Culture Rover

#155 - Infinity Goes Up On Trial

"My most memorable childhood fantasy was to have a mansion with catacombs underneath containing, alphabetized in endless winding dimly-lit musty rows, every album ever released." - Lester Bangs

New York Times music critics Kelefa Sanneh and Ben Ratliff have been writing dueling articles about the changing status of nostalgia in pop music (articles require registration).

Both critics resist the temptation to dismiss as nostalgia the recent appearance of glam, punk, postpunk, hip-hop, and college-rock reunions, the new trend toward concert recreations of "classic" albums, and the proliferation of reissues by well-known and obscure musicians alike.

Because of its sentimentality, its fetishization of the past, its lack of engagement with the here and now, this kind of repackaging might have previously sparked accusations of being the antithesis of popular music. But Sanneh and Ratliff notice how there is a new kind of historical sensibility infusing pop, one that closes the previously bemoaned gap between the "sounds of now" and the "sounds of then."

Though neither Sanneh and Ratliff do so, one is tempted to read a politics in this transformation of pop. Pop, as the name suggests, used to explode the old with the new. It challenged the power of entrenched tradition, authority, and control.

But, in recent years, the notion of relentless change has come to dominate. It is celebrated precisely by the most insidious and entrenched powers. Where once pop might have challenged authority, now its emphasis on the new is the authoritative mode of being. Once new pop acts shocked and awed; now the American military does.

Pop's call for "something different" is now precisely the dominant, and hence oddly static, mode of domination. An order based on disorder has been born, a sameness born of an ever-changing motion, a stability born of mayhem.

Any politics of resistance pop possessed has been neutralized. In an era where power works by a celebration of the speed up -- the ever-increasing flurry of information, work, fun, people, machines, money, ideas, emotions, sensations, life, death -- pop can no longer punch through with the blissful immediacy of something different.

In this context, a reinvestment in "back then" acquires new energies for meaning, for hope, for transformation, for resistance. The archive, the canon, the past, the rearrangement of memory, the ghost of nostalgia does not seize up transformation, but actually might become a new source code, a new wellspring of resistance.

The aura of authenticity, the enchantment of art: they continue to be political hotspots in all of this. In an era of the vast, hyperlinked online musical storehouse, with its endless passageways, portals, and connections between musical locales, artists, albums, songs, audiences, genres, and styles, the distance collapses between the secret magic of lost musics, places, and peoples and the immediate experience of found musics, places, and peoples.

It isn't like it was back in '97, '87, '77, '67, '57, ad infinitum. But it is like it is in '07. The boundaries of time mutate, and with these re-integrations of past and present, old rules give way.

A CBGB's of the mind takes shape. It is at once a nostalgized catacomb of the dead and a pulsating forum for present life. The dank hallways of the sonic archives suddenly blaze in the spotlights of a new commons.

Paradoxically, in a world where ceaseless change provides the means for maintaining a terrifying order, music that is, on the surface, the "same as it ever was" might be serving as an engine of reconfiguration.

18 May 2007

Back to #154

Go to #156