Nostalgia can be a corrosive force in pop music, an art form where the pull of the present (and of the future) is all-powerful. Nowhere is this more obvious than in ‘The Big Reunion’, the ITV reality series where a gaggle of lower-level pop acts from the 90s and 00s are paraded before the cameras to display the various ways in which minor pop stardom damaged them. The hook for this is, of course, their handful of hit singles – songs which remind viewers of a certain age of more carefree times spent drinking the day away at the student union. And so we have an accompanying live show where these 30-somethings can pay to relive one of these days – if you pay the cheapest ticket price and squint at the stage, you could conceivably even convince yourself that the people on stage are their younger versions. Nostalgia is the sole reason for the show and the concerts existing – you don’t need to watch to know that the acts will be wheeled out to perform their two or three hits and then swiftly despatched. There’s no room for a creative spark here. Once, this kind of thing was relegated to ironic celebrations at student bars and faintly embarrassing gay clubs – in our age of (to paraphrase Coupland) an irony which scorches everything it touches, it is prime time tv and arena fare.
It betrays a cheap attitude towards pop music which gleefully masquerades as a down-to-earth progressiveness: “I don’t take myself too seriously, this is just a laugh!” Yet surely anyone who truly loved the pop songs these acts were part of and the times they now represent would baulk at their tawdry debasement in the name of exploitative reality tv? A debasement which has nothing to do with the transformative wonder of pop music and everything to do with an appeal to our basest instincts. There is no respect present, no sense of pop as an art form. It’s an approach which is currently pervasive yet to question it is to be seen as narrow-minded: witness the latest trite sneering at Jake Buggs’ dismissal of One Direction as ‘rubbish’ and contrast with the simpering gratitude afforded to The Vaccines’ for deigning to write songs for an act we all quietly seem to think should be beneath them. Music journalists wheel out the old “they’re not aimed at you” defence, a flimsy response which quickly falls apart – from The Rolling Stones to Prince to Rihanna, our biggest and best pop acts have always won the affections of millions of ‘kids’. Furthermore, terrible taste in music is clearly not the sole preserve of girls in thrall to their hormones. No, the ‘it’s not aimed at you’ argument (always wheeled out by music critics who are long past their teens) is a patronising conceit which reveals an underlying contempt for the pop acts involved – they’re fine for them lot, they don’t need to concern us grown-ups! Indeed, the same people who wheel out this argument invariably always think it’s a badge of pride that they say nice things about these acts, safe in the knowledge that we all secretly understand that they don’t actually sit at home listening to them.
No, pop deserves to be taken seriously, to be freed from the poisonous post-modernist mockery which sees it as all a bit tragic, really. I was actually inspired to write this because of a very different kind of pop landmark: while The Big Reunion presents a bunch of acts which (it is presumed) we will find amusing for actually being a little bit rubbish it’s notable that in 1998, the same year that 5ive, B*Witched and Honeyz released their debut albums, Madonna released Ray of Light (on March 3rd.) Few albums better sum up the majesty of ambitious, sincere pop and it’s an album which no-one sneers at. No-one proudly trumpets their liking for it as some emblem of their promiscuous taste. I’ve written before about how Madonna is one of those pop stars who is the antithesis of the trenchant nostalgia and cheap populism which so pervades attitudes to pop music: she refuses to be the Madonna that people want her to be, refuses to be a cipher for the youthful memories of others. As I wrote at the time, “we want them to stop growing up so that we don’t have to either” – an apt summary of tripe like The Big Reunion. Ray of Light remains a dazzling example of pop music at its best so, if we want to spend a moment reminiscing over 1998, let’s do it with a record which to this day commands respect rather than invites laughter. Then we can marvel at the ways in which pop transforms us, amazes us and keeps pushing us on rather than wallow in ersatz affection for our dying teenage years.