The Complicatist : Retromania ( yet again)

We’re all busy making plans for the past

by Gordon Campbell

– “How fortuitous Grampaw, that you turned 22 right when music peaked” – William Bowers, Pitchfork, August 2011

There’s a natural tendency to put the music of one’s glory days up on a pedestal. On rare occasions, nostalgia can even inspire fresh works of genius, as with the Rob Tyner clip below. That said, the angst over the retro state of popular music nowadays is fast becoming a pretty irritating meme. Supposedly, we’re living in a cultural moment where everything echoes what’s been done (better) before, and no-one consequently feels any emotional stake in the transient, totally hermetic experiences offered by their Ipod shuffle.

For starters…. when has popular music ever not been conceivable in retro terms? Not when the hallowed 1956 Elvis was being inspired by Hank Williams, Dean Martin, the Carter Family and Junior Parker…or when the Rolling Stones and every British bar band were echo-ing Muddy Waters and Elmore James, or when the Ramones were referencing Phil Spector’s heyday, or when 1980s hip hop was referencing Kraftwerk, or when J. Dilla was sampling Raymond Scott etc etc The only difference being that audiences in the past often didn’t recognise the tradition being tapped, and took the music as sui generis acts of genius.

Now we’re all on the same level playing field, access wise. It may seem cynical, but the loss of that prior sense of privilege seems to be a big part of what’s being lamented by critics like Simon Reynolds in his book Retromania. Oh for the days when punk was new and so were its best and brightest fans, and only a handful of people had the inside running on genius. Yet the fact everyone is now privy to history’s treasures is a really good thing isn’t it? Beforehand, access to the musical past called for fair lashings of fanaticism, the money to import the stuff, and/or the good fortune of being friends with someone who had a terrific record collection. Not many people would want to go back to those days.

Today’s abundance doesn’t mean the end of tragic musical geekery. Nor does it mean the past is always being ripped out of context and treated as mere curiosity or pastiche, as Carl Wilson suggested in his recent NYT blog post. Speaking personally, unlimited access to the past has enabled the discovery of rockabilly acts of genius like “The Raging Sea” by Gene Maltais, and I’m not sure that people would have been any more sensitive to the context for that sort of thing back in the day, either. Almost everyone in the 1950s would have written off rockabilly musicians as a bunch of redneck Elvis wannabes from a tragically limited gene pool – and they’d have been half right. (Wilson discounts such discoveries as mere search-and-rescue missions, carried out among the detritus of disposable capitalism.)

Nowadays. we can all be our own Pitchfork.. That’s good.

Still, as Carl Wilson says, the 1990s revival in particular does pose a few problems in retro style, given that a defining quality of Generation X was its bitter, sarcastic rejection of nostalgia. As usual, it is worth quoting Wilson at length on this :

Long before we had much life to look back on, North Americans my age knew that nostalgia was a sickness…..[Being] in our teens and 20s in the early 1990s, we had grown up in the penumbra of the great eclipsing nostalgia of the baby boomers, with their 1950s “Happy Days”; their 1960s (the Greatest Decade Ever Told); and their serial losses of innocence, via the Kennedys’ assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, etc. — a record of re-virginization to rival any evangelical chastity-pledge campaign…..

We bristled when we heard them wax self-congratulatory about ending segregation and war, even as they voted for politicians who would de-regulate banks and invade Iraq (the first time). We resented their monopoly on cultural space….And when they did briefly notice us, in the Generation X media frenzy of the mid-1990s, it was only to reduce diverse people and experiences to catchwords like “slackers” and “grunge” and dismiss paralyzing economic and ecological anxiety as privileged extended-adolescent angst….
Privileged angst certainly was part of it, as Wilson concedes. Ironically though, even those despised 1960s hippies had once faced the same dilemma. The boomers too, had initially resented having their own culture marketed back at them, via say, the Broadway musical Hair. How they sneered at the time at the CBS marketing campaign that claimed “The Man Can’t Bust Our Music !”…Some time afterwards though, the hippie survivors and fellow travelers underwent a conversion experience, and became the salesmen for their own cultural significance and all round generational awesomeness. To date, as Wilson explains, Gen X has only got as far as the resentment stage.

If my generation had anything in common as a group….I would say we were marked by two traits: our dislike of nostalgia and our irritation whenever our barely formed narratives were appropriated and marketed back at us. So it brings on something of an identity crisis to see Gen X’s formative years become part of the cycle of retro revivalism. How does an anti-nostalgic generation deal with the human reflex to sentimentalize its youth?

Wilson’s answer? First, he thinks that Gen X really should retain its reflexive, almost pathological sarcasm. Beyond that, Wilson and Simon Reynolds have been filtering the past through what they (and others) have chosen to describe as ‘hauntology’. Again, best to leave Wilson – easily the most perceptive person currently writing about popular music – to make the case for this so-called ‘hauntology’ himself, :

The melodies and rhythms are reminiscent of catchy pop songs of previous decades, but recorded in a way that simulates the effects of age — fuzzy and staticky — as if worn out or heard at a great distance through a grimy haze. It is music that’s discernible, but less than fully present.
Wilson doesn’t give any examples of what he’s talking about. Yet to my mind, hauntology’s most accomplished practitioner would have to be Tom Krell, who performs under the name How to Dress Well. (Ironically, Krell is only 23 years old, and is not some grizzled, bitter Gen-X veteran.) On his beautiful video for “Decisions” and on other tracks from the debut HTDW album Love Remains. Krell weaves his way from memory to desire, and back again. Here’s how I described it a few months ago :

The best way I can describe How To Dress Well is that it sounds like a lament for the ghost of Keith Sweat, or for mid 80s Michael Jackson. Krell hollow outs and gives spooky spatial resonance to old school r&b, his falsetto vocal rising and falling in distorted fragments throughout the [deliberately blown out] mix. In contrast to r&b’s usual lubricious celebration of the booty call, How To Dress Well seems more about the memory of desire, doing justice to beauty only after it has taken its leave.
Here’s the ‘ Decisions’ video, and – in a triple shot of retro-magnificence – a Boards of Canada soundtrack tribute to the French actor Jean Pierre-Leaud, who managed, in the 1973 film The Mother and the Whore to settle a few scores of his own with any easy nostalgia for the rebellious spirit of Paris 1968.

In his recent Kim Hill interview on RNZ – Simon Reynolds exemplified hauntology via Ariel Pink and those Brit bands (he cited Boards of Canada) who have been busily reworking the sound FX created by the BBC sonic workshop for old British children’s TV shows. To Carl Wilson, such use of the past provides a political escape route from Gen X ‘s moral dilemma – essentially, by enabling the past to be celebrated, while explicitly conceding it be a facsimile, distorted by current needs and knowledge :
There’s a model here for nostalgia that doesn’t wish away the distance between past and present; doesn’t romanticize the past as tragic and heroic; and doesn’t simply trivialize it (as so much 1980s nostalgia did) as trite and silly. Instead, it highlights our compulsion to interrogate our ghosts in search of meaning — and the inexorable way they slip our grasp. That seems like one way for a ’90s rewind to amount to more than a mess of pastel scrunchies and rock-rap reunions. As we know from remix culture, zombie movies and Heraclitus, what’s revived is never truly faithful to the original; it consists of the productive distortion the present permits. But it can remind us that memory is material and nostalgia is never transparent; the past doesn’t truly come back, and the future never really arrives.
Very occasionally, those boundaries between the past and the future can be dissolved altogether, as in this lovely [and subsequently hand coloured] piece of creative dance from 1897.

Footnote : Part of what I’ve been getting at here is that for better or worse, journalistic fashion is also as transient as any catwalk moment, or as the heyday of any musical genre that you care to name. ( How quaintly dated Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson already seem.) In the 1960s, it was Time magazine style that ruled the roost, and this hilarious cover story on Joan Baez (from November 23, 1962) manages to unwittingly convey a cultural cluelessness worthy of Don Draper himself :

Mercurial, subject to quickly shifting moods, gentle, suspicious, wild and frightened as a deer, worried about the bugs she kills….Actually, friends insist, she is honest and sincere to a fault, sensitive, kind and confused. She once worked to near exhaustion at the Perkins School for the Blind near Boston.

Like many folk singers, she is earnestly political. She has taken part in peace marches and ban-the-bomb campaigns. Once in Texas she broke off singing in the middle of a concert to tell the audience that even at the risk of embarrassing a few of them, she wanted to say that it made her feel good to see some colored people in the room. “They all clapped and cheered,” she says. “I was so surprised and happy.”

She is a lovely girl who has always attracted numerous boys, but her wardrobe would not fill a hatbox. She wears almost no jewelry, but she has one material bauble. When a Jaguar auto salesman looked down his nose at the scruffily dressed customer as she peered at a bucket-seat XKE sports model, she sat down, wrote a giant check, and bought it on the spot. Wildly, she dashes across the desert in her Jaguar, as unsecured as a grain of flying sand.

“I have no real roots,” she says. “Sometimes, when I walk through a suburb with all its tidy houses and lawns, I get a real feeling of nostalgia. I want to live there and hear the screen door slam. And when I’m in New York, it sometimes smells like when I was nine, and I love it. I look back with great nostalgia on every place I’ve ever lived. I’m a sentimental kind of a goof…”

Those kids! They’re confused and – underneath – every bit as materialistic as we are, and just as keen to own a nice house in the suburbs. No threat to the social order here, Middle America….