The past and future of music

by on September 23, 2011 at 10:24 am in Music | Permalink

Posterity may regard as the highlight of Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary Woodstock not the health warning about the brown acid, but the spectacle of Sha Na Na doing “At the Hop.” This crew, at the preeminent ’60s event, surrounded by wobbly idols and dazed wielders of the zeitgeist, were shamanistically retro. Sha Na Na channeled the ’50s by overdoing them, performing cover versions—as George Leonard, the band’s brain, tells Reynolds—at “twice the speed of the originals: I insisted we do the music the way it was remembered instead of the way it was.” The singers wore gold lamé; they bopped and jived absurdly, like celebrants of a forgotten rite. They, not Jefferson Airplane, were the future, by which I mean, of course, the past. The irony that their early-morning set came right before Jimi Hendrix “immolating”—Reynolds’s word—“The Star-Spangled Banner” is almost too exquisite to bear.

From James Parker, here is much more.

1 Andy September 23, 2011 at 10:52 am

You don’t often hear Sha Na Na referred to as unbearably exquisite.

2 Nick September 23, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Per the Onion:
“We are talking about a potentially devastating crisis situation in which our society will express nostalgia for events which have yet to occur …
the National Retro Clock currently stands at 1990, an alarming 74 percent closer to the present than 10 years ago, when it stood at 1969.”,873/

3 Mike September 23, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner still gives me chills when i hear it.

4 John Mansfield September 23, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Eh. Old people have always listened to old music, and the best of it would retain a bit of currency for a while. Every now and then I pull my teenagers over to Youtube to watch a Judy Garland number or sit them down to a Marx Brothers DVD. Last night, dinner conversation led to showing them Fred Astaire doing Putting on the Ritz (and then Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle). Most of those performers were old or dead when I was a teenager, but were still part of the culture. Now they’re not, the same way all the folks who liked Al Jolson where already dead when I came along. I don’t think The Police or The Who are holding back current music any more then Dean Martin did for them.

5 John September 23, 2011 at 1:11 pm

The problem isn’t that old bands are sticking around. The problem is that new bands aren’t picking up the mantle and that, perhaps, we’ve reached a point in history where it’s unfair to have such expectations. We’ve seen this kind of thing before: our most beloved composers died two to three centuries ago. So it’s entirely possible that, as in classical music, the nexus between forward-thinking and pleasant-sounding will forever lie in popular music’s distant past as well, the lines never to cross again. For some, that’s a frightening prospect; for others, not so much. That’s really the point of the article.

6 msgkings September 23, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Good comment.

7 Jim Clay September 23, 2011 at 3:57 pm

There are new bands that are doing good stuff- they just aren’t doing rock. These days, in my opinion, country is where the action is at. YMMV.

8 curmudg September 23, 2011 at 1:49 pm

The times are certainly different. My kids think it’s great to listen to the Who or Aerosmith or the Kinks and lots their friends like Led Zeppelin, etc. (I think this is the Guitar Hero influence).

I don’t think I knew a single high schooler in the 1970s who cared much about Crosby or Judy Garland or Dean Martin. Yet all those singers were closer to the MOR rock era of the 70s than the 70s are to today. Even Glenn Miller would have been more contemporary (temporally) in 1970 than the Who or Zep would be today. Yet musically kids find early rock easier to take than 1970s kids treated pre rock popular music.

9 Benny Lava September 23, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Apples to oranges. In the 1970s high schoolers might have cared about Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and other rockers from the 1950s rather than Crosby and Garland. That is like today’s high school rockers listening to Nirvana, but disregarding Paula Abdul.

10 John S. September 23, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Maybe it’s the 60s and 70s — when being “new” was seen as a good in itself — that represent the cultural anomaly. I recall a George Carlin routine in which a record the DJ had played in the morning was a “golden oldie” by the afternoon. Everybody got the joke: that’s how fast musical tastes and the culture in general were moving back then. Now it’s moving a lot slower, and judging by previous decades, perhaps this is a normal speed.

In which case the author of the piece you linked is merely exhibiting a different form of nostalgia.

11 Jon Rowe September 23, 2011 at 5:01 pm

This sounds like a joke but really isn’t: I think Sha Na Na may have inadvertently invented Punk that day. Listen carefully, they sound like the Ramones then.

12 Edward Burke September 23, 2011 at 8:13 pm

Rock ‘n’ roll: a genre of popular music celebrating adolescent frivolity and excess; amplified hyperbole or cliche of geriatric vintage.

13 Brian September 24, 2011 at 11:56 am

Check out the DVD on Netflix “They came to Play” I was completely taken in with this video of a Van Cliburn ameteur piano comp. that brings 75 contestants from all over the world to compete for 1st prize. Some truly amazing playing of classical music. If you love classical piano this is one not to be missed.

14 georgesdelatour September 24, 2011 at 7:04 pm

Dubstep sounds new. So let’s have more dubstep.

15 Trent October 1, 2011 at 11:45 am

Dubstep is old. The “college bro” WOM WOM dubstep flooding the market these days is pretty embarrassing, and not a shade on the original UK sound. Post-dubstep, however, has been at the forefront for a while and certainly bridges “the nexus between forward-thinking and pleasant-sounding”. (Yes, there’s already a post- variety!)

Electronic music is king, and although these circles have their own fair share of nostalgia/revivalism, there is some amazing, innovative stuff out there, it truly feels like a musical renaissance.

16 Trent October 1, 2011 at 11:49 am

Who works out what’s cool? Well, let’s note that emerging, trendy, hip, edgy, and so on artists and genres – the fashion – is negotiated by producers on the supply side (i.e. artists) and consumers on the demand side (i.e. the audience).

So we might have 2 explanations for the so-called “20 year cycle”.

1) The artists. Nas said it, many people have said it: no idea’s original. Another popular saying: the first cut is the deepest. It could simply be that 20 years ago, today’s late-20s, early-30s artists were having their first musical affair – an experience that would later inform their own creations, perhaps even subtly/unconsciously. We’ve been having an 80’s revival; only recently was the 20th anniversary of Nevermind, it will be telling if grunge/alternative rock makes a comeback.

2) The audience. While the “20 year cycle” is a mainstream phenomenon, we know that the mass market doesn’t really decide what’s cool. Who does? Basically hipsters, bohemians, micro-productive/active consumers, and the “tastemaker” institutions that coordinate and often lead this figuring out/signalling process. For example, music blogs and websites, I’m thinking specifically of Pitchfork, Tiny Mix Tapes and the like, formerly magazine such as NME or even record labels in their “gatekeeper” role. It may just be that it takes around 20 years for the “tastemaker class” to turnover. This would seem to be about right, those who were part of the pioneering “tastemaker class” circa Nevermind, would have filtered through by now, having been replaced by a generation that revered the era without ever having participated in it. And it helps that you don’t have the original tastemakers in your ear telling you “gee I’ve heard this before!”

So it’s a good thing that the artists and the corresponding generation of “tastemakers” come to ascendency at the same time. From here it won’t take too long for the mainstream to catch on… and you have yourself a revival.

On the whole though, while this sort of thing might originate in indie niches, I can’t help thinking this is mostly a mainstream phenomenon/problem. There’s always a new fad, fashion or revival in the “indiesphere”, usually a few happening at a time. It’s not really even noteworthy since there are more than enough experimental and innovative movements punctuating the ebb and flow of revivals. Pioneering “tastemakers” play an important role here too (creating safe niches for experimentation) but that’s another story.

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