Nostalgia and Futurology

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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.

 

Work Bitch

I find Britney Spears endlessly fascinating. Not musically, of course – I rarely listen to her these days – but for what she represents in modern pop (and attitudes towards it). When she was added to the panel of American X Factor I wrote about what a perfect fit it was, both pushing a “dead-eyed idea of pop as something which, at its best, sells.” On Britney herself, I wrote that:

Britney as a brand & persona long ago eclipsed Britney as a person. It’s almost irrelevant to ponder Britney as an artist because she is the ultimate blank canvas, reflecting everything and nothing, at once devoid of personality and containing everyone’s personalities. She may still put out albums but really, at this stage, no-one would bat an eyelid if she was used to advertise hedge funds.

Now this doesn’t mean that Britney can’t be involved in great pop. The brilliance of Blackout was (and remains) that it got the point (or more apropos, the lack of one) of Britney:

In that regard Blackout is also a concept album – one about modern fame and modern pop music. Its power rests almost entirely on the persona of ‘Britney Spears’, not the person. The associations of that persona feed into the music and lend it an uncomfortable power – we know that as a person she is damaged and unhappy, yet as a popstar she is all-consuming. This subverts a dominant notion in modern pop – namely that the context is irrelevant and all that matters is whether a song is any good or not. We are under no illusion that Britney Spears had anything to do with most of this record – but the album confronts that head on and makes it into a dazzling virtue. As with Erotica, there is nothing seductive about Blackout – instead its pleasures lie in the confounding of expectations and the contorting of Britney’s image. “You think Britney and her music are manufactured? Fuck you. How about this?”

Post-Blackout, of course, there’s been a long attempt at normalising Britney’s image once more. X Factor was the apex of this, sending Britney into people’s homes every week in an acknowledgement that personality (the appearance of being ‘approachable’ and ‘down to earth’) is what really matters in modern pop. In truth, she didn’t come across as any less dead-eyed and lost. The crucial thing, however, is that she wasn’t unavoidably absurd. She remained inoffensive and blank – as such, people could keep on projecting whatever they wanted onto her. In a sense it’s the same projection which David Bowie used to such great effect on The Next Day, albeit inverted. Bowie had fun with it, documenting in a very real sense his ‘fall’ from mythical vacuum to a real, functioning artist again. He stamped his authority onto the void which he had become in the same way that Blackout did for Britney. Since then, however, Britney and everyone around her (you really don’t get the sense she cares much about any of this) have done their best to avoid it and pretend it’s business as usual (with the odd crack in the facade). So we had Femme Fatale, an album which sounded thoroughly modern and overwhelmingly anodyne – whatever the quality of the songs, they could have been anyone for the most part. By this stage, however, that’s more than enough. No-one expects much of Britney other than to leave them be to project whatever they like onto her. In this process rather generic material is elevated as it acts as a reservoir for the listeners, who feel that in Britney’s blankness they recognise the ultimate ‘pop personality’. How could they not think this – they’re really only recognising themselves.

‘Work Bitch’ is business as usual. It really is Scream and Shout part 2, from the generic EDM beats to the faux-British accent and it could easily be one of those one-hit wonder dance tracks which feature anonymous women both singing and being objectified to comedic levels in the video. It’s one stamp of personality comes from its appropriation of the language of (black) drag culture, reflecting the same appropriation by Western white gay men who exchange lines from Ru Paul’s Drag Race in facile approximation of an ‘edgier’ identity. For her part, Britney keeps out of the way: as with S&S there is literally nothing about the song which is unique to her aside from the appeal to her mythology (S&S very deliberately so, with the ‘Britney bitch!’ line) which these days is synonymous with her blankness. Here, we’re long past any notion of pop as something which can be sublime and cathartic; instead it’s something functional which makes no demands and serves primarily to validate the listener. Perhaps in that frame of reference this is a brilliant Britney Spears single. Unfortunately, a brilliant Britney Spears single in 2013 is one which displays little more than contempt for pop music as an art form which can contain its own character and integrity, rather than subsuming itself in the listener’s ego.

The Narrative Behind Bowie’s The Next Day

For some reason I knew since seeing the video for The Stars (Are Out Tonight) that the album’s third promo would be for The Next Day and it would feature Bowie singing the song behind a microphone. It seems like the final destruction of the ‘Bowie is dying’ myth which they’ve been having so much fun with – albeit with an exit which will only invite further speculation.

Where Are We Now? – Bowie the mythic figure, dying in the shadows, more ethereal than corporeal.

TS(AOT) – The big reveal. Bowie is alive and well yet haunted, tormented even, by his past. stalked by his legend.

This – the normalisation. Bowie performs. He hams it up. The curtain is pulled back. The deity figure is snuffed out at the end.

‘Religion is corrupt’ is a rather tired trope these days but it does its job in fuelling the Bowie speculation market. The Decameron ‘title’ on the door at the beginning is a nice touch. From wiki:

Decameron combines two Greek words, Greek:δέκαdéka (“ten”) and Greekἡμέραhēméra (“day”), to form a term that means “ten-day [event]”

That obviously feeds into both the album title and Bowie’s 10-year absence – and the bell tolls ten times. Certainly there is some behind-the-scenes activity in the Bowie camp which suggests something more than just another single release is afoot in the near future.

The video is worthy for this alone:


However it squanders the best moment of the song and one of my favourite Bowie moments ever – the opening line of the second verse, “Ignoring the pain of their particular diseases”. It is ridiculously satisfying to sing along to. You really should try it.

16th July – And now we have the video for Valentine’s Day:

After the deity vanished at the end of The Next Day we have a Bowie who is very much the man who fell to earth. He’s dressed simply – ‘normally’, even – and it’s the first straightforward performance video of the era. Its subtleties rely not on Bowie’s legend but on clever touches which reference the song – the guitars which resemble guns, the flashes of the titular Valentine aggressively storming around while wielding a weapon and a brief flash of a bullet:

It comes in the week Bowie apparently promised ‘more music soon’ in an e-mail to some BowieNet users. He’s had his fun being meta-Bowie – now it’s back to business.

31st October:

A new – and presumably final – video from the re-release of The Next Day and more loaded symbolism. References to Bowie’s past abound, from the bathroom rituals of of Thursday’s Child:

to what are, presumably, red shoes put on in order to dance the blues:

The references to Ashes to Ashes/Scary Monsters and the Thin White Duke are obvious – what’s notable is that they are puppets and projections. As the era of The Next Day began with Bowie as a spectral presence, projected onto comically small figures, it comes full circle with the curtain being pulled back on some of his iconic creations. The background may change but Bowie the artist brings them to life as puppet master and voice and here, he alerts us that the Bowie of this era was another facade. The ‘real’ Bowie watches from the side and LOST in the shadows, obscured by his famous past and obsessively washing his hands, both attempting to ‘stay clean’ (the Thin White Duke being perhaps his most drug-associated creation) and cleanse his persona. This shot:

depicts the Thin White Duke cradling a blank-faced Pierrot and recalls the cover of Hours:

With that album cover Bowie was signalling the death of his ‘difficult’ early 90s modernism and a return to his past; here it almost seems like the victims of his eternal suicides are comforting one another. His past is littered with corpses. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?! 

Yet they never truly die – the face just moves on to a new host. Bowie washes obsessively yet, like Lady Macbeth, he cannot remove the blood. The tap remains on at the end and Bowie has vanished: even with attempted erasure he can never be free of himself. Yet the water still flows – another corpse falls to the ground and he’s not done yet.

The Next Day Review

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Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire. – St. Catherine of Siena

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Ten years ago David Bowie seemed to be in the middle of the graceful managed decline which we’ve come to expect from our music legends, putting out tasteful albums which, while critically acclaimed, were seen as inferior to his best work. He’d regained much goodwill by ditching the wilful experimentation of 1.Outside and Earthling and instead putting out albums which sounded like what you might imagine an archetypal Bowie album in the 00s to sound like; throw in post-9/11 reflections on mortality and ageing and it was critical catnip. He toured regularly and had overcome his reticence to play the hits, making his shows celebratory, nostalgiac affairs rather than the difficult and strange atmosphere which hung over much of his 90s appearances. Bowie was even playing along with the idea that his best was behind him, pondering how he “used to wake up the ocean” and “used to walk on clouds” on Afraid. He was making it very easy to like him yet there was little wider interest – after the flurry of interest which greeted Heathen (seen as a PROPER BOWIE ALBUM) people moved on – none of Reality’s singles troubled the charts and it spent only 4 weeks on the album chart.

And then he disappeared.

Whatever the reasons for his decade of near-silence, it wouldn’t be reaching to say that it’s probably the greatest thing that could have happened to Bowie’s career. By removing himself and leaving behind what seemed to be a solidified and settled body of work, he became a mythic version of himself – “David Bowie” was an abstract idea more than a person. People could love the Bowie in their head without the man himself popping up to ruin their pre-conceptions with some pesky new material. The longer the silence went on, the larger the myth grew. The advent of the Facebook and Twitter age brought with it a new breed of pop star who was expected to be ‘approachable’ and ‘down to earth’, tweeting their daily activities and instagramming themselves in their cars. And so Bowie’s myth grew even larger: the man who had so often portrayed himself as alien truly seemed to belong to another dimension. Dark whispers circulated that the man himself was dying, his particular terminal illness varying depending on who was presenting it as a fact. As we entered 2013 it seemed unthinkable that it would not just be another year of silence from Bowie the man while some unobtrusive reissues would further stoke Bowie as legend.

The hysteria which greeted Where Are We Now?, then, is completely understandable.  And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. It seemed like an ancient legend had deigned to grace us with their presence once more. WAWN’s genius is clear in retrospect: it plays like a release from the abstract Bowie rather than the corporeal one. The man is barely present in the video; he sounds frail and old and sings of memory and death. It ties in completely with the idea of Bowie which has taken hold in the past decade and, in doing so, it doesn’t disrupt people’s affectionate conceptions of him. This is its towering achievement. Make no mistake, as strong a song as WAWN is there can surely be little doubt that, had it been released in 2004, it would have quickly faded from the public consciousness and never would have charted in the top ten. Yet in being his first release since he became a myth it had a lot of pressure on it – it could easily have been the catalyst for Bowie’s fall to earth. Perhaps if he’d returned with some 1.Outside-esque experimentation, it would have been. Instead Bowie, ever astute, makes it easy for us to love him again.

His appearance in the video for The Stars (Are Out Tonight) is when it all slotted into place: that odd, self-referential album cover, Where Are We Now?, the Berlin imagery, Bowie’s spectral presence and refusal to promote The Next Day with interviews or appearances. He knows exactly what he has become and he’s having enormous fun with it while being careful not to damage the cachet it affords him. Nothing on The Next Day is obtuse – even album closer Heat, the latest result of Bowie’s long obsession with The Electrician, is aesthetically graceful rather than difficult. The opening title track may be about a medieval tyrant but it positively bounds out of the speakers, eager to please. Many reviewers have rightly noted the chorus’ cheeky and amusing opening line of “Here I am/not quite dying!” but few have noted that it’s followed by “my body left to rot in a hollow tree”. Could he be making his intention to nurture his own myth, to feed into Bowie the abstract, any clearer? Heck, even his picking up of a tawdry celebrity gossip magazine in the video for TS(AOT) and Tilda’s subsequent binning of it now seems like a glaringly obvious pointer.

To this end the album is full of nods to his own past – with that cover, how could it not be? The sound of the album generally recalls the work he did with Iggy Pop on The Idiot and Lust for Life – both released, of course, in the same year as “Heroes” (1977). That title track invokes the spirit of Beauty and the Beast but within seconds of the second track, Dirty Boys, it’s clear that it’s not only that year in Berlin which is being used here as it deploys the famous riff from Fame. Valentine’s Day is a charmingly melodic number which, with its 50s influences, bears comparison to Drive-In Saturday while The Stars (Are Out Tonight) features a rumbling sax which nods towards Absolute Beginners. You Feel So Lonely You Could Die, meanwhile, could pretty much be called I WAS ZIGGY STARDUST YOU KNOW such is its obvious intent to rewrite Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (it even ends with the drumbeat intro to Five Years).

Obviously The Next Day’s playful attempt at being a meta-Bowie album could have been a disaster if the songs weren’t up to much – fortunately that’s rarely a concern. While at 15 tracks it could certainly afford to lose a couple of tracks (Boss of Me and Dancing Out in Space feel functional rather than thrilling) it’s an electrifying listen. Even amongst all the references to his own mighty past, a song like If You Can See Me sounds daring and stirring. The crux of the album seems to be (You Will) Set The World On Fire, surely a reference to the famous St. Catherine of Siena quote above – Bowie understands that if he plays along with us at being the archetypal David Bowie, the world is his. This is the spine-tingling brilliance of The Next Day which manages the almost-impossible feat of being new and engaging without disturbing the myriad of different notions people have of Bowie. Where he goes next is impossible to predict – maintaining this artifice seems impractical. Indeed, it’s surely telling that the album ends not with the self-consciously epic You Feel So Lonely You Could Die but with Heat, where Bowie mournfully muses “I tell myself I don’t know who I am” and sings of a prison. It’s a glimpse of the other side of the abstract Bowie, a conceit which does not allow for works like Earthling and he’s clearly all too aware of that. For now, however, we can allow ourselves to be bewitched and thrill at the day we had allowed ourselves to believe would never  come: David Bowie is back.

08-03-13 EDIT:
Today this advert for TND appeared in the press – I think it’s fair to say that it reflects a lot of what I wrote above:

tnd_guardian_ad_8march13

The Stars (Are Out Tonight)

This Bowie era has been simply perfect so far, hasn’t it? It now seems certain that Bowie was mischievously toying with our preconceptions with Where Are We Now?, his frail vocals and fleeting, spectral appearance in the video further fueling the ‘is he ill?’ whispers. Whispers so strong that for the first 80 seconds of this new video I was convinced that we were getting something akin to that wondrous Soulwax tribute to Bowie, where actors and models stand in for the man himself in a kaleidoscopic homage to his history:

But then – Bowie speaks! And it’s him and he’s smiling. The way the camera playfully lingers before the big ‘reveal’ makes it obvious that everyone involved is well aware that this is unexpected. It’s a great moment in a brilliant video, easily his best since Thursday’s Child which is similarly meta (if not as ambitious) in its use of Bowie’s imagery and history.

The song itself brings to mind three previous Bowie tracks. As I noted last night in a re-blog of a post since deleted by the original ‘author’, it has a strong whiff of Tin Machine about it:

It’s of course de rigueur to slate Tin Machine now but they both had their moments and were very necessary. Their influence periodically popped up in Bowie’s post-90s work, particularly on 2003’s (then-final) Reality:

Again as I wrote last night, Reality was a good, occasionally great latter-day era Bowie album and both the songs we’ve heard and the reviews suggest that The Next Day will be a continuation of it. The Telegraph’s line that TND “is his rockiest album since the days of Aladdin Sane” sounds like a neat journalistic angle rather than an honest appraisal – “his rockiest album since his last one” doesn’t sound half as good. Of course the standard line for any Bowie album after he stopped ‘messing about’ (as many undoubtedly saw it) with contemporary sounds (‘trends’ sounds so dismissive, doesn’t it?) and settled into a relaxed, self-referential take on himself is that it’s his best album in an age if not quite up there with his greats. The fact that the early reviews for The Next Day have all said pretty much this exact thing (especially given the hyperbole which greeted his return) indicates that it’s going to be another solid effort, as good as we can expect from a Bowie at this stage of his career.

The third song which The Stars (Are Out Tonight) reminds me of, incidentally, comes from possibly the most maligned album and era of Bowie’s career:

Obviously not all of the hilariously deadpan guff about a ‘glass-like spider’ but the ‘if your mama don’t love you then the riverbed might’ climax, which is really rather good. The goodwill around Bowie’s return is so overwhelming that perhaps he could even sell some people on Never Let Me Down. Then again, perhaps not.