In the bookending chapters of Retromania (Simon Reynolds’ 450-page exploration into the culture of retro, released earlier this year), concerns are raised over the current musical landscape and its fixation on the past. Reynolds opines that pop has become inspirationally bankrupt in this last decade, turning out an endless procession of revivals and rehashes instead of surging forth into the future. He compares the big stylistic revolutions of sixties psychedelia, seventies punk, eighties hip-hop and nineties rave with today’s smaller incremental shifts, and wonders when (if ever) we might get to see such grand evolutionary steps taking place again.
Cynicism, realism or just plain codgery – where you stand on the retromania debate boils down to your own experiences and tastes, of course. All the same, Reynolds’ rhetoric has drawn as much controversy as it has praise. The aim of this Wreath Lecture isn’t to add fuel to the ongoing dissection of Retromania’s argument. My own feeling is that Reynolds puts paid to his critics’ misgivings within the book itself, if not in further interviews. As a history of pop it’s a fascinating read whichever side of the fence you sit and sceptics are more than encouraged to give it a try. The book does make one unassailable point, however: the first decade of the 21st century was largely characterised by revivalist scenes based on the repackaging of old ideas. But more recent developments this year suggest that Retromania could well represent a closing chapter in pop’s history. I’m of the opinion that 2011 will be remembered as a pivotal year in which our love affair with retro began to fade and a resurging interest in the new and now was rekindled.
Taking a look through the 2011 end of year lists, there’s an overall sense of purging, of rejuvenation and indeed progress that hasn’t been present for quite some time. And while we’re not quite speeding away from it just yet, the decade that brought us electroclash, nu-rave, emo, freak-folk and the ‘New Rock Revolution’ (certainly the biggest music journo oxymoron in history) doesn’t feel so recent anymore. Nobody asked for a nineties guitar-pop revival this year, but the call was answered all the same and met with all-round indifference. Oh hey, Viva Brother – how’s conquering the world going for you?
With a whole generation of young musicians now having been raised around club and dance music, electronica is no longer seen as a futuristic frontier. Today’s listeners are as familiar with synthesisers and beats as they are guitars, and blending these is now fairly standard practice rather than a novelty. The rock acts thriving best today are comfortable with this fact, harnessing electronic sounds and ideas when it suits them rather than trying to force a loveless marriage. This means that artists like St. Vincent or Battles can hone their unique styles through mixed media, incorporating drums that sound like samples and guitars that sound like synths (and vice versa, of course). Rock isn’t dead at all – it’s simply adapting to new ears.
The retro-fetishism of ‘80s synth pop and electro-house in the 2000s helped in some way to make electronic sounds more saleable to distrusting rock audiences. We’re past that point now. Rockism is an old man’s sport, the internet age having pretty much dissolved the tribal boundaries that once existed between rock, pop, dance, hip-hop, commercial and underground music. With access to an iPod and an internet connection, there’s no reason you can’t listen to any style of music. We’ve never felt more at ease with eclecticism. It was with open-arms that Glastonbury welcomed Beyoncé on opening her headline set, not with the question ‘Are you ready to rock?’, but rather ‘Are you ready to be entertained?’ Skrillex’s brand of buzzsaw mosh-dance has seen US hardcore and metal fans donning day-glo for the first time and raving it up to purely synthetic music in packed-out stadiums. The UK has always boasted a much longer-standing history of rock-friendly electronic bands, like the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers. But in 2011 it’s no longer necessary for DJs and dance acts to meet such prescribed criteria in order to make that crossover. Today’s audiences are no longer defined by their allegiance to the gig or the club venue – one typically leading to the other on a night out.
Today’s young vanguard are equally at ease with the internet as a musical tool and medium. The playlist at house parties can now be dictated by live streams beamed directly from multiple guests’ smartphones, spelling an end to stereo-squabbles and increased exposure to others’ tastes and influences. The multi-disciplined teen-hydra Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All transcend mere rap collectivism with their internet-savvy and idiosyncratic approach to music and media. A case in point would be the video for Tyler’s ‘Yonkers’, which managed to do in three minutes what the whole of his album tried to in 74, and whose viral distribution via internet channels was largely responsible for the masses of hype surrounding Odd Future at the start of this year. The likes of Skrillex or even Odd Future may not be to everyone’s tastes, but at least their detractors can’t complain about them being derivative. This new eclecticism isn’t the same bland melting pot of past influences, plucked, stewed and regurgitated as per Retromania. It’s a vivid technicolour tapestry of ideas. You can’t even call it genre-hopping any more, it just is. And so long as it keeps moving in the right direction, this will continue to be a positive force for future music.
The extant UK dance scene has been central to spurring on new music. It’s been fascinating to watch the exponential rise and mutation of dubstep over the last decade. From its beginnings as a humble offshoot of 2-step and grime, dubstep evolved into the huge, ubiquitous force we know today. Who would have thought that the dark, ebbing frequencies first heard at specialist nights like FWD>> would eventually have found their place at the top of the charts? Reynolds upholds dubstep as an exception to the rule in Retromania, but dismisses efforts from Magnetic Man and Tinchy Stryder as “watered-down crossovers into chart-pop terrain”. In the short time since this passage was written however, we’ve witnessed the emergence of dubstep across the pop board. The best example of this can be found on Katy B’s On A Mission – the definition of a UK bass-pop gem and one of the first successful crossover records of its kind. She is at once well respected by the underground and adored by pop’s mainstream. And although elements of trance, rave and breakbeat feature prominently, Katy’s mission in question is clearly to accelerate away from the past – influences absorbed, but never flouted. Unlike the preceding Magnetic Man album on which she featured, it doesn’t feel like a token attempt to cut & shut dubstep with pop music. It’s a celebration of UK bass from the bottom-up, harnessing that heavy modern sound to fit her own unique songwriting talents.
Far from slowing down, dubstep and its bass music offshoots are still evolving and reinventing themselves at an alarming rate. Labels like Night Slugs and Hessle Audio are continuing to release records that defy categorisation, the loose, sub-bass heavy template a seemingly bottomless well of inspiration. Bass music now incorporates a spectrum ranging from Shackleton’s atmospheric sound-sculptures to the punchy, synth-laden maximalism of Rustie and Damu.
But those looking to explore even wilder frontiers need only look to the US, and the rise of footwork – a great-grandchild of the original Chicago house scene which, like dubstep, started life as a subterranean version of a more popular style. It may have been in incubation since at least the late nineties, but to most ears the genre’s herky-jerk rhythms, lo-tech production and competitive dancing culture are at odds with pretty much anything we’ve come to see in dance music so far. The recent attention brought on by a series of albums and the influential Bangs & Works compilations on the British Planet Mu label (as well as by dubstep-footwork hybrid man Addison Groove) has seen high praise from commentators such as Reynolds, who speaks in interviews about its “jaw-drop” effect.
Listening – and dancing – to footwork feels like discovering a remote Galápagoan species that has evolved in a vacuum since the early days of house and techno, away from the influence of other dance trends. Named after the freestyle breaky-legged dance performed in Chicago basements and gym-spaces, footwork eschews kickdrums (one of the key percussive elements in house/techno derived dance music), opting for a flurry of erratic snares, toms and rapidfire samples, underpinned by booming sub-bass. Scene stalwarts including DJs Spinn and Rashad are now making waves in Europe – at high volume, away from its comparative strangeness on headphones, footwork has been delighting rather than baffling clubbers. Relative newcomers such as Young Smoke, T-Why and Jlin are pushing the style into even stranger territories. Footwork has proven to be unlike anything we’ve really seen in dance music before. The fact that this once very isolated scene is now infecting outwards bodes well for the future. With a number of albums this year influenced by the genre, by global adopters including Machinedrum, Sully and Africa Hitech, it’s only a matter of time until footwork gains much wider currency.
The world has seen an immeasurable amount of change in only the last twelve months – from the rise of the Tory-led government, the Arab spring, student protests, the Fukushima disaster, the killing of Bin-Laden and Gadaffi, the phone-hacking scandal and subsequent collapse of the News of the World, the England riots, the Occupy movement, not to mention the growing concerns over global economic collapse – there’s no denying we’re far from the pre-credit crunch era of housing booms and relative social stability. Art, music and youth culture are directly affected. There is no longer the same space for the privileged, vintage-toting, apolitical, hipster figure that came to define youth culture in the last decade. Music, as a reflection of public mood, has to galvanise itself in order to fit the changing perspectives of its audience. This doesn’t necessarily mean a return to protest music in the sixties sense of the word (God knows we don’t need any more Frank Turners), but maybe a sense of progress, of movement and action is required in these new, visceral times. Sassy post-modernism comes off as a rather shallow aesthetic when the rent’s overdue and all the shops down the road have had their windows smashed in. No wonder it was PJ Harvey’s topical Let England Shake that made the most impact on critical lists this year.
As long as there’s comfort to be gained and money to be made from nostalgia, retro will always exist. It would be dangerous to abandon the past altogether – pop history is far too rich and plentiful to be ignored outright. But pop is far from eating itself. It would be impossible to cover all the ways in which new music is thriving in 2011. I haven’t even had the chance to touch on the innovations in hip-hop and R&B this year, with Death Grips and Shabazz Palaces representing only a pinch of what’s new and exciting in this arena. It may be some time before we see the kind of seismic movement yearned for by Simon Reynolds in Retromania – but if there is one, it may already be here: we just haven’t realised yet. Rave music wasn’t the product of someone taking a pill and inventing the TB303 one night while everyone else sat about listening to The Smiths. Similarly, post-punk came from a large number of permutations and external influences over a very disparate range of scenes and subcultures, with kids reworking disco and funk licks to suit their own art-school tendencies.
The fact that there are now so many avenues to explore, (or as The Quietus’s Luke Turner puts it in his Wreath Lecture: “the continued shattering of our culture”), means a unified paradigm shift is even less likely to happen in 2011. But with the kind of impact that can come out of the slow development and subsequent explosion of original styles like dubstep and footwork, it’s clear we can still achieve enough momentum to push through those retromanic tendencies and use these new ideas to fuel and define the future.