The Songbook has been a heavily 60s affair so far, with occasional forays into the 70s and 80s. Why the neglect of the 90s and the aughties? Well, I hold that 60s rock set the basic patterns of the ongoing rock sound and attitude; and that while these patterns get some major adjustments in the late 70s and early 80s, from grunge onwards, a mode of recycling/recombining them dominates.
A more personal (if somewhat related) reason is that I tuned out around 1994. I hated grunge from the bottom of my heart, and there was so much else that had grown horrible in pop music by the 90s. I was working, married, becoming more adult, more educated in ideas and sounds classical–as well as with classic swing sounds–, and I sure couldn’t see the point of keeping up with rock.
And in 2012? Well, hipsterism seems easier, or at least less expensive, than it was back when I was a DJ (“Karl Marx” was my ironic/edgy air name!) for SDSU’s great college radio station KCR, and won DJ of the Year in 1987. You often had to buy recordings in those days to hear them, or have friends who did. These days one has You-Tube, and so a middle-aged professor like myself can figure out more than a bit about what trends are percolating. All I need is a little quality college radio (thank you Skidmore, thank you Washington and Lee), a little fussing with a website like PopMatters or a web-critic like The Needle Drop guy. From there, it’s onto You-Tube, where one group can be a doorway to ten others. Of course, there’s no substitute for finding a hip independent record-store worker and just asking about what’s new…so long as he’s not like the Jack Black character in High Fidelity!
My overall impression from such sporadic tuning into Millennial-Gen rock, is that there really has been an indie-rock renaissance of sorts over the last five years or so. If you have a sweet-tooth for mid-60s pop-rock or the better 80s New Wave sounds, there are college radio DJs out there that can play sets of new music that will sound like an aural candy store, given the number of bands revisiting or blending such sounds, such as the band Real Estate that our commenter Stephen referred to.
But the new music cannot quite present itself as New, at least, not in the way each crop of new music did during rock’s 1965-1983 heyday could, or to speak more broadly, during the recorded pop-music boom of 1918-2000. And that’s not all that bad a thing to my mind—it can serve as a return to reality in which pop music can better face up to its limited resources and purposes, and in which more of its hipster participants can ditch the addiction to hype. But that habit is hard to break, and in rock especially, the line between avant-garde hype and secular faith-in-faith can be a thin one. Witness this PopMatters music critic Matt James gushing on about a synthy band (scroll down in this link–a link to the song is there also) called Crystal Castles:
One of my greatest fears is that I will lose my passion, my hunger, my fever for new music. That I will no longer feel the burning desire for the alchemy of holy noise as I did in my youth. …But each time I threaten to fall into dust something brings me back. Crystal Castles give me that fire again. Daylight in the dark. The possibilities, the glamour, the romance, the danger, the underdog ambition, the lifeblood. So much depended on this second record being everything I needed it to be. …It is all this and more. From frenzied feral ferociousness (“Doe Deer”) to fragile poetry (“Celestica”) to contorted freakshow oddities (“I Am Made Of Chalk”) it rages triumphantly against the dying of the light. I still believe in magic, I still believe in Crystal Castles.
Yeah, this is from a year ago, from a 2010 list, and so if you want to be right up-to-date, I guess you should check out the PopMatters best-of-2011 music lists. But so little of this stuff really changes. Crystal Castles is a group making certain refinements to 80s synth-disco. I’d welcome any efforts to explain to me why this is really new music.
Let me make my question more specific: why it is it less retro to be revisiting 80s synth (and note, even its associated clothing fashions!) in 2010 than it was to be revisiting, say, 50s rockabilly in 1980? If the Crystal Castles count as New Music in the 2010s, then a band like the Cramps, or to make it more painful for the hipsters, a band like the Romantics, should have been counted as New Music in the 1980s, right? Well, back then, the 80s synth-bands that Crystal Castles borrows from certainly did not want to dignify the 50s/60s retro bands as new. And for the critics championing the New in those days, the Cramps were perhaps excusable as a punk-ety camp-art guilty-pleasure, but as for teenagers dancing to “What I Like about You” and sending it to the top of the charts, that was simply Guilty. Guilty of (cue: melodramatic gasps of “no, no, no, not that!” ) Nostalgia. Moving ever-forward was the goal, and the deliberately futuristic-thus-minimalistic bands and DJs, you know, the likes of Joy Division, Ultravox, The Human League, etc., seemed to flaunt a kind of advanced pass into the future, mainly by being all science-fiction-y.
Now, I don’t really like Crystal Castles, and their genre is not rock strictly—rather, they produce the sort of arty-disco that gets embraced by rock hipsters, and sometimes by clubbers. So, scroll up then in the PopMatters link to a band whose sound I am actually drawn to, Women, and let’s see what another Pop Matters critic, one Scott Branson, says about them:
…Women play counterintuitive noise pop that mixes the best of rock over the last few decades: the sunny singalong melodies of ‘60s pop set to the driving minimalism of ‘70s Krautrock with the sharp angling guitars of ‘80s post punk all buried under the ambient feedback squall of ‘90s indie music. It’s like listening to the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle or the Beach Boys’ Smile while in a coma. The pop perfection drowns in echo, reverb, darkness, but tries to pull you into the light. …like a fight between Sonic Youth and the Hollies that no one wins…
Now, I like this music. (A good thing, too, because their article-free name would otherwise oblige me to say, ha-ha, “I don’t like Women.”) But does it count as New? At best, we could argue that it does as follows. Simple pop perfection and straightforward beauty simply won’t do for the postmodern people of now. But we can’t live in a maelstrom of noise or formlessness either…so we’d still like our Hollies-esque sweetness, but we need it adorned with the delicate dressings of feedback and wrapped in other distancing features, all of which serve to remind us of our perpetually undermining ironic selves. Pop Prettiness, yes, but please also bring the Noise.
Of course, this stance is itself not new nor “counter-intuitive.” Sonically, stabs in this direction were made by the Velvet Underground in 1966, and feedback-pop-prettiness came on the scene to stay with the Jesus and Mary Chain back in 1985. And today, some degree of this has become almost de rigueur for indie bands.
Women and Crystal Castles are both, then, about “mixing the best of rock/pop over the last few decades” along such postmodernist lines. And as far as I can tell, that basically describes what 80% of today’s indie bands, and almost all the ones I tend to like, are doing. Some, like Women, do it better than others. Add some 1983 to 1966, filtered through 1992 sensibility, and given a few 1971 ornaments, and voila, Something New. Very strictly speaking, it is–it hasn’t been done quite this way before, but ever more refinement, ever more collage-art subtlety is needed to find these little niches of newness, the little pathways not fully explored back in the day or the cross-decade combinations inconceivable then. And Matt James’s commitment to championing the New in all of this has actually become atypical. Plenty of the newer groups, particularly the rock-focused ones, seem to just accept that what is coming out of them is drawn from a genre or two whose basic patterns were established somewhere back in the 1965-1995 canon, regardless of whatever 90s or aughties refinements count as their more immediate influences. It’s what one does. It’s what one is.
I find it very interesting that this dominant strand of Indie Rock does not seem as comfortable taking on revivalist trappings the way the rockabilly, ska, 60s-garage, and swing-jump movements, all of them more or less “dance-craze” oriented, did from the late 70s onwards. One senses that Crystal Castles is playing with the limitations, absurdities, and remaining potentialities of 80s synth-pop, and not really championing its qualities, or at least not championing them the way Nick Lowe and his Textones really were championing 50s-60s West Texas Rock and Roll, or the way the Specials really were championing early 60s Jamaican ska. There was an intensity to such championship, that posed their revivalist music directly against the leaden Rock dullness of the 1970s. Crystal Castles do not revisit the 80s with that kind of fervor, and they and their critical advocates probably think it would be false, false, false to try to re-live or re-work the dance musics of old Jamaica or West Texas, or to speak to the entire Country and Western genre from about the 60s on(!!!), to try to do so with the 50s-era Nashville Sound; rather, they look into our ever-more Wired Future, and give us (again!) those minimalistic robot sounds. This is as much as to say that we have to learn to live with such sounds as the most authentic representations of who we are. Or, slightly less portentously, that the revival of these circa 2010 is momentarily fitting for those truly tuned to the times, whereas the employment of old ska sounds by Reel Big Fish or of old country and blues sounds by The Stone River Boys isn’t. For such reasons, I guess, Crystal Castles must be counted as New Music, but not those other bands. So these sorts of folks say.
In any case, it seems a kind of Retromania and Perpetual Repetition is upon us, and has been for some time; but to my mind, it isn’t what a lot of Rock folks, dutifully opposed to Nostalgia and silently confused by the continual absence of their expected doorways into sonic newness, think it is. To my mind, it is a clue, one that leads us to the fundamental character of our democratic modernity.