If you include the holograms, this week nine musicians with a combined age of 686 – Paul McCartney, Elton John, the Rolling Stones and ABBA – are once again the biggest cultural news in the UK. The Stones play a huge gig in Hyde Park, ABBA’s virtual selves continue their Voyage around a specially built dome, John continues his farewell tour and McCartney marks his 80th birthday by headlining Glastonbury. With a major Stones retrospective on the BBC coming this summer, it can seem that the death grip these artists have on our culture is unrelenting. Just as they stole all the flats and houses, the postwar generation took positions of power in the media and music business, then sold their postwar decades back to us as the greatest in human achievement.
As that era recedes further into the past, it is interesting to witness the shift of nostalgia to the subsequent generations. I had assumed that, with the fragmentation and instant gratification of the streaming age, the hegemony of the nostalgia industry would break down. Instead, it has just moved down the generations. It isn’t just grey hairs that make me realise I am getting old – Britpop bands I read about in the NME at school now do package tours. The music of my early 20s has returned in the #indiesleaze hashtag on social media, and younger people I know, bizarrely, revere the Strokes as a heritage act – anything can become hashtag-iconic these days. Rather than being a blip enforced by the baby boomer gatekeepers, musical nostalgia seems hard-wired into us.
I might personally never want to go back to when Radiohead’s The Bends soundtracked solipsistic loneliness and misery, but for many it’s human nature to use songs to teleport back to their teenage years: the music that collided with adolescent hormones and our first experiences of love were often a form of comfort against coming-of-age trials in an increasingly tough and turbulent world.
To attack nostalgia is nothing new. More than a decade ago, the critic Simon Reynolds published Retromania, an incisive look at a musical culture that seemed to wallow in ironic takes on the past rather than aspiring to anything fresh. The late writer and academic Mark Fisher asked: “The whole 21st century music scene could be described as nostalgic: where is the sense of the future now?” While I can sympathise with this view, there is a danger that such pessimism removes the joy of music from those for whom it is all new, right now. The mass accessibility of the internet now means that all of musical history can be brought up at the click of the button.
The shock of the new is still out there, but it is generally found in niche musical movements that exist in an increasingly connected, global underground scene – anything from K-pop to the music released on the Kampala-based Nyege Nyege Tapes, to what we at the music website I co-edit, the Quietus, call “New Weird Britain” (and for that matter “New Weird Poland” or “New Weird Ukraine”). The problem is that a corporate mainstream musical culture based on web traffic, social media interaction and streaming algorithms is likely to ignore all this in favour of easy sells from the past.
It’s also a mistake to assume that looking back is always a bad thing. It’s important to shine the light on artists and movements that never had their due at the time – often because the behemoths of 1960s and 1970s rock were sucking up all the cultural oxygen. There are many artists who were deemed insufficiently white, straight or male by the supposedly radical music press in an era full of racism, homophobia and misogyny. Sometimes they were simply too weird, or too German. Kraftwerk are a case in point. They are revered as a heritage act now, but some of the headlines that accompanied their rise in the 1970s – “The final solution to the music problem” – could have been written by Nigel Farage.
I wonder if Fab Macca Wacky Thumbs Aloft at Glastonbury is really the enemy after all. While his crowd will set up in service station pint-holding deckchairs for the big names on the Pyramid Stage, tens of thousands more will be charging around for the best in current dance music at the fruitily hedonistic Block9, or commercially successful and groundbreaking pop from Billie Eilish and Kendrick Lamar. The world’s most sonically challenging and innovative contemporary music owes very little to the legacy of the likes of the Beatles and the Stones. Paradoxically, for all that it is accessible, you might just have to work a little harder to find it.
Whatever happens, this is boomer pop’s last hurrah. We won’t see artists as culturally dominant as the Stones and Beatles again, but this isn’t because music being made now is any less exciting or radical, but because culture has fragmented, with no real central narrative. This might be a pain if you’re trying to book a festival that needs to sell tickets to tens of thousands of people – but for the rest of us, is it such a bad thing?