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.

 

The Big Reunion and Ray of Light

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.