It’s often hard to tell what’s going on with pop music superlatives these days. Parameters change and I am way too lazy to keep up. When a band has the most consecutive number one singles that any band has ever had, is that a spectacularly good thing? Or is it just much easier to get a number one these days, because only four people in the country still buy singles? (Their mums won’t let them use computers, because they are Mormons; all you have to do is ring them all up and ask nicely, and you will be number one for ever.)
Here is a statistical trinket that I think we can decipher, how-ever lackadaisically we follow the hit parade. When tickets for George Michael’s tour, starting in September, went on sale last month, they virtually sold out in two hours. Extra concerts had to be added throughout the day. Four of the dates are at Earl’s Court in London (capacity: 20,000). In total, more than 200,000 adults have bought a ticket to see George Michael. If you take into account the nation’s properly old people, its frothing homophobes and everybody too young to remember who George Michael is, you will be able to calculate that every single normal, right-thinking adult has a ticket to see George. Yes, that includes you. If you don’t know about it yet, it’s because it is a surprise for your 33rd birthday.
Barry Marshall, of the concert promoter Marshall Arts, said it was the fastest sale of tickets he had witnessed in 30 years. This was the same week, let’s not forget, that Take That played to an audience of 9,000, most of whom (according to reviewers) ended up in tears. One of the Take That line-up, Howard Donald, commented afterwards of his audience, “They’ve all got bigger tits now. It’s amazing!”
Who would have thought he was such a skilled diplomat? What he meant to say was: “Our audience now is an awful lot older . . . they are all between ten and 15 years older. Not one person there was in the regular, boy-band catchment of 12-20. If their tits are bigger, in other words, it is simply as part of the general laying-down-of-fat known as ‘middle-age spread’.” Except, of course, that it’s unthinkable these days for a person in their thirties to think of themselves as “middle-aged”.
Meanwhile, festivals were announcing line-ups with Depeche Mode headlining; and thrusting youngish bands such as Outkast were looking for guest vocals from Kate Bush. First, let’s make a distinction – Take That et al are not the schlock equivalent of Blur and Pulp, who were likewise big in the early Nineties, and can likewise fill a stadium. George Michael hasn’t produced anything in ages. Kate Bush’s 2005 album was pretty much the first time she’d come out of her house in more than a decade. Take That, with the obvious exception of Robbie Williams, has reached the point of de facto obscurity, their faces commanding recognition but no currency. We’re not, in other words, talking about performers with a steady stream of material, gathering fans, appealing on their own musical merits to members of all sorts of generations. We’re talking about straightforward nostalgia – punters in the 29-41 bracket who are squeezing culture into these unnatural, jokey-poky, quasi-cabaret shapes where irony counts for more than originality and, indeed, for more than anything at all.
Of course it isn’t just music – while Take That reprise their dance routines, Doctor Who is sweeping the Baftas and some numbnut is engaged in making a film version of the execrable Dallas. But music is an interesting place to try to winkle out the engines of this nostalgia movement which, like all kitsch, is neither backwards nor forwards, but simply standing, jiggling.
Its herald, if you like, was School Disco, the rubbishy Nineties club – still going – where people in the latest of their twenties turned up in school uniform (my, it was titillating) to dance to Wham!. Basically, it was a bunch of people appearing to revel self-deprecatingly in their own juvenilia, but actually saying, “I don’t care that I’m pushing 30; I don’t want to shuffle off stage and cede my place at the centre of culture. But I can’t be arsed to discover the new stuff, so let’s keep it as it is, shall we?”
Music journalists, instead of saying, “Laters, Mum, is it not time for your Valium hot chocolate?” are indulging the trip down pop memory lane. Why? Because they are all in their forties and fifties. Even when they hate some- thing, they’ll never hate it as much as a 21-year-old would. They approach with the steady and reasoned tread of mature adults. Even the young bloods are in their thirties. When you do find a music critic who’s actually young enough to bring with them the rage the medium requires, it’s some novelty turn such as Peaches Geldof, so celebrity-schooled in the ways of consensus that they might as well be 40.
It pleased me, for a while, to suppose that this was all happening because my generation was simply better at pop music than the one that followed. (Look at Betty Boo, pal. As a songwriter, she pisses all over her successors. When she wrote a song for Hear’Say, it was the bestselling UK single ever. That’s why we revisit the players of the Eighties. Because they are better. That’s what I thought.) However, this doesn’t stack up – since the beginning of time, or at least since the Monkees (same difference), some acts have written their own stuff and some haven’t, and there have been Svengalis and manufactured poppets, and every once in a whatever, some song crops up that’s amazing. The only difference now is that, instead of looking for the next big thing, we’re just looking for the next good reason why the old big thing will still do just fine.
In normal circumstances, I wouldn’t care, but the fact is this: commentators look at society. They see an ageing population, people postponing starting families, failing to save or put in to pensions – people, in other words, failing to become adults. And they always blame women, because it’s always women who are putting their “careers” first. And it’s all moonshine.
This issue is no more gendered than perking up when you hear an ice-cream van. Nobody wants to grow up. Nobody wants to be superseded in their occupation of the territory of youth; nobody wants the mainstream to reflect the taste of anybody but themselves. If that means pretending to like Wham! then so be it.
Zoe Williams writes for the Guardian