Pop Is Eating Itself. Why Are We Paying To Consume What It Spits Back Out?

The music industry's obsession with its own history is getting ridiculous. Reunion tours, halls of fame, dead people on the cover of new music magazines and hologram gigs - when will it stop?
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The music industry's obsession with its own history is getting ridiculous. Reunion tours, halls of fame, dead people on the cover of new music magazines and hologram gigs - when will it stop?

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‘It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice – there are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia. When you compute the length of time between The Event and The Nostalgia for the Event, the span seems to be about a year less in each cycle. Eventually within the next quarter of a century, the nostalgia cycles will be so close together that people will not be able to take a step without being nostalgic for the one they just took. At that point, everything stops’

Frank Zappa, 1989

Take from this what you will: it’s possible Frank Zappa was a musical prophet; it’s also possible his trousers were so tight they cut off the circulation to his brain and his theory is a load of wank.  Either way, according to the raven haired weirdo’s prediction by now we should be at a crisis point, eyes and ears fixed firmly towards the past. Cometh the time when ‘everything stops’ in music? Or are we already there?

Last year saw the publication of Simon Reynolds’s thought-provoking Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction To Its Own Past, in which he fretted over modern music’s obsession with its own history, as the industry becomes increasingly clogged with reunion tours, reissues, genre revivals and paraphernalia from artists’ careers become artefacts to gawp at in The British Music Experience in London and Cleveland, Ohio’s Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. In principle there’s nothing wrong with these things. Take reunions: a Pixies/My Bloody Valentine/Stone Roses tour? Bloody great - a pot-bellied, balding generation can pogo with glee in unison with people like me who weren’t even born when Surfer Rosa/Loveless/The Stone Roses came out, but have come to love them anyway. In reality the price we pay for the occasional glimmer of brilliance is a gig circuit clogged with bands who really should have fucked off for good the first time round (Kula Shaker and Shed Seven, I’m looking at you) dragging their saggy middle-aged arses round Britain’s toilet venues. Worse than that still is the complete horrorshow of the Axl Rose narcissism experience that is today’s incarnation of Guns and Roses (If you paid for a ticket to see that you’re a moron, end of). It’s no longer a case of ‘better to burn out than to fade away’, more ‘better to burn out than to fade away and return a spectre of what you once were, flogging the corpse of your career in the hope you can stave off bankruptcy in return for every shred of your dignity’. Because let’s be honest, most reunion tours have nothing to do with love and everything to do with bank balances. Paul Weller knows this: that’s exactly why when asked last year if The Jam will ever reform, he simply replied “Hopefully I’ll never be that skint, mate.”

 It’s no longer a case of ‘better to burn out than to fade away’, more ‘better to burn out than to fade away and return a spectre of what you once were, flogging the corpse of your career in the hope you can stave off bankruptcy in return for every shred of your dignity’.

Still, you don’t have to enter a museum or even go to a reunion gig to buy into musical nostalgia these days: a trip to your local newsagent is enough. Right now the sight of a new band on a magazine cover is a rare thing. It comes as no surprise to see the likes of Lennon and McCartney beaming, wrinkle-free in monochrome on the cover of Mojo or a close-up of sexagenarians like Neil Young or Patti Smith gracing the front of Uncut, but the second half of the noughties has seen an unprecedented amount of space in the mainstream music press dedicated to bands and artists who are musically inactive, or even dead. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that NME was founded to cover new music, and for a very long time that’s exactly what it did. Looking at the list of every NME cover from 1969 to the present day on Wikipedia, something becomes clear: throughout NME’s history cover features looking backwards rather than forwards were a rarity – a once a year nod to a 10th anniversary, a retrospective when a musical hero died. But over the past 10 years there’s been a seismic shift from the up-and-coming to the heavyweights of the past, with Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain, Richey Edwards, Syd Barrett, Ian Curtis, Jimi Hendrix, Elliott Smith, John Lennon and Jim Morrison hogging coveted cover space, even though they have all been deep in the ground for a long time. The message is clear: what’s important is influence, reference and reverence to the past. The future’s on the backburner.

advances in technology are being employed not to propel us into the future, but as a tool to enable a bizarre form of 21st century gravedigging.

It’s not just the music press that can’t let the dead rest in peace though – the live industry is getting in on the act with perhaps the most alarming development of 2012: hologram gigs. This year’s Coachella festival in saw Tupac ‘resurrected’ from the dead in hologram form to perform alongside Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. The fact that he’s been dead for over 15 years was no obstacle for Digital Domain, the CG company behind images of Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Jeff Bridges in TRON: Legacy and Rooney Mara in the Hollywood adaptation of Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, who managed to create an eerily realistic illusion of the rapper. This is no doubt the beginning of something big, with talk of rolling Tupac’s performance out into a tour and the estates of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison apparently looking into resurrecting more dead performers into 3D character form. In a strange echo of Thomas Edison’s invention of records as a means of preserving the voices of loved ones after death, advances in technology are being employed not to propel us into the future, but as a tool to enable a bizarre form of 21st century gravedigging.

Zappa prophesized the end would be nigh when people will ‘not be able to take a step without being nostalgic for the one they just took’. Reunion tours and revivals have little to do with this; wanting to remember your teenage years and early twenties is a common instinct – a whole industry has been built around it and with the recent run of Punk Britannia documentaries and screenings of Top Of The Pops from the vaults of the 70s even the BBC has been wading in on the trend. Yet as predicted here we are, starting to look back not only to events within living memory, but to things which have barely passed. Shut Up And Play The Hits, a documentary about the last days of LCD Soundsystem and their farewell gig in New York is currently screening in the US. There is no archive footage or long-lost interviews to be found here, for this is a band who split in 2011 – yeah, that’s right, last year -  and yet already they are asking us to look back. Stranger still, last month an email pinged into my inbox screaming with excitement ‘THE EIGHTIES MATCHBOX B-LINE DISASTER reform for live shows with original line-up! To play first two albums! Band announce re-release of single ‘Chicken’!’ Chances are you’re wondering ‘Who?’ and even if you know you probably don’t care. Yet here they are, press release gushing how they have ‘agreed to 3 exclusive performances of their legendary debut material’, a glorious return for a band who disbanded in the oh so distant past of March 2011. Jeeesus.

I don’t want to get to 40 and find that people are paying entrance fees to an exhibition of tissues Morrissey once jizzed into, next to a glass box featuring Mick Jagger suspended in formaldehyde like a Damien Hirst cow.

You can come up with as many wanky philosophical arguments as you want about why our gaze is so firmly fixed on the past. Maybe it’s a comfort blanket: you can’t turn on the telly or switch on the radio without being reminded just how shite everything is at the moment. Perhaps cocooning ourselves in music from when things were a bit brighter is some kind of coping mechanism? Whatever reason you ascribe, it’s clear we’re descending into absurdity. It needs to stop, because I don’t want to get to 40 and find that people are paying entrance fees to an exhibition of tissues Morrissey once jizzed into, next to a glass box featuring Mick Jagger suspended in formaldehyde like a Damien Hirst cow. It’s time to push things forwards instead of looking back.

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