Why it's time for pop music to stop wallowing in nostalgia

While fans’ eyes are fixed on the songs of the past, artists eye the future - and who can blame them?

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I’m constantly shocked by how nostalgic pop music has become, forever harping on about classic old albums, or sentimentally wallowing in idealised accounts of bygone years. Bursting into tears at not being able to get a ticket for whoever has just re-formed in order to play their bestest album from 30 years ago. God, when did we all get so stuck on the bloody past?

There has long been an element of this conservatism among audiences, some of whom use music as a madeleine to whisk them back to their teens, and would prefer to keep artists they like in a little cupboard marked “My Memories”, taking them out every now and then to sing the correct song and fire up the correct feelings.

If you want to make a musician of a certain age laugh (then cringe, weep and want to die) just show them the “Streets of London” sketch from the BBC comedy series Big Train. Kevin Eldon plays the old folkie Ralph McTell, singing his biggest hit, “Streets of London”, to a beaming crowd. The song ends and as the applause dies Kevin/Ralph says, “I’d like to uh, try a new song now.” Simon Pegg, at the bar, drops his glass. In the silence it smashes loudly on the floor.

“What’s he doing?” asks Tracy-Ann Oberman in the front row. “No idea,” replies Mark Heap.

“This is a new song, and this one’s called . . .”

“‘STREETS OF LONDON’,” they shout.

“. . . ‘The Highwayman’.”

He sings and the crowd bays at him until, undone by their persistence and the futility of his resistance, he gives in and the song mutates back into the familiar old form, the familiar old line “So how can you tell me you’re lo-o-onely”, and the crowd relaxes into happy applause. Normality reasserted.

It’s hilarious, but bleakly so. Tragicomic. And if you have a long career behind you with one or two hits, it’s much too true for comfort. I keep thinking of it at the moment because Ben has a new solo album out this week, and as I watch him go through all the usual routines of pre-release anxiety – reviews, interviews, playlists, ticket sales – one thing stands out as a special irritant, and it’s the question from supposed fans about why he isn’t simply repeating his past. Why aren’t EBTG re-forming, going on tour and singing the old hits?

I don’t mean to moan. You might say a singer should be grateful if anyone anywhere wants to hear them sing anything, ever. But it breaks my heart when applied to Ben, the least nostalgic, least resting-on-his-laurels person I know. Always more driven than me, he was the reason we formed a band, made records, ever did a gig. He still has no appetite at all for musical nostalgia. Along with writing and recording, he’s constantly searching for new music to listen to, whether it be new bands, or new songs by singers he already loves. He shares those songs via a Spin Cycle mix on Spotify. Ever curious, ever refreshed.

Almost dying at the age of 29 turned Ben into someone with a lust for life and a hunger to keep moving forward. So I get frustrated by people who niggle away at the two of us, telling us what we ought to do, or how much they preferred our earlier, funnier films. The point for both of us is that, however good the past was – and don’t get me wrong, we’re very proud of all the old songs and all the success – we are living in the present, and looking forward to the future. It’s such a shame to get so addicted to familiarity.

Besides, the questions assume that we are ignorant of popular demand – whereas, in fact, no artist today, watching the offers and financial inducements roll in, can be in any doubt that the mining of the past = payday. But we keep finding ourselves saying, with a deep breath, “I’d like to, uh, try something new now.” It can be terrifying.

I watch the Big Train sketch and laugh, but that audience? They’re the idiots, aren’t they, not Ralph with his new song. With fans like that, who needs enemies? So, y’know, love your old records all you like, but don’t go through life shouting: “Streets of London!” Don’t be that person.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her books include Naked at the Albert Hall, Bedsit Disco Queen and, most recently, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia 

This article appears in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war