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Friday, 13 March 2015

Ali LIstens: Back to the Future

When I was younger, a hundred self important VH1 specials told me that music represented our culture in ways that no other artistic medium could. They lied.

Culture has changed a lot in my lifetime. Music has not. As I write the most popular song in the country is "Uptown Funk", a lovely little ditty cobbled together from thirty year old classics like "Jungle Love" and "Give it to me Baby" (Say Whaaaaat?), like the wet dream of an A&R guy from 1985: "Like Prince, but safer." The last few years also gave us "All About That Base", "Blurred Lines" and "Get Lucky", and a bunch more Bruno Mars to help us live in the past.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of pop history or mass culture should know something's askew right now. Pop music as we know it has a pretty short history. It's new enough that some of our grandparents remember its infancy, from Fred Astaire to Elvis Presley to the Beatles and Beyond. Through the decades pop has had two key tenets: It's youth oriented, and its all about novelty.

Those rules apply to almost all mass-consumed products in the 20th century. Novelty is the reason the iPad 2 was offered in different colours, with little else to distinguish it from the previous model. Novelty is the cornerstone of consumerism. And young people are almost always on the receiving end of the these gimmicks, because they have disposable income and no better way to spend their time.

This is the way its supposed to be, the way it has been for most of my life, and my parents' too. Young people feel like they own pop culture, like their parents are squares and their tunes are the music of revolution. Then you hit your mid twenties and realize Barbra Streisand can sing like a motherfucker and maybe mom had okay taste after all.

The wheel goes round and round: Elvis scandalized parents with his fabulous hips, the Beatles made them uncomfortable with their long hair, Zeppelin and the Stones scared them to death with sex, drugs and Satanism. Madonna was a hussy, Rappers were cop killers and the wheels on the bus went round and round. "Parents just don't understand" has been the unwritten rule of popular music for ages.

And yet...

When was the last time anything was truly shocking? The Wrecking Ball video? Anaconda? They're all pretty tame compared to what Prince and Madonna were doing decades ago (okay, fine I'll link to a sexy video if you promise to come right back) , to say nothing of the truly revolutionary spirit of acts like Neil Young or Public Enemy.

Kids these days may loathe the idea of "old" singers staying too long in the spotlight, but they're hypocritical in a way their parents were not:

Elvis sounded nothing like Fred Astaire.
Zeppelin sounded nothing like Frank Sinatra
N.W.A sounded nothing like Marvin Gaye


Lady Gaga looks and sounds an awful lot like Madonna, but tamer
Bruno Mars sounds a lot like Prince / Michael / Morris / Rick / insert-funk-legend-here, but more accessible.
Pharell Williams is paying seven million dollars because "Blurred Lines" - the song of the summer of 2013 - sounds virtually indistinguishable from Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give it Up"

But the hate lobbed in the direction of legacy acts (one legacy act in particular) is shockingly wrong footed. Madonna is told to leave the playground she built, because of her age, but to make room for who? Lady Gaga, BeyoncĂ©, Miley...all acts that owe her a huge debt and have no interest in building on her legacy, merely reducing it to its simplest moving parts (Sex! Shock! Girlpower!). I'm a millennial with a middle-aged soul, so forgive me for saying anyone who was shocked by Miley's twerking, three decades after Prince sang that he wants to "fuck the taste out of your mouth"  is damn soft.

But its not just music where we see this trend, which points to something much bigger. The rush to reappropriate old properties--from comic books, to movies to television and back again--is running rampant through this culture. Plenty of people complain about how Hollywood isn't offering anything new, but the truth is, these movies, these shows, this music, all of it gets made because the masses are buying them.

You'll hear theorists say that "People like what's familiar". Since when? Wasn't novelty the order of the day for the last five decades? The short answer is to that question is "yes". The long answer involves explaining the rise and fall of the Ford Motor company in the early 20th century, and since you don't really care about that stuff, you just have to trust me.

Speaking of films, what's the first hint that a movie is set in a particular decade? The clothing.
Now can you name any two years separated by two decades whose clothing was so utterly indistinguishable as 2015 and 1995? Bet you a nickel that you can't. 1960s fashion looks nothing like the 1940s or the 1980s. The 1950s are similarly indistinguishable from the 1970s, as the 70's are from the 90's, but that's when it stops. Chunky heels may be out, but I guarantee someone looking through Vogue twenty years from now wouldn't be able to guess for certain what decade we're in.  What has changed, fashion wise, are all throwbacks. "That's so Mad Men" you might say about a new dress, or "So eighties!"

This is a culture curiously divorced from our own moment in time, like none has been in recent memory.


Because we are afraid.

I may have lied at the top of this article. I said that music didn't reflect culture anymore, what I meant was that music never reflects culture, but cultural fixations. Why are we so obsessed with the past?

Because the present is a goddamn mystery. I'm not talking about dirty politics or poverty or racial divides or environmental destruction. You can find great, popular songs about those things from our parents' era a lot easier than you can from Beyoncé or her contemporaries.

I'm talking about how the internet, and all the technology that lives off it has completely changed the world so quickly we haven't quite adapted to it yet. Social media drives people farther apart, while online pornography is there at the click of a button (fine, here's another sexy video to reward the focus it took to read this far). Everything you ever wanted to see, and some things that you don't but will click on anyway are barking at you from the sidelines of every page you go to. Meanwhile, the things we were taught to hold dear to - friendships, a sense of belonging, even our own identity, has been untethered from reality. These tenets of humanity are strangely intangible in the age of the internet, floating in a digital realm we haven't got a grip on.

We need a sense of control, of belonging, of identity, which this new world order so insidiously inhibits. As a culture, we've gone back into the womb, like a groundhog who saw its own shadow and settled in for very long winter.

"What about the millenials?" you may ask. Most of the kids who love Uptown Funk and Born This Way are too young to be nostalgic for a time before the internet. How does this apply to them?

I'll tell you. It's a simple answer that bodes well for the future of humanity: because those are great songs. Specifically - "Jungle Love" and "Express Yourself" are great songs. And their enduring popularity shows that even as the world around us has exploded, we haven't lost that most basic human emotion that connects us to a great beat.