Auden and Isherwood's play has become a metaphor for the two-act tragedy of popular music in our time. Pitting themselves obsessively and competitively against the musicians of the past, today's rock mountaineers attempt to scale the same peaks, only to find Father Iggy or Mother Janis sitting there at the top in a rocking chair, rocking out. Regular readers of Click Opera know that I call this phenomenon "epigone pop" or "retro necro", and it's the subject of my latest column for Spanish music magazine Playground. Since it appears there in Spanish, I'm publishing it here in English, as usual.
Column by Momus (Spanish version here)
Playground magazine, Madrid, January 2009
There's a tragedy afflicting popular music, a tragedy I sum up -- when I'm trying to explain such things to myself -- with the name Retro Necro. Retro implies backwards-looking, Necro means death. My idea is that the medium of popular music is heading in the direction of death because of its tendency to look backwards rather than forwards.
Retro Necro is partly the archive fever that has existed since the launch of the CD format, and the bonanza resale by labels -- and repurchase by consumers eager for "perfect sound forever" -- of back catalogue. I got my first CD player in 1990, so we could date the onset of this "disease" to that year. 1990 also happens to be the high water mark of the movement some see as the last forward-looking revolution to transform popular music: Acid House.
Retro Necro is also reflected in the plethora of "commemorative" rock magazine titles which celebrate the past rather than the present and future of rock. The obvious British example would be Mojo, a title launched in 1993 and dedicated either to the artists of the past, or the artists of the present who sound like them. Guess who's on the cover of the current issue of Mojo? Oasis, a Retro Necro band par excellence.
Retro Necro is a reflection of post-war Baby Boom demographics, which ensure that an aging generation will continue to see its own tastes reflected in the market, because there are more of them, because they "invented rock", and because they have more disposable income than the dwindling legions of youth.
In 2004 British newspaper The Guardian reported on a phenomenon known as "50 Quid Man": "For the first time fortysomethings are buying more albums than teenagers and it's all down to the '50-quid man' [note: fifty British pounds is about sixty euros] - the middle-aged bloke (or even woman) who is happy to splash out on a fistful of CDs." Because young people increasingly expected to download music free, the market shifted earlier this decade towards the tastes of this middle-aged figure willing to spend €60 or so on a trip to a record shop. By now, "sixty euro man" is probably downloading mp3s too, but his tastes still dominate the market; he's more likely to be paying for his downloads.
Retro Necro isn't just demographic, technical and economic, though. It also reflects something cultural. It's the result of postmodernism's obsession with sampling, recycling and recontextualising the past. Postmodernism doesn't believe -- as Modernism did, and as Ezra Pound famously put it -- in the obligation to "make it new!" People actually believed, in the Postmodern period, that pretty much everything had been done, and that all they could do was make new hybrids, or use technologies like sampling to put old sounds into new contexts.
The result was the self-perpetuating anxiety of a generation of epigone pop artists (an epigone is a weaker follower, and in some cases today's epigone poppers are actually the children of the famous; the son of a Dylan, the daughter of a Gainsbourg) scared to tear up the rulebooks and start over. Instead, these epigones content themselves with making pastiches of the "classic masterpieces" of the past.
Lenny Kravitz was the first artist I was aware of who painstakingly reproduced the sound of the past, recording his music with exactly the same amps, tape recorders and mixing desks the similarly-named Jimi Hendrix might have used twenty years before. Kravitz was soon followed by Oasis -- and all you need to know about them is that they lost a plagiarism lawsuit not to The Beatles themselves, but to musical satirist Neil Innes, for a song in which he parodied The Beatles. The title? How Sweet To Be An Idiot.
Retro Necro is also the result of a conservative critical mindset which believes that British and American rock musicians "got it right" mostly in the decade between 1967 and 1976. A Swedish statistician called Henrik Franzon spent ten years collecting music critics' Best Albums lists. As I show here, these lists form a kind of meta-narrative for the artistic history of the last five decades of popular music. It's a story in which the medium is born in the late 50s, remains artistically rather shaky and ephemeral until the late 60s, suddenly (with albums like Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds) hits its Golden Age, has a bit of a spurt when punk comes along, diversifies, then fades into irrelevance. Only three of the Top 100 most-recommended albums in Franzon's database were released between 1997 and 2006 (records by Radiohead, The Strokes and The White Stripes).
There's a very simple, very big problem for today's pop musician: if you fail to attack the father and rip up his rules, the father will always beat you. He will beat you because he did what you're doing first, with more spontaneity and passion, and with less reverence. If you fail to rip up the rules of your father's pop music and start again, you will see pop music becoming what classical and to some extent jazz have become: interpretive artforms dominated by performers who simply run through a canon of set masterpieces.
Rock music, in particular, has become an official culture. Prime ministers jam on their guitars in between parliamentary sessions, the Pope has finally forgiven John Lennon for that "bigger than Jesus" remark, and rock music plays in aircraft, elevators and late-night restaurants the way Muzak once did, to calm and control nervous or unruly passengers. Any claim rock may once have had to be a "rebel music" has long-since gone, and with it a lot of rock's transgressive sexual and political energy.
Going back to basics (garage rock) isn't the answer, because going back to Punk or the Pebbles compilations won't free you from Retro Necro. But ripping up the rules and starting again won't necessarily save the medium either. To do that, you'd have to take risks and be able to go mainstream with the results, something that requires a large, progressively-minded public to follow experimenters and make their experiments change the whole practice of popular music-making forever. That kind of sweeping mainstream change looks unlikely ever to happen again, partly because of the fragmenting personalisation of music tastes and genres brought by the iPod and the web.
One solution may just be to give in to Retro Necro. It doesn't necessarily mean buying the new Oasis album; you could spend a tasteful Retro Necro December watching Grant Gee's excellent documentary about Joy Division, downloading Michael Winterbottom's film 24 Hour Party People, getting a discount DVD of Anton Corbijn's Control movie, based on Touching from a Distance, Debbie Curtis' account of her troubled life with her epileptic husband, and his death by hanging in 1980. Or how about Katja Ruge's elegant photo investigation Fotoreportage23: In Search of Ian Curtis?
It's all good stuff. And it's all sick necrophilia. Personally, I'm more fascinated by a couple of stapled books of press clippings I discovered in a box in my cellar recently, Joy Division and New Order reviews and interviews in the original typefaces and layouts. Sure, I feel like I'm looking back, but it isn't completely negative. Reading these clippings, I can imagine the innovations, the discoveries, the freshness of this music happening now, and changing music forever.