Does anyone not know the story of Icarus? …let us imagine that young Icarus manages to actually live through this ordeal: he falls back into the labyrinth…bruised but still alive. …He has to go back to normal life after having thought himself capable of attaining the sun…Today we find ourselves in a similar situation. For the past two centuries, in order to escape the labyrinth of mediocrity, we have believed ourselves capable of radically transforming man and society. Since Condorcet, the philosophy of Progress has promised to eliminate war, disease, and need, and various ideologies have announced a radiant future. We have just come to the realization…that these hopes were finally in vain. We have fallen back to earth, where we must re-appropriate our human condition. But along the way we have lost the keys of understanding…
Chantal Delsol, Icarus Fallen, 1996.
The previous post (scroll down) on pop music critic Simon Reynolds’ Retromania basically introduced us to why he applies that term, and other more theoretic ones like hyperstasis, to the present scene.
Part of the key to understanding Simon Reynolds is to notice he was a young participant in the Rave movement of the late 80s/early 90s, and that he actually bought into the idea that it was something fundamentally new. Well, I wasn’t at rave’s UK epicenter, but from what I could tell, its music was little more than ramped-up techno-disco, yet another twist upon that basic formula. The same old let’s simultaneously prophesy-against and sexily-embody our robotic destiny schtick was the only idea I could see in it, but with the ravers putting a happier day-glo face on it than we had seen with the dystopian early-80s vibe of Ultravox, Berlin, Cabaret Voltaire, etc. As for the overall techno sound, it bored and repulsed me, outside a few of its more hip-hop or classic-disco influenced moments. I sure couldn’t become fascinated by the ever-more reductive (or contrarily, ever-more “sampla-delic”) attacks upon the sonic possibilities of the formula, dividing into sub-genres like Gabber, as minutely documented here, but I guess Reynolds could. Hellish music, and perhaps you have to witness seedy DJs trying to duplicate its overwhelm-the-senses-experience at a junior-high dance, as I did in my secondary teacher days, to see how hellish it can be. But I don’t doubt that at the epicenter and with the best DJs in charge, there were moments of transcendence for rave-trained ears, and of course, the thrill of believing you were on the cutting edge, as Reynolds did:
…rave circa 1990-3 was the last youth culture movement complete with its own fashion, slang, dance, moves, rituals. But techno was the last time that music felt like it was really moving forward, the last blast of full-tilt, irony-free futurism in mainstream pop.
Reynolds loves the idea of the future. He is one of those folks who read about the original Futurists of early 20th-century Italy, and was quite attracted by their literary/visual-arts desire to break free of the encrusted accumulations of past cultural achievements, to celebrate the machine as opposed to the museum, motion instead of monument, etc.; attracted despite the movement’s well-known contributions to the development of fascism. He also developed a love for various electronic experimental movements on the fringes of classical music from about the 50s through the 80s, some nostalgia for the old World-Fair style of celebrating technological advances, and was something of a science-fiction fan.
And so it must be painful for him to write the following:
Just as the past has lost its lost-ness through digiculture’s total access, similarly the future…no longer has the charge it once did. …[my read] confirms William Gibson’s take on the young generation: they’re not the least bit interested in the capital “f” Future, barely ever think about it. The urge to escape the here-and-now, the bland suburban everyday, is as strong as ever, but it’s satisfied through fantasy (the tremendous popularity of novels and movies based around magic, vampires, wizardry…) or digital technology.
The web-connected arts-and-ideas-sharing world breathlessly prophesied and promoted by futurists like those at Wired magazine in the 1990s, turned out to…well, make one less excited about the future, and more likely to become caught up in recycle-ment of the past.
It’s even a bit poignant how Reynolds and some of the groups he reports on now have nostalgia for past futurism. He tells us that a group called Kode9 “pinpointed the mood with the title of their 2006 album Memories of the Future,” echoing the title of a J.G. Ballard short-story collection Memories of the Space-Age, and Reynolds himself has a fondness for a very underground spin-off of techno he calls “hauntology,” associated with the Ghost Box label and groups like Belbury Poly, The Advisory Circle, and Focus Group/Broadcast. It is a very calm sound, with occasional efforts to do something trangressive (a couple of these groups seem interested in evoking the occult). It seems on one hand about nostalgia for 1970s-and-earlier electronic music and its confident futurism, and on the other hand the result of a kind of burn-out with the aggressive impulse of 90s techno:
By…the early 2000s I was fully immersed in an obsession with the golden-age of post-WWII electronic music and musique concrete. …the obsession must have had something to do with the way the forward thrust of the contemporary electronic music—the rave scene I’d been so immersed in—was slowing down. The music had pursued various extremes of speed and noise and hit a bunch of brick walls, causing producers and listeners to retreat to slower tempos and pleasanter textures, to the very ideas of musicality and “warmth” that techno once thrillingly stampeded all over.
Reynolds likes the hauntological sound in part because it is more attuned to the challenges of our present “digimodernism,” and especially, to the strange weight our easy access to past recordings puts upon our musical consciousness. But he does not really recommend it as showing the way forward. Indeed, while Retromania as a whole seems to be a call for us to again musically quest for the future, to become ashamed by our increasingly retro proclivities, it offers no vision of that future. Reynolds spotlights no groups as providing the most promising examples of how pop music can move forward.
Back in Songbook #42, I said that it was now apparent that Rock was limited to a number of basic forms:
“…hard-rock, gentled folk rock, electronic-palatte employing art-rock, minimalist punk attack, pop-art mixing of R + B basics with evocative sonic elements, and various other modes of mixtery, which often initially seem breakthroughs to some radically new form but, which somehow prove always wedded to the same ones at the end of the day.”
Now hip-hop and the broader family of disco musics, including the techno ones Reynolds loved, are not rock. But it should be clear from what he said that the techno-scenes, while to some degree led by the simple imperative of “what works on the dance floor with the clubbers,” were more fundamentally about a quest to push into the future by finding the most avant garde sounds imaginable, a quest very ideologically rock-like, and that at a certain point, one that “hit a bunch of brick walls”, limits past which no “extremes of speed and noise” could go lest they get beyond any plausible dance-floor utility or even elemental musicality. And as we saw in the last post, the barrenness of mash-up music shows us that Reynolds feels there is also a limit to how far “sampla-delic” collage-art extremes can go, too.
Next time, we’ll be looking at the various explanatory causes Reynolds and other theorists offer for the present phenomenon of retromaniacal recycle-ment, but we’ll notice that they don’t seriously consider the most obvious explanation: that pop-song only has a limited number of formal possibilities. These can be ornamented, mixed, sped-up or extended out, and otherwise tweaked in myriads of ways, but the number of those ways really is limited. To get more possibilities, you would be forced to go beyond pop-song into the larger “classical” range of fine-arts music, music that requires greater patience of its listeners. You would have to risk being outside what is loved by the young and the partying, and even risk being regarded as elitist.
And the point of fine-arts music having more possibilities is not, after all, to better create the illusion that you are perpetually moving forward, but to strengthen a particular music piece’s functioning for the purposes it means to serve, and, like the language in a Shakespeare play, to provide a hierarchical experience whereby connoisseurs of the music can gain delights and discern messages beyond those heard by the average listener.
But we rockers (and techno-ists), wanting to be both democratic and infinitely progressive, came to have a rather distant relationship with fine-arts music, and have obsessively occupied ourselves with a quest to drive forward using only the 20th-century pop-song elements, usually tearing those elements from their Afro-American roots, and deafened to what we were doing by a) various technological advances in sound production, b) not a few drugs, and c) one ballyhooed “movement” after another.
So Reynolds now feels the presence of the “walls,” but refuses to think through what they are telling him; he more powerfully feels, with growing nausea, the undeniable presence of repetition everywhere on the scene, and hence, his implicit call to move forward, with no more than the slightest notion of where to, and insufficiently troubled by the fact that this is itself a species of repetition, a tired 20th-century gesture that in our day is only likely to generate more movement of a cyclical sort.
So it’s over.
Light is available, however, for those who want more than being haunted by failed 20th-century dreams. The Songbook accepts the fact that Rock (along with its close relations) presently functions as the “folk music” of our middling-democratic sort of folk, and that it has peculiar excellences achieve-able within such parameters; but it tries to do what little it can to encourage a musical analogue to Delsol’s philosophical “re-appropriation of our human condition.” A rejection of “musical futurism,” particularly when sought through pop-song, is at the heart of that; and while I cannot explain why now, such a rejection would likely bring us to a more hierarchical, more genre-respecting, and perhaps even more community-linked cultivation of music, although it would certainly have to leave some space, between the two rejuvenations of the low and the high, for the dogged continuance of that comparatively impoverished soul-music of suburbia created back in those crazy 1960s days.