Nostalgia and Futurology

pride

Modern pop music came to prominence at the same time as the invention and rise of the teenager, a concept (and grouping) with which it has had a long, sweaty symbiosis. While pop may be at least 70 years old, it still carries associations with, and connotations of, youth and modernity. Yet while the dawn of the teenager is inextricably linked to guitar-based rock and roll music, the past 20-odd years has seen the rise of poptimism, which seeks to paint guitar-based ‘rock’ as conservative and backwards against the futuristic-leanings of a self-consciously ‘artificial’ dance-oriented chart pop. I’ve always found this attempted delineation to be weak and messy, a position which I feel has been vindicated the more dominant poptimism has become in the media. Shows like The Big Reunion and acts like One Direction (one of whose biggest hits was widely viewed as being an…homage…to The Who) have shown that conservatism and nostalgia are by no means solely confined to rock music.

The sway of poptimism is such, however, that the latter examples aren’t seen as retrospective. The Big Reunion may explictly involve reforming pop acts who were briefly popular in the 90s but, when placed against the mythical bogeyman of conservative rock, it’s viewed as an open-minded celebration. One Direction may make derivative music but their talent show origins, their youth and their appeal to young girls conspire to present them as exciting and modern. Nostalgia, then, is elided to the point where it becomes meaningless: little more than a tool to bash already-disliked acts with rather than any considered and/or sincere aversion to conservatism. It is enough to be heard as loudly opposed to conservatism, no matter how incoherent this may be upon examination. What matters is perception.

This warping of ‘nostalgia’ from meaning a sentimental yearning for ‘the good old days’ to a largely-empty signifier to be deployed against acceptable targets has permeated music criticism. You can view it in how acts like Prince and David Bowie were warmly welcomed when they stopped messing about (trying new things) and instead delivered albums which played to their archetypal images. Again, this was very clearly playing to nostalgia but in aligning themselves with audience expectations they opened a space for fluid, unforced perceptions. We don’t want to be seen to be conservative but we also don’t like it when acts make things hard for us by not being what we want them to  be; so, when they oblige us in the latter, we tell ourselves that they have ‘returned to form’ rather than ‘allowed us to love our own idea of them again’. It’s noticeable that this rationalisation is very rarely wheeled out for acts who haven’t deviated from who we want them to be – acts who conversely can end up as whipping posts for faux anti-conservatism because there has been no disruption there, nothing for them to return to us from.

The genius of Bowie’s The Next Day, one I still don’t think is widely appreciated, is how it completely understood this state of affairs and made it integral to the album and its campaign. The actual music wasn’t particularly different from Bowie’s previous few albums and I’ve no doubt that had it been released a decade previous, it would have quickly faded from view. Yet there was the ten year disruption and it was this Bowie made use of. It wasn’t just nostalgia presented as modernity – it artfully used the listener’s expectations to make it the first post-nostalgic album.

Manics_Futurology_Art_600This brings me to Futurology, the new Manic Street Preachers album which is providing them with the best reviews they’ve had in almost 20 years. It’s a very good album but I find it curious that most of these reviews have been focusing on the band’s ‘reinvention’, their ability to take the ostentatious trappings of Krautrock, Berlin-era Bowie and early-Simple Minds and craft their own ‘masterpiece‘ from the ruins. I find it curious because despite all the advance word, Futurology isn’t a musical reinvention at all – there’s almost nothing on there that a Manics fan won’t have heard from them before. In fact, from the moment the melodic opening title track riff recalls the band’s commercial peak through the post-punk blast of Sex, Power, Love and Money, the Know Your Enemy-jangle of The Next Jet to Leave Moscow and the energised Lifeblood-sheen of Walk Me To The Bridge, it’s a record which feels steeped in the Manics’ history. The same is true lyrically – the latter song’s clear references to Richey (despite the band’s denials) have already been noted while TNJTLM finds them renouncing their Know Your Enemy jaunt to Cuba (everything must go, indeed!). Let’s Go To War, meanwhile, is presented as the final part of a newly-formulated trilogy and its line ‘don’t forget we love you still’ harks back to both previous instalments (You Love Us/Masses Against the Classes). There are also, as noted in The Quietus review, several nods to particular aspects of working-class Welsh history threaded throughout the album.

It’s been noted that Futurology is the sister album of last year’s Rewind The Film. Less noted is the clear contrast in the album titles – the past and the future, or rather an idea of the future. The title track of RTW was an ode to the comfort of nostalgia: “rewind the film once more/turn back the pages of my post/rewind the film once more/I want the world to see it all.” The video for this and that album’s other two singles formed a short film about working-class Wales and the impact of the Miners’ Strike. The mood of Rewind The Film meant that critics easily identified its obsession with the past, with nostalgia. It also had a sense of anxiety for an unknown future which seemed certain to be warped and alien, irrevocably broken from the comforting myths of the past.

The aesthetic and publicity of Futurology seems to have blinded many to the fact that it’s a continuation of these themes – and one which draws far more heavily on the Manics’ musical past. In its way, then, it also understands and plays with this post-nostalgia age. It offers a frictionless return to previous highs, mixing nods to a more aggressive and radical past with a distancing from (and sometimes apologising for) it (this distancing has been crucial to the Manics’ success with a particular kind of critic, who could never have stomached their early belligerence without that gap). It offers nostalgia under the guise of modernity, drawing on the past to present a comforting, easily-digestible image of a future. “We’ll come back one day… we never really went away. ” This is Futurology.

 

A few hours after writing this I read Caroline Sullivan’s review in The Guardian. She calls it the ‘comeback of the year’ which, in a year where we’ve seen the return of David Bowie and Daft Punk, is hyperbole and then some. Still, having not paid attention to BG in years I was surprised by how right it feels to have him releasing music again.

Boy George – This Is What I Do

loved Teenage Dream, to the degree that I actually went to see Part of Me in the cinema (it was a 20 minute dvd extra stretched to feature length). Hopes were high for Prism and in my head I’d already planned a pre-emptively defensive piece on why Perry is a great pop star. Then I actually heard the album and it ruined everything – it’s just not that great and feels driven by marketing concerns more than anything else. Someone has pointed out in the comments that I mistakenly called International Smile, ‘International Lover’…but that’s because the former is so bland that after listening to it about 12 times I think I was subconsciously craving the Princely magic of the latter. Back in the day I loved Britney Spears and now I think she’s one of the worst pop stars in history; I had a similar trajectory with Rihanna; now I’m fearful Perry is heading the same way. I think there’s a lot in there regarding modern pop and commerce, touched on in the review…but that’s for another time.

Katy Perry – Prism

Leonard Cohen

I came to Leonard Cohen very late. For many years, he was the gruff-sounding bloke who had two songs on the ‘Natural Born Killers’ soundtrack. Then in 1999, Tori Amos put a cover of the heavenly ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ on the b-side of her ‘Glory of the 80s’ single. This deeply moving song led me to investigate Cohen a little more. I discovered that he’d written Jeff Buckley’s transcendent ‘Hallelujah’; that his song ‘Suzanne’ had inspired R.E.M.’s ‘Hope’ on 1998’s ‘Up’ album; that he was exalted by artists from U2 and R.E.M. to kd Lang and Rufus Wainwright. My interest piqued, I listened to him properly for the first time.

I still wasn’t a massive fan, however. I was only half-listening, really, wanting to hear what these others heard in him rather than approaching him wide open to his charms. So in 2008 when it was announced that he would be playing London’s O2, I was rather bemused. Surely these intense, enormously literate folk songs wouldn’t translate to the arena where I had seen Madonna, Rihanna, Kylie Minogue?! I didn’t go and I thought little more of it.

It was the release the year after of the ‘Live in London’ album, recorded at the O2, which changed everything. This was one of those albums that could change your life. Cohen was funny, engaging, genial and seemed to possess a wisdom which came directly from some long-obscured and forgotten source. More importantly, something clicked and the songs burst into technicolour life for me – I got it and felt foolish that I ever hadn’t. The big secret? Cohen has a reputation as a miserablist, a gloomy troubadour who surrounds himself in darkness. It’s an easily understood misunderstanding – that voice repels many casual listeners from the off – but it is certainly wrong. Instead, Cohen is one of the most funny, most magnetic and most humane songwriters I have ever encountered. That latter point is perhaps the key one – Cohen has such a tender understanding of the human condition that it frequently proves disarming, bringing me to the point of tears. His genius is in showing us our flaws, inspiring us to reach for ideals that seem just out of reach, yet never seeming superior or hectoring. Instead you get the sense that he’s learning too and just has the humble grace to want to share some of what he knows.

So, when he announced a date in Kent this year, I had little hesitation in buying tickets. There are few artists who could cause me to part with £200 and endeavour to travel to Kent and back for an outdoor gig in September. As it happens, at the last minute the gig was moved to Wembley Arena – far more convenient for me, yet post-gig I can’t help think that sitting beneath the stars at Hop Farm watching Leonard would have been a truly once in a lifetime experience. A minor quibble, however, because last night’s gig was undoubtedly one of the best I have ever witnessed. Cohen was everything I expected, everything I hoped for. You could tell that some in the audience were angry about the late venue change – Cohen addressed them after the first song, apologising and referring to ‘invisible hands of commerce’ which he never got to ‘shake or crush’. Instantly, you could feel the atmosphere change – all the anger disappeared as 12,000 people fell in love with the 77 year old on stage.

Watching Cohen made the modern obsession with mocking ‘authenticity’ seem infinitely mean-spirited and short-sighted. Here was a man who clearly approached his craft as high art, giving himself entirely to its calling with a refreshing and seductive humility and self-deprecation.  At one point he praised his backing singers (a phrase which seems almost insulting, such was their brilliance and centrality to the show), begging them to never leave as without them, ‘no-one would come to see my show’. The musicians on stage all clearly had a profound respect for one another, a spark amongst them which frequently ignited into a dazzling flame. So often I felt that I was witnessing true brilliance, a transcendental magic which made me feel privileged to even be in the same room.

The setlist was nigh-on perfect – a couple of favourites were missing, but there was not one song that I would have lost in their favour. How could you question a 3 and a half hour long set from a man approaching 80, displaying a playful energy which sometimes surprised in its bursts? I also fell madly in love with The Webb Sisters and Sharon Robinson, ethereal voices and artists generously given many changes to shine.

The video above sums the evening up very well – the warmth of spirit, the rapturous communal air. Cohen took us all somewhere else; somewhere where we are better. “This makes it all worth it”, he said at one point, directed to The Webb Sisters and Sharon Robinson as their beatific harmonies transformed a simple ‘da doo doo doo’ into a moment of towering elegance. That’s exactly how I felt as I left Wembley Arena. Artists like Cohen (a strange sentiment for someone so peerless) make everything all right.