I like all the “Beach Goth Noise-Pop” music I linked to last time, and have a real fondness for a number of the bands. But now it’s time for some critical observations. The major objections to this music are three:
1. It doesn’t swing, and the blues has been totally bleached out.
This doesn’t fully apply to The Growlers, The Chromatics, and She & Him; and, it wouldn’t need to apply to the Dum Dum Girls and Best Coast were they to learn what they need to from 80s retro-garage or even (some pro-hop) New Wave.
The contrast here with mid-60s art pop, a music otherwise so similar, is telling: with the significant exceptions of Pink Floyd and The Left Banke, all those bands were still somewhat connected to the R+B. Were gangsters to demand at gunpoint that the dance-floor get filled, The Who, The Zombies, The Kinks, Love, The Beach Boys, etc., could deliver. Whatever the merits of Woods, Beach House, Veronica Falls, etc., they could not.
2. The music lacks spine. Lacks noive, as the Cowardly Lion put it, or manliness, as Harvey Mansfield might say.
Scratch that—too many efforts in pop to make the music more manly have awful results, after all(metal, rap). Besides, I don’t want to get into whatever it is that made one of these bands call themselves Women, another Girls Names, and for even the most manly of these groups, the Growlers, to have a song called “Gay Thoughts.” I do think it is healthy to see so many female-led or equally male and female bands, and encouraging that it is not even remarkable anymore.
My more fundamental concern here is that this music feels withdrawn, individualistic— “In My Room” not “Dancing in the Streets.” Now as an arty egg-heady guy I can relate to the need (and sometimes temptation) to brood alone, but what I particularly notice is that this music often oscillates, as much of the classic 60s art pop did, between rhythmically simplistic evocations of lonely-ish innocence, say, the Mo Tucker and Marine Girls moments, and a-rhythmic plunges into enervated hopelessness, say, the The Loneliest Person in the World moments. The blues therapy, let alone the gospel hope, is not available. Rather, it’s that late-60s-to-present Blue feeling, Comfortably Numb like Pink Floyd, Resigned like Blur, or worse with Radiohead, that at the very least lurks on the edges of this music, even at its most determinedly poppy. A peculiar innocence-wallowing and plain ol’ despair come together in songs like Pretty Ballerina then, and in Suffering Season now.
And, whereas the battle with despair I hear in Woods, or even in the more general wistfulness of Best Coast, seems heartfelt, some of these bands, such as Veronica Falls and especially Girls Names seem to regard little formulaic sips from the wells of gothy moodiness as de riguer. This is their permanent mode–they’re comfortable with it, and they expect you, indie rock fan, to be so also. They poke fun at clichés of this while living them out. That’s why Tomorrow’s Tulips treating noise-rock artiness as a comfort food, together with their “Beach Goth” t-shirts, feels so appropriate, even archetypal.
3. It is opposed to the future. That is, it’s nothing new, but a mixture of mid-60s and early-80s sounds.
This applies not simply to my shifty “beach goth” category, but to virtually ALL of indie rock. Even the electronica groups have taken to recreations of the early 80s synth sound, or that of 60s-70s experimental “space-age” music. Recyclers all, parasites upon the past.
In my book, objections 1 and 2 are the ones that really count. But British Gen-X rock critic Simon Reynolds has written a book, Retromania, that culminates in an anguished articulation of this third objection. I’m going to devote a full post to his book, but let’s get an initial taste:
Once upon a time pop’s metabolism buzzed with dynamic energy, creating the surging-into-the-future feel of periods like the psychedelic sixties, the post-punk seventies, the hip-hop eighties and the rave nineties. The 2000s felt different.
…Even the most generous assessment of pop in the first decade of the new millennium must surely conclude that nearly all the developments were either tweaks to established genres… or archive-raiding styles…
The surge decades of pop history were characterized by the emergence of new subcultures and an overall sense of forward propulsion. What was lacking in the 2000s was movements and movement. One manifestation of the sense of deceleration: 2010 didn’t feel that different from 2009, or even 2004. Whereas in the past, the differences between years—between 1967 and 1968, or 1978 and 1979, or 1991 and 1992—felt immense.
…It seemed like everything that ever was got its chance to come back into circulation during the 2000s. Decades usually have a retro twin: the seventies looked to fifties; in the eighties you had multiple versions of the sixties vying for attention; and then the seventies music started to get rediscovered in the nineties. True to form, and right on cue, the noughties kicked off with an electropop renaissance and was soon followed by a separate but parallel retro craze for post-punk. But the noughties music scene had countless other retro sectors drawing heavily on the pre-eighties, from the freak folkers to neopyschedelic bands like Dungen to the garage-punk revival…The pop present was caught in the crossfire of revival simultaneity, with shrapnel from multiple different pasts whizzing past our ears at any given point.
Reynolds and others have toyed with a number of theories to explain this phenomenon, and of course, I have my own—I have spoken, after all, of “Rock…[setting] a certain pattern of middle-class mixtery-music that was doomed from the beginning to fall into its now-obvious mode of Perpetual Repetition.”
I don’t have a problem, however, with either outright revivalism or mix-and-match recyclement, and overlooking its limitations, I can like what my beachy goths have done in that latter mode. No, I am not pleased by its blinkered ignorance of both “Beethoven” and the good-time music that used to (and still could) “roll over” him at party-time. So things go in our dumbed-down democratic times…and I don’t want to spit upon whatever weak campfires the young suburban-souled folk are able to get going. But Reynolds, with his old-fashioned 20th-century faith in the future, finds it rather more disturbing.
But before I lay out his thought more, what do y’all make of this larger recycling phenomenon?