10 September 2011

Revival or Continuation?

History lesson!

September 1941, The United Kingdom and The Soviet Union forced the Shah of Iran, Reza Shah, to abdicate and hand his power over to his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, since it was thought that his father would ally himself with Nazi Germany. Nearly four decades later, when Mohammad Reza Palhavi, the handpicked sovereign by Western powers, was overthrown, the hostage crisis that would plague the end of the Jimmy Carter administration started. During this time in the 1970s, Saddam Hussein would rise to power in neighboring Iraq, a country that the United States had their eyes on as a strategic location in the Middle East (against the Soviet Union). At the same time, Operation Cyclone was taking place in Afghanistan; this was a decade long operation to finance and train the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet Union in their war. Of course, all the time the world economy was coming to a grinding halt, the world was becoming acquainted with the word “recession” by the mid-80s, oil dependency would become a national security issue, and a housing crisis (led by a saving and loans crisis in the mid-80s) would manifest in the USA. Gone were the liberal days of the late 1960s and 1970s, nothing was free, not even love, and in came austerity, conservatism, and the Reagan/Thatcher era.

I acknowledge fully that I have oversimplified a lot of history here, and I am not claiming to be definitive in any way, but rather ruminating and proposing a theory on why there is so much revival going on at this moment; so I ask that you kindly placate me and play along. If you were to shift the years a bit, to switch the names of the wars and the players, and consider all of the financial turmoil the world is in today, it would be easy for any of us to say that history is repeating itself … so why not music?

In the mist of the 1970s, punk rock would come into existence; in part an aesthetic movement that beckoned for simplicity in music, away from the virtuosos like Jimi Hendrix; it was also highly political. From “Anarchy in the UK” to “London Calling,” these young musicians questioned the status quo in a way that musicians had not in over a generation. Unfortunately, as punk rock became sonically repetitive after the first wave and separate “punk” scenes started to form and become established, its own politics in its different subgenres became reified, codified, and unquestioned by those who supported it. Though punk rock’s first wave lasted for a brief moment and its subsequent waves would fade in global relevance, it gave birth to the post-punk movement.

(The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” from the SexPistolsChannel YouTube Channel.)

As the 80s rolled in, pop music became more and more mindless, as most entertainment does during hardships; most people use entertainment as a means of escape, not a method to question their circumstances – just listen to the radio or watch “reality” television and you can experience this. (Please note, by “reality” television I am referring to the entire genre of shows that are supposedly premised on real life situations without scripts.) Very few musicians would question the status quo, but in the mainstream Bruce Springsteen led the way, delivering one punch after the other against the status quo in the name of the working class. And a few pop musicians, namely Madonna, would push the envelope with suggestive imagery against the status quos of religion and sexuality. But underneath the mainstream, post-punk, which may have been somewhat resistant to take up politics directly, embraced the hardship and bleakness of its time: a feeling that the world would never be the same and that existence was full of despair. These very notions were reflected in the psychic construction of the music, as musically and lyrically these bands started to get darker and more introspective, mirroring the times. Love songs were rarely happy, and the idea that “death is everywhere” [“Fly on the Windscreen” by Depeche Mode] was becoming more and more prevalent. Just take Siouxsie and the Banshees’ first single, “Hong Kong Garden.” Not as dark as what would soon follow, the despair of the world is reflected in stream-of-consciousness: “Harmful elements in the air, symbols clashing everywhere, reaps the field of rice and reeds while the population feeds, junk floats on polluted water, an old custom to sell your daughter…” Why not a fractured stream-of-consciousness, as the very world was becoming fractured? The darkest moment in the post-punk era, demonstrating pure existentialism, would come in 1982 from The Cure, juxtaposing the value of human life with corporate imagery (limousines and skyscrapers): “It doesn’t matter if we all die, ambition in the back of a black car, in a high building there is so much to do….” (“A Hundred Years”) But others, such as Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, would be just as bombast, questioning the faith people place in a “God”: “Hey God, there’s nothing left me to hide. I lost my ignorance, security, and pride. I’m all alone in a world you must despise. Hey God, I believed your promises, your promises and lies.” (“Terrible Lies”)

From romance and love to politics and life, post-punk rockers reflected the psychic reality of the world they were forced to live in.

(Wire’s “Heartbeat” from the wirehq YouTube Channel.)

(Killing Joke’s “Eighties” from the emimusic YouTube Channel.)

But it was not only the post-punk rockers (and their gothic and industrial offspring) that reeled about the time they lived in, new wave and synthpop musicians took their subtle and less subtle stabs at the beast. Perhaps the most known would be Depeche Mode’s “People Are People,” rallying against the xenophobia and racism that the masses were capitulating to – best reflected in the anti-American / anti-Soviet feelings that led nations not to send athletes to Moscow or Los Angeles. And there was Pet Shop Boys, with their tongue-in-cheek critique of an economic world where only thievery (by the educated) can make money. And if racism, xenophobia, and class warfare were risqué topics to sing about, imagine how social conservatives felt about Bronski Beat! In an era where same-sex marriage was not even part of the debate, Bronski Beat put homophobia and violence against gay men in the forefront with their song and video for “Small Town Boy.”

(Depeche Mode’s “People Are People” from their MySpace Videos Page)

(Pet Shop Boys’ “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)” from the emimusic YouTube Channel.

(Bronski Beat’s “Small Town Boy” from the JsomervilleOfficial YouTube Channel.)

Of course I would be remiss if I did not engage, arguably, the most iconic moment of the 80s. Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” was a catchy tune and video hiding a polemic. The most enigmatic song ever written: the band has never revealed what sweet dreams are make of, you are doing the using and abusing, or who is receiving the using or abusing! And in this famous and iconoclastic incarnation – red head, androgynous, dressed in a man’s suit, and a favorite Halloween costume of many of my friends – Annie Lennox proves that women do not need to sell sex(uality) in order to sell records. The most telling indictment of the time is how the video is set in a corporate office space, as she sings, “Some of them want to use you; some of them want to be used by you. Some of them want to abuse you; some of them want to be abused by you” – in essence the very core of a how a capitalist system must survive. The only escape in the video is through mediation that leads you to a fantasy world of masque wearing cello players. And this is not any ole mediation, but rather religiously inspired mediation, as denoted by the bindi and the cows, all religious images of Hinduism – an Eastern religion, the exact opposite of what was being represented by the Western world.

(Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These)” from EurythmicsVEVO YouTube Channel.)

As the economic, political, and social conditions changed, so would the music. At least in the Western world, the 1990s would be a decade of relative peace, international cooperation, and economic expansion. Bill Clinton was in the White House and the formal establishment of the European Union and the creation of the Eurozone was well on its way in Western Europe. As Westerners enjoyed “golden days,” the need for a counterculture that attacked the status quo lessened. Even conservatives and liberals, who have never seen eye-to-eye but managed to work together, never expressed the vitriol we see in national politics all over the world today. Hence music changed: grunge and Britpop would see mainstream success on different sides of the pond, and R&B really became international as electronic / rave culture emerged.

Soon, however, political leaders would lead the world down the pathways of history, and once again there was Western involvement in the Middle East, to a level not seen since The Crusades (you know the religious campaign to kill every Muslim in sight, but not the Jews as “Christian” fundamentalists need them for their “end time”), including deposing one said leader of Iraq. The world financial markets would implode by 2008 and not truly recover over the next few years (did someone say downgrade?), the housing market and banking sector worldwide would come unraveled, and oil dependency has once again become a national security issue (though the USA gets most of its oil from Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela, three nations I highly doubt are plotting to mount a war to destroy the USA). I am not saying that the 1990s were completely frivolous; what I am saying is that you will be pressed to find as many “countercultural” movements that were not part of corporate, marketing scheming. The entire pre-packaged angst of the commercialized music such as grunge post-Nirvana had more to do with turning over a profit than mediating social reality. Now I am not saying that there were not moments of lashing out against the status quo, but they were isolate moments or artists. Two great examples come to mind. The ever tongue-in-cheek Pulp takes on class-consciousness in their classic “Common People,” and Blur’s “Girls and Boys” riotous take on sexual(ity) freedom, with the advice, “Always should be someone you really love.”

(Pulp’s “Common People” from the PulpVEVO YouTube Channel.)

(Blur’s “Girls and Boys” from the emimusic YouTube Channel.)

As for the world we live in now, I can only think of one quote to sum it up, and I will risk being called a communist; according to Karl Marx: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

I am not one given to phenomenalistic thought, nor do I believe I should accept any trend as a random given – things do not just happen, there is always something motivating it: a cause and effect. I don’t think that the members of bands such as Interpol woke up one morning and said, “Screw this power-chord, grunge influenced music, let’s sound more like Joy Division and The Cure.” For that matter, I don’t think that the media that mocked The Cure for over a decade would then turn around and hail them as iconic, God-Like Genius, as NME did, for no reason at all. I don’t think that bands like La Roux decided one day to throw out all of their digital technology to sound more like and be anti-romantic like early/mid-80s Depeche Mode just for the fun of it. There is a cause and effect here; both sets of bands exist under near identical economic, political, and social conditions. Even if post-punk had never existed, musicians would have gotten darker during these days; it is the natural reaction of creative artists to their times. Sure there are many acts that have simply jumped the bandwagon, but there still remains a core of bands that are expressing themselves as did their forefathers and mothers; for them, this is not an era of revival, but rather one that continues and adds on to what came before.

A few things, though, have definitely changed; for starters, freedom of speech is not what it used to be. Not that the establishment ever took criticism or people pushing the envelope passively, but when Frankie Goes to Hollywood was inviting us to “Relax, don’t do it, when you want to cum” [“Relax”], they were criticized and even banned on the BBC, but not lionized the way people are today. If you dare go one step further and criticize the establishment, you are not patriotic and are branded an enemy of the state – remember The Dixie Chicks controversy? And when one party does not agree with the other, the disagreeing party simply puts the legitimacy of the other in question, like the birthers have done to President Barack Obama or all the mud slinging in the British press. Which is why when even Glenn Beck praised Muse’s latest album, “The Resistance” (apparently not realizing that Matthew Bellamy is a leftist!), it was a bit of shock. He later “retracted” his endorsement, not because Muse’s people e-mailed him (that is a myth started by Beck himself), but rather someone must have told him he was off the mark with his interpretation and endorsement of the album. A hundred times more bombast than anything Springsteen wrote, Muse not only believes in standing up to the establishment, but in revolution: “Interchanging mind control, come let the revolution take it’s toll; if you could flick a switch and open your third eye, you’d see that we should never be afraid to die.” (“Uprising”)

(Muse’s “Uprising” from their MySpace Video Page.)


Muse | Myspace Music Videos

And as things become more and more bleak, the entertainment market has cranked out more garbage to help us to escape and forget about these hard times. Musicians and entertainers get younger and younger – nothing says good times like the innocence of youth and “youthful” indiscretions of the 20-somethings. But the shelf life of these musicians is becoming shorter and shorter. And then there is “reality” television – nothing says reality like racing around the globe, hoping a bachelorette picks you, living on an island with strangers, etc… The most insulting “reality” based show is “Secret Boss” – a rich millionaire in disguise interacts with the “common man” and at the end of the show gives them a measly hundred thousand. First off, it is condescending. Second, s/he can afford to donate more than that. Third, s/he should not hide behind tax loopholes (or at least donate all the money they saved from them!). Fourth, the only reason “reality” television is prevalent is because networks do not have to pay writers and all the other expenses that come with the creativity from a real staff!

But under it all, there are these post-punks and new wavers who are most definitely reacting the same way that Susan Ballion, Ian Curtis, Peter Murphy, and Robert Smith did decades earlier. Take Editors, admittedly my favorite band of the past few years, the song “The Racing Rats” takes up the mantle of existentialist wonder: “If a plane were to fall from the sky, how big a hole would it make in the surface of the earth…” But there is never any mention of the people on the plane, because life is near irrelevant in a world were “you knew you were lost but carried on away” futilely – harkening back to Robert Smith’s statement: “It doesn’t matter if we all die.” But when Editors questions the very existence of God in “Papillon” (perhaps based on the memoir of the same name by Henri Charrière, a convicted felon), as vocalist Tom Smith subtly slips in, “If there really was a God, he’d have raised a hand by now” into the song, it is a chilling attack on the very foundation of much of Western Thought. Trent Reznor was speaking to “God” in “Terrible Lies,” Editors questions/dismisses his very existence!

(Editors’ “The Racing Rats” from the EditorsVEVO YouTube Channel.)

(Editors’ “Papillon” from the editorsofficial YouTube Channel.)

Even in the post-punk of White Lies, there is a bleak view of relationships and love. Though not conveyed relevantly by the video, Harry McVeigh sings, “I don’t need your tears, I don’t want your love.” And the same feeling of isolation and longing to connect with another that was prevalent in the 1980s post-punk is revisited by Yeah Yeah Yeahs in “Maps.”

(White Lies’ “Bigger Than Us” from the WhiteLiesVEVO YouTube Channel.)

(Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” from the YeahYeahYeahsVEVO YouTube Channel.)

And just as women took the forefront during the 80s, a new generation of women has been on the rise that refuses to conform to the social roles that women are marginalized to. Moreover, as in the 80s, many of these women are making creative waves and are part of the revival movement bringing back new wave and synthpop. These are not the women of 90s pop or contemporary mainstream, humbly asking for their men to come back, heartache, or bubble-gum throwaway music with fairy tale endings. And more importantly, like Annie Lennox, these are not women selling sex to sell an album. These are engaging artists who have proven that music can be fun and contemplative at the same time. For example, Anna Matronic of Scissor Sisters and Eleanor Kate Jackson (an androgynous red head … reminds you of anyone else?) of La Roux are the free agents that are autonomously doing the dumping or refusing to show their vulnerabilities, and not the hapless victims of romance.

(Scissor Sisters’ “Kiss You Off” from the ScissorSistersVEVO YouTube Channel.)

(La Roux’s “Bulletproof” from the LaRouxVEVO YouTube Channel.)

Very similar economic, social, and political conditions between three decades ago and now, and the result most definitely seems to be the production of music that is very similar. And the most telling evidence that this is the case is how the music is being received. It is not just the musicians who are being affected by these conditions, but we, the audience, as well. If this were not the case, we would not accept Editors, La Roux, Muse, Scissor Sisters, White Lies, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and their brethren as urgently relevant. Though I wish I had the time and space to really flush this post out to be more definitive, I think I can say without reservation that what is happening is not really revival. What is happening now is a continuation of what started in late 70s / 80s. Of course we can accuse some entertainers of just jumping the bandwagon (I will always call them out for it!), but for those of us who loved that first wave of post-punk and new wave and all the other genres associated with them (from coldwave to synthpop, goth rock to electronic body music) this moment of time is offering up an entire generation of new artists that are working on and expanding those traditions, and I assure you that tomorrow icons are amongst these very artists.

1 comment:

  1. You state that Musicians, such as La Roux and Interpol, both aren't just artists that change their sound simply because they want to--that it's more based on our standing; economically, politically, and socially. As agreeable as that sounds, I can't get myself to believe it. Not that I have a valid reason as to why someone would change their sound--I just don't feel like those points don't have much to do with the change (although they do have some part in it). Yes, the music industry and the world in general has the tendency of trying to brainwash people into believing that everything is peachy perfect. But those viewers and believers are equally at fault because one shouldn't fall prey so easily. I do, however, agree that what is happening isn't just a revival but a continuation--the change happened because it was going to, regardless of what's going on.
    This was very well thought out and just as refreshing to read!
    If you don't mind, I'm going to post a link to this on my Tumblr Blog! I'm sure my followers on there would be delighted to read this! :)


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