This is the conclusion of the long series of Songbook posts kicked off by my simple observation that many bands championed as representative of new music, such as Crystal Castles, really aren’t. While many themes have been touched upon, overall, Songbook posts #36-51 have been about 1) explaining contemporary rock’s pattern of recyle-ment, 2) why it is different from the rock n’ roll revivalist stance that first arose in the late 70s and early 80s, and 3) why rock from its mid-60s birth was characterized by pattern of middle-class mixtery that was doomed from the beginning to repetition.
What is more, doing all this resulted in my having to lay out most of the key pieces of my overall theory of what rock is.
Whew! It will be good to get back to the more song-centered Songbook pattern.
My basic task here, however, is to explain why the recyle-ment phenomenon described by Kurt Andersen, and especially by Simon Reynolds in his book Retromania, discussed over the last four posts (Songbook #s 48, 49, 50, and 51), has come about. I confine my discussion to that phenomenon’s occurrence in rock/pop music, despite Andersen’s correct sense that it is also happening in many other fields of artistic endeavor.
In the last post, I examined the four major causes of the phenomenon that those writers gave:
1. Digiculture’s Total Access to the Past
2. Style Democratization
3. Nostalgia as a Defense Mechanism against Rapid Change
I rejected 2 through 4, but did not much discuss the first one, the only one I felt was valid. But here I must add that while I do see the total access as a factor, I do not give it the significance Reynolds does, and see it working more as a matter of degree. After all, the basic pull of past sounds has existed since recording, and even prior to it, standardization of instruments and musical notation allowed reconstruction of many past sounds with some degree of reliability. I admit that the advent of recording has altered our musical consciousness, that to some extent the ever more accessible archive of recorded music exerts a kind of gravitational pull upon it. (Malraux sought to describe something analogous in the visual arts when he wrote in the mid-20th-century of photographic reproduction having created an international “Museum without Walls”) Nor do I deny that young folks today have the capability to be much more aware of the recent musical past than their predecessors had, and a decisively greater ability to sample from past recordings and to rework them.
But the degree to which the total access factor applies is also a matter of inclination. While there have been experiments using tapes and other sampling techniques in classical orchestral music and in jazz, these have by no means caught on with their audiences the way they have with the rock/pop ones. Daniel Lopatin, a member of a “futuristic” group called Oneohtrix Point Never, is quoted by Simon Reynolds as saying that “If music is recessing into some kind of archival period, I don’t think it’s bad, it’s natural.” For rock/pop music, it is plausible to say such a period may have dawned; but this pattern just isn’t occurring, or at least not in the same overt way, in classical, jazz, country, etc.
Note also that the musical elements being most recycled in our day largely come from the 1966-1993 window of rock/pop. Ingredient-forays into the recordings or styles of the 20s through early-60s occur more rarely. And while today there is unprecedented access, as far as scores and recordings go, to mediaeval chant, to baroque harpsichord compositions, to Thai folk music, etc., etc., etc., we for some reason learn of almost no groups who drop out of the rock/pop orbit to fully absorb the lessons of any of these music styles.
If digiculture’s granting of Total Access is the decisive factor, so that it works as some external force upon rock/pop, we are at a loss to explain why it hasn’t impacted all genres of music, nor encouraged recycle-ment of them, equally. It seems that factors more internal to rock are doing more of the work.
Here then, in my view, are the three main causes of rock’s recycle-ment: A) musical limits colliding with futurist expectations, B) the freedom-seeking character of the democratic soul, and C) the musical impoverishment characteristic of middling-democratic society.
A) Musical limits colliding with futurist expectations.
A1: The pop-song form has definite limits.
A2: Modern intellectual classes, getting caught-up in 20th-century historicist hope, impressed by remarkable breakthroughs in Afro-American music and recording/amplification technology, and charged by the initial novelty of certain mid-60s musical experiments, lost sight of this, and placed a great deal of expectation on rock’s advancement of the pop form.
A3: Continual efforts to break out into something new reaped diminishing returns, and resulted in ever more finely-wrought recyle-ment and mixture of the existing possibilities.
B) Recyle-ment within rock/pop musical forms is an apt expression of the now fully-modern democratic soul, one characterized by freedom-seeking yet cyclical movement.
Chantal Delsol, Alexis de Tocqueville, and especially old Plato provide the keys for understanding this. Here I elaborate a bit, but you can skip down to the third cause, C), if you want to cut to the chase.
There is a strong parallel between the soul said (Republic 558c-561e) to flit from desire to desire, lifestyle to lifestyle, always seeking out freedom and change, perpetually wanting to progress or rebel, and yet, having to do this within a set field of diversity, and a rock/pop scene characterized, as Reynolds has said, by “a restless shuttling back and forth within a grid-space of influences and sources, striving frenetically to locate exit routes to the beyond.”
The extent to which rock fans are complacent about musical recycle-ment or don’t even notice it, likely reflects that fact that full democratic modernity, which regularizes key features of the 60s Counter-culture and Sexual Revolution, has been consolidated. The democratic soul described and predicted by Republic book VIII is now here, unfettered; it lives in our breasts and has its own muse. Officially, it is supposed to be a wild muse, multi-coloured and free. But particularly amid the indie-rock set, there is recognition of a conformist regularity that emerges from the kaleidoscopic turns, by which we all become Bohemian Like You and …wear the same clothes, ‘cause we feel the same. Full modernity, experienced as a sort of confinement.
So yes, in some rock folks like Reynolds, the democratic soul’s aspect of restlessness and rebellion-seeking cannot but become discontented with musical recyle-ment, or more profoundly, as in the Radiohead lyric how come I end up where I started?, with the way of life it parallels. But another aspect of the democratic soul is quite welcoming of this cyclical stability as necessary to keep the pleasures and apparent novelties coming, and as worth celebrating in its own right as an encompassment of human possibility. In her Unlearned Lessons of the 20th Century, Delsol says,
…our era is characterized by a personality who prefers liberty to determinateness, which inevitably closes doors. I can become anything if say that I am nothing definite. …Indeterminateness consists in the desire to explore, to refrain from making choices…[It] provides a great euphoria, an illusion of plurality and perfection.
In such a spirit, there are many rock fans who, in contrast to Reynolds’s hatred of recyle-ment, say that that’s just the way it goes, that that’s just who we are. There was some rock writer, I forget the name, who approvingly noted that grunge basically was the moment when the alternative set accepted the inevitability of repetition—they would return to the hard-rock groove and vibe of the 70s(albeit with post-punk angst/attitude added), that is, to what punk/alternative had so dramatically revolted against in the first place. To the charge that this was retrograde, was not moving forward, the response became: so?
One of the things my Songbook has been up to is trying to flesh out and critically understand is that vague that’s just the way it goes sentiment one increasingly finds in rock. Of course, the possibility of attempting to understand it in a more celebratory mode certainly exists. Among us could come a new Walt Whitman or David Bowie who would more thoroughly celebrate our inner cyclical variegation and its mirroring in musical recycle-ment, who could tell the likes of Simon Reynolds to calm down, that the 20th-century had its exciting illusions of advancement that we now have to bid adieu to. He/she would certainly not say such a recognition requires rejecting the extensive menu of styles initially tried out in the name of advancement; rather, his/her point would be that recycle-ment of this menu can and should be embraced perpetually, as this embodies Freedom. So our new Champion of the Democratic could argue. As I wrote here, it could be that “faith in the story of Progress might in our 21st-century time become replaced by devotion to the archetype of the individual’s indeterminate Freedom.”
Rock could become a vehicle for that, if the restless desire to break out of our cycles, a desire represented by Reynolds’s book and Radiohead’s lyric, can ever be gotten past. That seems impossible, but one notices that the very futurist longings that Reynolds champions can only reinforce pattern of hyperstasis if I am correct about the limits of the pop-song form(see A). The quest for the forward only results in more of the cyclical. My judgment is that unless one is prepared to reject the dogmas/habits of the Democratic Soul outright, which in our day necessarily entails, among other things, hearty (and personal) push-back against the Sexual Revolution, one will wind up captive to its cyclical pattern, either in its restless or complacent mode.
For evidence that at least some rock artists are coming to sense this, and to see why I keep referring to that Radiohead lyric, one might consult the amazing essay our James Poulos wrote about that band here.
C) the durability of the various rock and mixtery-disco genres also reflects a musical impoverishment that’s become characteristic of middling-democratic society.
The resources and training of folk traditions on one hand, and of formal music education on the other, are less available, and more costly to obtain than the resources and training required by the digital mixtery-wizard or rock band. Relatedly, whereas the big economics question for pop-music in the late 40s was, “Why are the big bands no longer sustainable?”, today, it’s “Why are we seeing so many–White Stripes, She & Him, Phantogram, Crystal Castles, Beach House, Tomorrow’s Tulips, etc.– duos?”
If I’m momentarily speaking in a more socio-economic mode, hopefully the Songbook overall has conveyed why the socio-cultural has been at least as important, especially in getting us to the place where rock and mixtery-disco have become all that we middling-democratic folk can do. The four-piece is out in the Garage; the genius techno-mixer is In His Room. Better than nothing, but impoverishment nonetheless.
These three causes, along with the Digiculture’s Total Access, together explain the present phenomenon in our rock-linked pop music variously described as “retromania,” “recyle-ment,” or “hyperstasis.” Obviously, I hold that B is the most fundamental cause, and the one to begin from if one wants, like Kurt Anderson, to explain the larger cultural Cul-de-sac that many of our other arts seem stuck in as well.
I ended the first post in this series, the one on Crystal Castles, with the following statement, the meaning of which should now be quite a bit clearer:
“…a kind of Retromania and Perpetual Repetition is upon us, and has been for some time; but 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.”