Pop will eat itself

The Stone Roses reunion shows how much we love revisiting our musical past.

"The day after Man City win the European Cup"- that was bass player Mani's prediction for the day when an eager public could expect to see a reformation of one of the great Nineties groups yet to jump on the reunion band wagon. United-supporting Mani probably thought his quip, made back in 2006 following City's modest 15th place finish in the Premier League and two years before Abu Dhabi investment transformed the club, was the sporting equivalent of declaring "when hell freezes over". Well times, as we know, have changed; maybe he jumped before he was pushed.

The Stone Roses' reunion, initially two concerts in Heaton Park, Manchester next June that will be followed by a world tour, grew to seem increasingly likely, not just as the fortunes of Manchester City improved, but also as a growing number of their peers succumbed to the temptation of one last swansong and, let's face it, one last payday. Mancunian compatriots The Happy Mondays did it in 2004, as did James in 2007, when Tim Booth rejoined the band's original line-up. Blur finally set aside their differences in 2008 only to be rewarded with a headline slot at the following year's Glastonbury, as were Pulp, the band who struck lucky when they replaced the unavailable Stone Roses for the festival in 1995, who reformed in May and made a critically acclaimed cameo at Worthy Farm this June.

Going further back, the list of rock and roll second comings is pretty illustrious: Led Zeppelin, the Police, the Sex Pistols, the Velvet Underground. But given that all those reunions ended up being temporary and not a single studio album was recorded in the brief hiatus when all those hatchets were buried, are we foolish to get excited by the latest get-togethers, and what is the effect of this phenomenon on artists trying to make a name for themselves for the first time?

Simon Reynolds, author of Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past, is clearly concerned about the potentially stifling impact that the "bands reunited" trend may have on creativity: "There is something peculiar, even eerie, about pop's vulnerability to its own history ... When we listen back to the early 21st century, will we hear anything that defines the epoch?" he writes. It's easy to see why, for many festival and concert organisers, booking acts made famous in days gone by is a safer option. The secret to the success of reunions like those of Blur and Pulp is that they chose to play a limited number of high profile concerts, thus maximising their appeal to their pre-existing and newly acquired fan bases. The limited edition approach to the comeback if you like. And for many fans that is the appeal: tick a box you didn't think you'd be able to, say you've seen Jimmy Page play live, never mind that he's in his sixties, not this thirties. This, though, clearly leaves the returning artists with a limited shelf-life - once the novelty of their reappearance has worn off, so will their ability to fill stadiums. Indeed, in the modern era it is only Take That who have managed to maintain their popularity in both their pre and post break-up eras, and that largely is due to the fact that they aren't still churning out the same old tunes they were 15 years ago.

Whether the Stone Roses reunion endures long enough for them to make a long overdue appearance at Michael Eavis's festival in 2013 (there is no Glastonbury next year) remains to be seen. But if it does it'll be hard to shake the feeling that the crowd is participating in the mass re-enactment of a musical era long since passed. Although there will always be those über-nostalgics on hand to tell you it's not as good second time around. Now, what odds on Oasis headlining Glastonbury 2020?

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era