In 2013, Our Obsession With the Musical Past Made More Sense Than Ever
Halfway through the year, while editing this paper's music section, I began to notice that we were using an awful lot of apostrophes. They usually appeared in a reference to some decade -- "'70s," "'80s," or "'90s" -- and those decades were being used not as actual dates, but adjectives. Time periods were serving as shorthand for particular qualities of new music -- qualities we apparently found reason to invoke again and again, usually approvingly.
It's not just us doing this. An obsession with the musical past has been in full swing for years now. The British critic Simon Reynolds argued in a 2011 book that our pop culture, music especially, now looks backward more than forward. That felt truer than ever this year, whether looking at the vast spectrum of music represented by the Bay Area's disparate scenes, or the national pop landscape. Acts, whether they play rock, dance, or increasingly hip-hop, are now defined by the particular slice of the past they evoke. Staying relevant means finding new corners of the past to steal from:
This fall, Arcade Fire reinvented itself as a product of downtown Manhattan in the early '80s. San Franciscans Thee Oh Sees once owed a heavy debt to '60s psychedelic garage, but their new stuff looks back to the German Komische bands of the mid-'70s. Countless dance acts we covered sought to evoke the vibes of '80s Chicago, a time and place that saw a huge resurgence in popularity, even as contemporary Berlin and L.A. (and S.F.) host some of the most fertile dance-music scenes in history.
The past reappeared again and again. A new David Bowie album, complete with history-referencing album art. An Iggy and the Stooges tour. A Flamin Groovies reunion. A Comets on Fire reunion. A Black Sabbath reunion. A Daft Punk album that sought to mimic, right down to its choice of producer, the indulgent products of a bygone era of pop. Coming next year: an Outkast reunion, and who knows what else.
The question is why, at this moment, is the past so enticing? Is it because it's suddenly so available for us to review, in places like the bottomless archive of YouTube? Is it because, as Reynolds argues, the past is now so present that we can't escape it?
Maybe it's something else. Never since the birth of the recorded pop music industry have things been as uncertain and bleak as they are now. Album sales are at historic lows. Streaming is replacing downloading, and while more people than ever are listening to music, most of them aren't paying for it. The major labels still try to launch blockbuster albums, but whether it's Jay-Z or Lady Gaga, they usually disappoint. Mid-level musicians have seen one revenue stream after another disappear, leaving them with endless touring and/or licensing music to commercial interests, neither of which is very attractive long-term. The entire industry is waylaid with a fear of the future that seems entirely justified.
And it's not just musicians who are frightened. We're at an apprehensive moment as a country -- about our jobs, our lives, our impending adulthood (or middle age, or retirement), our ability to remain in the cities we thought we wanted to live in forever. Next to a future that offers lots of anxiety and little reassurance, the past, and its music, feels comforting. At other times in history, we've looked to music to propel us forward, to push us out of dark years from which we'd just emerged. But now it's our present, or our immediate future, that we're seeking escape from. So is it really a surprise that in 2013, when our government is spying on us, when our friends are leaving town, when our careers are more tenuous than ever, that we look to music, new or old, that conjures a more known, comforting, carefree past, and think: Yeah, that sounds good?