The warm glow of nostalgia and other fitful notions

The warm glow of nostalgia and other fitful notions

By Bhanuj Kappal | 25 July, 2015

I don't know whether it was just bad timing, or just fact that my peer group is getting older, but I logged onto Facebook the other day to find my timeline taken over by a bunch of Golden Agers. Again. You know who I mean. They're the prematurely aged yuppies on your Facebook who share "what happened to music" memes and go on about how music today just isn't as good as it was in the 1960s/70s/80s/other decade they probably never lived through. They're the ones who flock to Hard Rock Cafe to watch cover bands crank out a mediocre version of their college Winamp playlist. They're the ones who pay good money to see acts like the Scorpions or Third Eye Blind go through their career death throes on stage. And they really, really piss me off.

It's not just that they're obsessed with old music. I understand that the music you grew up with will always have a special connection. It's also much harder to devote time and attention to finding new music as you grow older, with work and responsibilities eating into music discovery time. I get that. But just because they're comfortable wallowing in the warm nostalgia glow of the past doesn't mean that the rest of us have to listen to them whinge about how crap modern music is. Every week, someone or the other releases an album of amazing groundbreaking music that makes their favourite grandpa rock band sound like... well, a grandpa rock band. But finding new artists requires effort, and also comes with a certain amount of risk. What if the new band you told all your friends about turns around and comes out with an album that's absolute wank? What if your friends don't like Death Grips and think you're weird for listening to them? What if people think your music taste just isn't very good?

Dropcap OnNah, better to play it safe. Pick and choose your favourites from the "greats" — that pantheon of rock gods boring old farts whose combined weight is slowly squeezing all the new ideas out of rock and roll. And it's this appeal to authority that really gets me — rock conservatism and traditionalism disguised as rebellion. It's safe, self-serving and, worst of all, boring. They're like the old communists who go on about Mao and Stalin, even as new and exciting and important movements are happening right under their noses.

"So many smug saps think they are rebels, but anything that can fit into ROCK'S RICH TAPESTRY is dead at heart."

Julie Burchill wrote that back in 1980, but it's just as true today. In that column, she rejected the traditionalist view of rock music in favour of a very specific kind of tunnel vision — always looking forward to the new, the different, the revolutionary and ignoring everything else. It's a sentiment that I strongly believe in. The Pixies were amazing in 1986 because there was nobody else around that sounded like them. A band in 2015 trying to sound like the Pixies is not just boring, it's lazy. And the Pixies reuniting last year to put out a watered down version of their "classic" sound 20 years on? That's just pathetic. The Golden Agers — and their less conspicuous, more damaging counterparts the revivalists and retro-fetishists — disagree. And the scary bit is that they seem to be winning.

It’s also much harder to devote time and attention to finding new music as you grow older, with work and responsibilities eating into music discovery time. I get that. But just because they’re comfortable wallowing in the warm nostalgia glow of the past doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to listen to them whinge about how crap modern music is.

The rock and pop orthodoxy has always been present, if not dominant, in mainstream music. But after decades of being ridiculed and attacked by the underground, it's found its way in there as well. Festivals and music venues are flooded with reunion bands — ranging from obscure '80s cock rock acts to terrible early 2000s grunge-lite bands — all trying to cash in on the current nostalgiafest. The charts are filled with new acts providing us with barely updated takes on classic sounds from the 70s to the 90s — 80s synthpop, 90s grunge, 60s psychedelia. And even the more sophisticated underground music is now more often than not a postmodern pastiche of sounds mined from the obscurities of music history. Just look at the pap that's ruling the indie charts these days. Not all these bands are bad. As a '90s kid, I even enjoy some of them. But they're all awfully derivative. Put them all together and what you get is a Groundhog Day vision of popular music — all of us stuck in a loop revisiting the same old s**t again and again and again with minor variations that add up to f**kall.

There's a number of reasons for this trend. Postmodernism and its reactionary tendency to plunder the past is one culprit, and I'm sure the change in listening habits from active to passive listening has something to do with it as well. Active listening rewards innovation, while passive incentivises the comfortable and familiar. I'm not sure what, if anything, we can do to reverse these socio-cultural trends. But what we can do is adopt Burchill's tunnel vision. Look for, and constantly champion, artists who challenge and innovate. And the next time you come across a Golden Ager, strap them down in a chair and make them listen to radical new music till their ears bleed. Because if we don't — if this zombification of pop's past becomes permanent — we might as well put a gun to pop music's head and pull the trigger. It would be the more ethical choice.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance music journalist who likes noise, punk rock and mutton biryani.

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