Retromania is easy to spot. Simon Reynolds coined the term to lambast the current state of popular music. He claims that “Instead of being about itself, the 2000s has been about every other previous decade happening again all at once”.
Evidence is all around us. The NME is now promoting the ‘1990s Renaissance’, while this year’s biggest two hits have gone beyond retro and into the world of homage: Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ wears its debt to Chic in the most obvious manner, while Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ is caught up in a copyright infringement case with Marvin Gaye’s estate. One recent example that stood out to me came in the review of the latest Arctic Monkeys album AM in Q magazine. They praised Alex Turner for “citing relatively modern influences: Dr Dre and the processed ‘ex-girlfriend’ R&B of Aaliyah”.
Relatively modern? Aaliyah died in 2001 and Dr Dre blueprinted his production techniques with The Chronic, an album that was released in 1992. If sounds made 20 years ago are still considered up-to-date, this is as damning for R&B as it is for indie music. And there is evidence that the rate of progress is slowing down. The 20-year time period from 1953-1973 encompassed a whole cycle of popular music, from the rock ‘n’ roll of Sun Records to the post-modernism of Roxy Music. The period from 1973-1993 saw another turn of the wheel, encompassing punk, post-punk, hip-hop, synth-pop, house music, drum and bass, et al. The period from 1993-2013 has encompassed, well, what exactly?
There’s certainly been much talk of newness. As a consequence, innovation and originality should also be easy to spot. Unfortunately, ‘new’ has become one of the most loosely and overused words in popular music. The term is most problematic when used to justify programming policies or the supposed altruism of the music industry. BBC Radio 1 uses the banner “in new music we trust”, and I’ve heard its DJs state that they are fans of ‘new music’, as though this were a genre. Meanwhile, record companies have used the fact that they are investing money in ‘new’ music as a means of justifying punitive recording contracts and (in a previous life) the high cost of CDs.
The difficulty with all of this, as Simon Reynolds is well aware, is that just because an artist is newly signed or newly promoted on the radio, it doesn’t mean that their music is reaching beyond formulas that are already in place. In fact, it is the backward-looking nature of so many newly signed acts that makes retromania seem such a virulent strain. Although it wouldn’t necessarily win them any listeners, a more admirable slogan for Radio 1 would be ‘in modernism we trust’. Record companies, too, would be more likely to win sympathy if they were to apply modernist criteria: to search for artists who push boundaries, who play with form, who might even dare to be unpopular.
Instead, what radio and record labels are excelling at is nowness. Like any dominant ideology this can be hard to detect when you are living in its midst. And yet every pop era has it – a way of producing records, a way of singing songs, a lyrical focus, an adoption of technology – that is absolutely its own. Although I agree with Simon Reynolds’ thesis that this is an era in which retro abounds, I don’t agree with him when he says that “the pop present [has become] ever more crowded out by the past”. 2013 might not be bursting with radical innovation, but it certainly has a prevailing aesthetic.
Or, rather, it has a number of prevailing aesthetics. It also has something that helps us to spot these different types of nowness: market segmentation. This is an era in which different tastes are identified and catered for. In an earlier post I mentioned the changing demographics of popular music consumption: in the UK in 1976 over 75% of all records were bought by 12-20 year olds; this can be contrasted with last year when 13-19 year olds accounted for just 13.8% of the music purchased on the internet. In 2012 the largest market share belonged to 35-44 year olds, but each age bracket between 13 and 64 was fairly similar, ranging between 11% and 20% of the market. One effect of this is that to have a truly big hit you have to appeal to each of these age groups, hence the success of an album such Adele’s 21 or the pan-generational dancing that ‘Gangnam Style’ occasioned. The reverse is that each age group is segmented, targeted and marketed.
This can be witnessed most clearly at the BBC. Back in the 1970s, when record buying was dominated by the tastes of teenagers, radio followed suit. Simon Frith has written of the oddity that, although the majority of Radio 1’s daytime listeners were older people, tuning in in “factories and shops, on building sites and motorways”, what they were listening to was chart music centred on teenage consumption. The compromise reached by the BBC was that, although their playlist was based on the charts, they would “select from within each genre the easiest-to-listen-to sounds: […] easy listening punk, easy listening disco, easy listening rock”.
Things are different now. Radio 1 has a brief to alienate older listeners. In the words of the station’s music policy director, Nigel Harding, they do this by analysing “the age of the artist’s primary audience. We always try our best to select tracks that are truly relevant to our core demographic of 15-29 year-olds”.
They are successful at it too. I am now safely outside Radio 1’s demographic and I find most of its broadcasting unlistenable. It’s not that I don’t like the songs; it’s the overall sound of the station that is ill-matched with my taste. To tune is to receive the shock of the now.
Richard Osborne is a lecturer in Popular Music at Middlesex University. His book Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record was published by Ashgate in 2012. His music blog is available at https://richardosbornevinyl.blogspot.co.uk/