarmed and almost casually I browsed the street and there, to my amazement, caught a figure in the quarter-light dismantling my locks; today we won't be in-car entertained.
posted by flabdablet at 1:22 AM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Whoops, mis-pasted the last link.
posted by flabdablet at 1:23 AM on June 24, 2011

let's contrast pop with other commercial art forms such as film or fiction

Without thinking about or even acknowledging the difference between them? No, let's not. Let's instead be aware enough to recognise that patterns of consumption are wildly different between music and film. The fact that there are more recordings of old music sold than tickets for old films really tells us nothing. Notice he dismisses TV and DVD sales out of hand? I presume that's because they don't fit his thesis very well.

One blindingly obvious point on the Beatles being the second best selling artist of the 2000s. Older people buy music too. Older people are less likely to get their music via peer-to-peer. Older people are often buying their music collections again. Of course the Beatles are still popular, but let's not pretend that such a crude statistic really tells us anything.

But there are a million things wrong with this article, the foremost being that it really tells us nothing about retro culture. By decrying retro as a modern phenomenon, and invoking a lazy notion of "digital v analogue" culture, there is no contextualisation or examination of the development of retro as a trend through time. There are interesting things to be said about our continuing obsession with the history of music, but this article doesn't say them.
posted by howfar at 1:44 AM on June 24, 2011 [7 favorites]

There are interesting things to be said about our continuing obsession with the history of music, but this article doesn't say them.

I'm inclined to agree. Worth pointing out, perhaps, that the article is basically a promo for his book on the topic. Dave Haslam's review of the book in the Guardian suggests that the book may make a better case than the article does (certainly, the review discusses the historical nature of retro far more than the article does).

Reynolds is certainly a knowledgeable and talented writer who has written on a wide range of music (see espcially Rip it Up and Start Again). So I'm not greatly impressed by this article, but I wonder if there might be something worth reading in the book.
posted by Infinite Jest at 4:59 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Chumbawamba issued a response to this Simon Reynolds article in 2008, and they cleverly made it the title of an album:

The Boy Bands Have Won, and All the Copyists and the Tribute Bands and the TV Talent Show Producers Have Won, If We Allow Our Culture to Be Shaped by Mimicry, Whether from Lack of Ideas or From Exaggerated Respect. You Should Never Try to Freeze Culture. What You Can Do Is Recycle That Culture. Take Your Older Brother's Hand-Me-Down Jacket and Re-Style It, Re-Fashion It to the Point Where It Becomes Your Own. But Don't Just Regurgitate Creative History, or Hold Art and Music and Literature as Fixed, Untouchable and Kept Under Glass. The People Who Try to 'Guard' Any Particular Form of Music Are, Like the Copyists and Manufactured Bands, Doing It the Worst Disservice, Because the Only Thing That You Can Do to Music That Will Damage It Is Not Change It, Not Make It Your Own. Because Then It Dies, Then It's Over, Then It's Done, and the Boy Bands Have Won.

(Incidentally, Chumbawamba has made an excellent transition from a punk band to a pop outfit to, now, a folk ensemble. It's like they get bored with their sound as soon as we do and labor to bring us something new. I wish more bands changed up that often.)
posted by Rory Marinich at 5:41 AM on June 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Maybe if music critics would stop giving inches and inches of column space to these artists who are doing retreads of the '80s, we might stop having retreads of the '80s being all up in our cultural faces?
posted by statolith at 6:35 AM on June 24, 2011

Needs more Angus Young.
posted by clavdivs at 6:53 AM on June 24, 2011

the inclusion of a sitar

Like Blancmange was doing in 1982? (Also much love for Chumbawamba, which I immediately thought of in this context as well.)
posted by immlass at 7:03 AM on June 24, 2011

Just saying, I will punch the first person who brings up dubstep.

Technically, YOU were the first person to mention dubstep. So...
posted by grubi at 7:23 AM on June 24, 2011

is because there are people like me seeking a refugee from the relentless robotisization of music.

I'm merely curious, but why do you, the person with the horror vacui, the person so fond of advertisements and commercial tat that he wishes there were more billboards in the outback, the person appalled by nature, routinely couch your criticisms of contemporary commercial pop music in appeals to some virtuous, authentic past? "Drum machines have no soul, man!" was never very convincing and coming from someone who professes to take such a delight in commercial culture, gestures toward the inauthenticity of pop look especially affected. My impression is that you write or want to write about music. I think you will write better if you learn to discard that crutch.

I spent the eighties waiting for something good - anything good - to come on the radio.

Sorry, man. I spent much of the eighties absolutely reveling in what was on the (admittedly, college) radio. I doubt I've ever been that excited by popular music again in my life. 80's retromania doesn't get carte blanche approval from me, but I can't help regarding it fondly. Sometimes it feels like watching my own grandchildren. (Also, an Alison Moyet dubstep remix would be grand.)

It's telling that this aging pop critic

That bastard's older than I am and he looks (from the pictures I've seen) a good decade younger, at least. I think he got in good with Dick Clark, early.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:30 AM on June 24, 2011

The thing about the Rolling Stones — or Elvis, let's say — is that they were borrowing contemporary stuff. Elvis was repackaging contemporary black and rural-poor-white music that middle-class white kids in Northern cities were pretty well insulated from. The Stones were doing the same sort of borrowing across a national boundary rather than (just) a regional and social one: "Okay, there are no American R&B acts or country acts playing here, I guess we'll fake it ourselves." Similarly for Ray Charles borrowing church music and making it secular: I get the sense that was a Do Not Cross line at the point when he was doing it, with the result that just by virtue of crossing it, he was doing something new, getting new material, without having to go back to the past to do it.

I don't think that made them better than, I dunno, New York scene kids now borrowing from New York scene kids 20 years ago. But there is some sort of difference there, not in quality but just in kind.

The thing is, it's harder than it used to be to find a contemporary music scene running along a parallel track right in your own back yard. So if you're going to fetishize the New! And! Different! you have to look farther afield. In the late 80s when white artists started borrowing from hip hop, the reaction wasn't such an intense "Oh thank goodness! I wouldn't have known about this wonderful music if it weren't for you, Blondie!" It was more like, "Wait, I was sort of aware of this stuff already. I mean, go ahead and mix it with synth pop if you want, but don't expect it to be some kind of epiphany." But I think that when people look a bit farther outside their backyard — I dunno, American pop artists borrowing from Japanese or Indian pop music, or indie kids borrowing African guitar styles — it is pretty well equivalent to the borrowing of the 50s-70s that this guy is eulogizing. Will it be as fertile? Who knows? But if he's not seeing artists finding new material outside their own past, it's because he's not looking at that sort of cross-cultural borrowing or stealing or appropriation or whatever you want to call it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:31 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


posted by fourcheesemac at 7:47 AM on June 24, 2011

Seemed like the polite way to put it.

I dunno. I don't really believe in genuine originality in art. Everything is learned from someone, or inspired by someone, or takes someone else's work as a jumping-off point, and the only gripe I've got against the big names in early rock and roll is that they didn't always acknowledge the people who taught or inspired them. But that's a whole 'nother discussion.

Point is, unless you want to scrap everything and start from zero banging two rocks together, you have three options: learn from your own forebears, learn from someone else's forebears, or learn from someone else still living. I'm not sure why any of those three options is better or worse than any of the others — but in any case, all three are still being practiced, despite what the article claims.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:52 AM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

klangklangston: God, another "The first time it happened to me was the first time it happened" essay. What a total fucking wank.

Sadly, this is the pure truth. From the article:
But if I could point to just one release that tipped me over the edge into bemused fascination with retromania, it would be 2006's Love, the Beatles remix project. Executed by George Martin and his son Giles to accompany the Cirque du Soleil spectacular in Las Vegas, the album's 26 songs incorporated elements from 130 individual recordings, both releases and demos, by the Fab Four. Hyped as a radical reworking, Love was way more interesting to think about than to listen to (the album mostly just sounds off, similar to the way restored paintings look too bright and sharp).
Emphasis mine, to point out that your memories of paintings as dull and hazy reflect not their original form, but the way you first experienced them. You only think the Fab Four were original because you didn't experience their precursors (or haven't studied them enough to be able to follow the chains from past to present).

But on the flip side, was there ever a time when reunion tours were as prevalent as they appear to be in the past two decades? And movie reboots are nothing new, but the sheer number of bad remakes of relatively recent films also lend some credence to the notion that current creative endeavors pull more notably from the past than before.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:59 AM on June 24, 2011

I think the reason that indie gets backward-looking is because there are people like me seeking a refugee from the relentless robotisization of music.

Relentless robotisization IS backward-looking.
posted by FatherDagon at 8:36 AM on June 24, 2011

Also I love that the lede photo for that article complains that modern pop star is just a ripoff of 1983 Annie Lennox, when by those same metrics 1983 Annie Lennox was just a ripoff of 1982 Blade Runner.
posted by FatherDagon at 8:40 AM on June 24, 2011

For most of history, unless you were travelling or had travelling musicians visit your locale, you would probably go from cradle to grave hearing very little variation in 'music' (which would be whatever was the style or form where you lived). By contrast, in the last hundred years, we've seen: the introduction of electricity to music, synthesisers, recording, overdubbing...

Recording, probably more than anything else, revolutionised music - because now you didn't have to be in the same room with the musician(s) to hear the music; cross-proliferation has accelerated so fast that genres bleed into each other and create new styles faster than we can 'see' (often it's only years later that we can connect the dots and realise connections which, in hindsight, appear obvious).

With the Internet, one can now easily download almost any music that has ever been recorded, and usually for free - a kid in Italy can become an expert in West African styles before he's twenty, and without even leaving the house; he or she can also make their own music on a laptop, employing almost limitless variety of technology to do so. I guarantee there's a ton of amazing sounds being created in the last decade, much of it never leaving the confines of people's HDs.

What this guy is talking about is what sells a lot, and that's completely different subject. People hear music growing up, it's only natural that influences them. People get older, their tastes often stagnate, and they want to hear something recognisable, something that makes them feel good. This stuff has been quite predictable in pop music since at least the late 70s, when the 1950s re-emerged, albeit in repackaged, idealised fashion.

In one way at least, the 80s aesthetic merits a go-over. While the instrumentation provided cool then-new sounds, the production has dated horribly; I feel really sorry for anyone who experienced their recording heyday in the 80s, chances are their records don't sound very good now (especially if they used certain gear).

Anyways, we're spoiled for choice nowadays. I often think it all came too fast, and wonder what music in 2011 would sound like if, for instance, electricity had not been invented; would we all still be listening to blues and jazz? Or would the ease of travel - electricity aside - mean things musically might have happened in a similar but different way?
posted by stinkycheese at 8:54 AM on June 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Robots are efficient.
posted by flabdablet at 8:56 AM on June 24, 2011

That article could use some italics.
posted by Clustercuss at 8:57 AM on June 24, 2011

Speaking of punches to the face, is "the noughties" really the accepted term for 2000 – 2009? Really?
posted by spitefulcrow at 9:36 AM on June 24, 2011

I have always admired the way Reynolds writes. As the review of his book puts it, "Ideas are picked up and shaken down before he finds a tentative conclusion and an exception to every rule." But that way of writing means that Reynolds himself seems to admit that "retromania" is no more a modern phenomenon than the huge explosion of 1950s revivalism was in the post-"American Graffiti" period (and any number of other examples that you can cite without making too much exertion).

I would tend to at first glance agree with the "no originality, it's all cannibalization of the past" argument myself, because it fits the "get off my lawn" ethos that people my age are supposed to cultivate. But on a regular basis I try as much as possible to listen to music that's more recent than my last burst of wild youth, and while there are some irritatingly obvious ripoffs and retreads going on, there is also a lot -- and I mean a lot -- of incredibly creative, original music going on that it would not have been possible (technically possible, if nothing else) to make when I was in my high school and college years.

And I get as much satisfaction from discovering that music -- and the new emotional responses that it evokes in me, constantly -- as I do from any absorption in past glories. Although there is something to be said for reveling in that as well, because music is a lot of things, but it is frequently the summation of everything that's come before as much as it is the "tearing down what's gone before and making their own culture" that Reynolds (very wrongly) thinks is not going on.
posted by blucevalo at 10:30 AM on June 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

I have a lot of thoughts about this retro music stuff. I'm someone who writes and produces my own music, and I'm also someone who's intensely bored by the idea of making music that sounds exactly like a bunch of stuff that's already out there. I get bored by the idea of limiting myself to one genre and by getting pigeon-holed, and as much as I like some bands and singer-songwriters that do have a very narrow range of sounds, I personally find that sort of thing artistically unsatisfying for my own music.

What I've learned, while going about making my own album happen, is that writing songs and arrangements that sound at least somewhat original as well as diverse from each other, while maintaining accessibility and listenability, is HARD. It takes a lot of time and thought and experimentation. When you're creating new music and the primary goal is to have it fit into a very specific mold, it's easier to be confident that what you're doing will appeal to a good number of people, and you don't have to worry so much about the result being just plain bad. At worst it may just be unoriginal. Also, getting a producer nowadays who actually can make that sound is a lot cheaper than it used to be, so it is something indie bands are able to achieve without major label money.

So yeah, I will submit that a lot of bands make music that sounds identical to stuff that has already been done because it's a hell of a lot less maddening and risky to do that than it is to try to get creative with it. It's easier to mine old styles and still end up with a product that might appeal to a lot of people. And it's easier to market yourself when you actually have an easily definable sound. In terms of the "digital future" the author refers to at the end, that digital future includes mind-numbingly large sample libraries with thousands of different sounds to sort through and simply a ridiculous amount of options to consider.

Personally I think anyone who doesn't just go with the tried and true methods is a little nuts, myself included, but I also seek that music out because it is the most interesting music to me.
posted by wondermouse at 11:39 AM on June 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

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