Sunday, April 21, 2013

Nostalgia in Sheep’s Clothing

Listening to music as an adult is not the same as listening as a teenager.  I mean as a dedicated fan, someone who never loses the passion to have good new music in his life.  It becomes easier in some senses as your knowledge as a longstanding fan helps you spot influences and appreciate that a musician has his head on straight.  You gather that there’s really not much out there that is new, but there’s a lot out there that can sound new based on how a musician interprets his own talent through his influences.

It becomes harder in that you tend to hear the same things, over and over.  The so-so powerpop that fans rave about as the second coming of The Beatles, but you know it’s average pop music.  The electro/dance music that sounds just as boring and halfway there as the electro/dance music from the 90s and 80s.  But we’re supposed to pretend it’s good because it’s new, and uninformed writers are carrying on about what is essentially the same rave scene that has existed for decades.  The flavor-of-the-month indie rock band that is a shallow derivative of indie rock music from the 80s.

But to point this out is often regarded as sacrilegious.  It’s hearsay at the altar of eternal youth.  It makes you old.  Bitter.  Out of touch.

And I can live with that.  I’d rather be honest and use my experience to judge music accordingly.  Frankly, I’d rather just listen to music,  not judge it – this is a large reason why I don’t review it so much anymore.  If I don’t like it, I’d rather not listen to it, or be forced to listen to it for money then give an honest negative opinion.  I hardly have enough time for good music that I want to listen to … it seems like a bad proposition to listen to mediocre-to-bad music for money.  An even worse proposition to pretend I like it so I can keep a job!

That’s where I draw the line, and notice an affectation with fans and music writers that I call nostalgia in sheep’s clothing.  It makes sense for younger fans to defend their music against criticism.  It’s “their” music in some highly identifiable sense tied into their physical age.  And they don’t know any better.  They’re tasteless.  I mean that literally, not as an insult.  Their sense of taste is under-developed.  They have very little listening experience, very little to compare and contrast.  Sometimes you stumble onto brilliant things in that state – think Elvis or The Beatles and how much flak they caught from older fans when they first came along.  But most of the times, you listen to shit and claim it as your own.  Not knowing any better.  Not caring.

How do I know this?  Because I surely still have the Bo Donaldsen & the Heywoods, PaperLace and Terry Jacks songs on my iPod to prove it.  This music came out in my childhood in the mid-70s.  I love it, despite recognizing it’s utter shite.  It’s so intrinsically tied into my childhood that hearing it connects me directly to that time period, which wasn’t a bad time to be a kid.  My weird brand of nostalgia guarantees that I don’t look back with rose-colored glasses; those times surely were not better for me in any sense.  The simple act of remembering, I recognize, is a good and healthy thing.

That’s a glaring example of nostalgia.  Flash forward as little as two years, and you have punk, mostly in the form of The Sex Pistols and that whole English scene (that would not have existed without key American influences like The Stooges, The New York Dolls, The Ramones and the entire downtown NYC punk scene).  Punk was a different beast in the U.K. – it was much more popular and socially relevant than it was here.  Very few people in America saw The Sex Pistols play – most who did were there because of the “freak show” factor created by the media blowing this thing up to be much more intimidating than it was.  It was just a bunch of snotty British kids doing their best New York Dolls riffs, with a smart guy like Johnny Rotten coming up with some genuinely striking lyrics and concepts. Comparatively few people bought their albums at the time, too.  That was true of all these punk/new wave acts, save for eventual break-out stars like Blondie and The Talking Heads.

I single out punk because that’s where nostalgia in sheep’s clothing was birthed.  Nostalgia in sheep’s clothing is essentially older and/or more experienced music fans and writers priding themselves on still being cutting edge and hip, when the reality is they’re only presenting themselves as such due to their nostalgia for that time in their lives when they were age-specific to what was cutting edge and hip.

They would deny this vehemently.  Nostalgia, man, is for guys sitting around listening to Steve Miller and BTO albums, man.  Not people like me who have the new Alabama Shakes album and just went to that Mumford & Sons show the other night!

Right.  First time I heard Mumford & Sons, I thought, these guys sound like Dave Matthews Band roadies.  Really?  This is what all the fuss is about?  These guys are rustic, and authentic and the real thing?  I’ve spent the past two decades listening to a vast sea of alt country music that is far more rustic, and authentic, and real.  But I’m supposed to be falling all over myself because, I don’t know, there’s a hipster twinge thrown in because these guys are British and in their 20s?  Fuck’s sake, in the 90s they were pulling the exact same hype with Gomez, who were another similarly average band that I was supposed to be going crazy over.

The nostalgist in sheep’s clothing will present himself as someone who is pure of heart, who never “lost the fire” of discovery, who really understands “the kids” because he’s always been a champion of the underdog, the oppressed, the misunderstood.  If you could take Superman’s super-human abilities, but give them to Clark Kent, so he could walk around in his nerdy horn rims, still getting shot down by Lois Lane, but quietly possessing these awesome powers, that would be your perfect nostalgist in sheep’s clothing (save these days he’d have that standard-issue hipster beard).  He’s really a great guy – and he’s got dozens of friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter who will confirm this.

Coming across people like this, when you listen to music for decades, becomes just as commonplace and repetitive as so much of the mediocre new music they espouse.  It gets tiresome.  The effect for me is like seeing Will Ferrell in the movie Step Brothers, wearing a t-shirt featuring the cover of Leo Sayer’s Endless Flight album … despite the fact that his character is in his 30s.  (Granted, there’s a reverse sort of hipness in anyone wearing a Leo Sayer t-shirt decades after the fact.)

They’re incapable of criticizing any new music because doing so might insinuate that they’ve “grown old” in some sense and thus are on the cusp of being hopelessly out of touch.  As most adults who don’t give a shit about this utterly childish nonsense are.  My Dad wore his disdain for rock and roll like a badge, and I loved him for it.  It didn’t mean I had to hate him or think he was small-minded … he just didn’t like the music and had no urge to do so.  I don’t have enough time to listen to music I love.  Most adults don’t have or make the time to listen to any music.  And they’re not losing any sleep over this!

So I’ve learned to treat the nostalgists in sheep’s clothing with a grain of salt.  They mean well.  I see what they’re doing.  I appreciate what they’re doing.  Sometimes they’re doing this, as noted, simply to keep working in a field that is built on exploiting the young and their unformed senses of taste.  I do mind the open-faced lying and kid gloves these guys (I rarely see women with this condition) will use when discussing new music that they and I know is sort of OK … but not the four- or five-star breakthrough it’s being hyped as.  It’s disingenuous, at best.

It’s the difference between good and great music.  The nostalgist in sheep’s clothing will tell you that great music is still being made … yadda yadda yadda … you just have to look for it … you just have to engage yourself in social media and keep up with the local live scene.  It’s on you to be the sort of overly responsible fan you never really were, save in whatever small scene you were in during your teens and 20s that you followed religiously, while ignoring everything else.

I don’t hear any great music being made these days.  I don’t hear any great bands.  I’ve heard bands and artists lean in that direction.  Wilco was on that path for awhile, until they dumped Jay Bennett, who clearly had a strong hand in the songwriting and production of the band.  Wilco’s sort of OK now.  And sort of OK isn’t a bad thing to be.  The Flaming Lips were on the path, too, for awhile.  But their last few albums, including the one they put out this past Tuesday, is amelodic garbage.  I don’t know what twisted path Steven Drodz is wandering down (I’m assuming he’s responsible for more of the music while Wayne Coyne does more of the lyrics), but it’s been pretty awful the past few years.

And you have singers like the late Amy Winehouse and Adele showing real promise, who are good, but I wouldn’t classify them as great.  That’s the thing.  I would argue with anyone that there is plenty of good music being made now.  A lot of it.  More than when I was a kid or a teenager.  Much more.  And I enjoy finding this stuff and listening to it, even now.

But there is no great music, and there are no great artists.  I’m talking giants from the 60s like The Stones, The Beatles, The Kinks, The Doors, The Who, Motown, Stax Volt.  In the 70s, Bowie, Elton John, Springsteen, Seger, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Van Morrison, any number of new wave bands, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield.  Even the 80s, people like Prince, U2, Cougar Mellencamp.  These people knew how to be inspired recording artists, write hits that would transcend their genre, appeal to the masses and have staying power.  They were superstars, and for good reason.

Nearly all of what I hear today is derivative, which is why I feel completely comfortable commenting on it, because I know the music.  I’m not a Glenn Miller fan putting down Black Sabbath because I understand Big Band music but don’t understand heavy metal.  I tend to know the music I have an underwhelming opinion on, and my opinion tends to be such because I’m aware of artists from the past making the same kind of music … only better.  There has been no massive paradigm shift in pop music over the past few decades.  Various production styles might have changed … but it’s still essentially melodic pop music.  Hiphop?  I tend to ignore it because, much as I recognized at some point in the late 80s, it bores me musically and receives far too much attention.  It should have been a trend that came and went by the mid-90s. 

(Acknowledging as much would be a death kiss for most music critics.  Of course, they can turn a blind eye on country music and no one will care.  But they’re somehow expected to play the game with this genre, which no one has ever quite justified to me.  In the 70s and 80s, critics took great pride in belittling the most popular music of the time, bands like Styx, Boston, Journey, REO Speedwagon, Eddie Money, etc.  Something happened in our culture in the past few decades that critics refuse to find fault with the most popular music of the time, especially if it crosses color lines.  You should go back and read the scathing reviews Barry White often suffered; Barry White had more talent in his little finger than everyone in hiphop has ever had.)

Being derivative isn’t bad.  The Black Crowes are completely derivative of early 70s rock bands like The Faces and Humble Pie.  Yet … there’s real talent there.  Chris and Rich Robinson know how to write good songs in that genre.  And they have the vibe of the music down to a T.

I don’t hold being derivative against the band – they’re musicians making music, the best they can.  It’s often the fan base, and the older fan base, the nostalgists in sheep’s clothing, waving the flag a little too high for my tastes.  It wouldn’t make me feel any younger, or any more in touch, raving about The Alabama Shakes as if they were operating on the same level as The Talking Heads or The Replacements.  I’d just feel like a liar.  And I’d have to wonder why I was lying.  (For the record, I downloaded the whole Alabama Shakes album for $5.00 on Amazon the day it came out, and I like it.  They’re a good band.  Not great.)

For the past few years, I routinely check in on this woman’swebsite.  I like her attitude and how much she obviously loves the bands she writes about.  I gather she’s around 30.  Some of the bands she writes about, I do like, but some just strike me as the usual suspects, hipster music that just doesn’t do much of anything for me.  It isn’t bad.  It isn’t good.  It’s very tasteful, acoustic-based artists making music that, again, sounds like folk rock from the 60s and 70s, sometimes the 80s, that I simply grasp was better then.  Not out of any senses of nostalgia or humiliating hipsters.  There were just better artists writing better songs.  How many times have I clicked on a link for new bands like this and wished, “Christ, I hope this is the one that actually lives up the hype.”

It’s not even this aspect that gets on me at times with bands like this.  It’s the overly earnest tone, the gawky self seriousness of so many of these artists.  Wispy guys with receding hairlines and beards who think they’re communicating some deeply felt human emotion, when they sound more like drunks spouting fractured self-help aphorisms at AA meetings.  These are people with musical talent – I’ll never deny that – but there is something so patently self reverential about these folks that I feel put off.  A generational thing?  Probably.  But again, these people are not reinventing the wheel.  They’re making music in a genre I’m entirely familiar with, and it’s not grabbing me.  Compared to artists like Joni Mitchell?  Jackson Browne? Loudon Wainwright?  Before them, Dylan, Guthrie, Seeger?

I’d love to give an enthusiastic thumbs up, but I just can’t.  Because I know better.  We all reach a point in our lives where we know better.  Is this a curse?  No.  It’s a sign to branch out, to move away from what we know and embrace other things.  And I’ve surely done that with so many other kinds of music.  I can appreciate that a lot of these musicians are willing to strip down their sound to just voice and acoustic instruments.  To me, that’s a sign of real musical talent, or at least people who want to stand or fall on that bare talent.  I can respect that on a very deep, abiding level.  And it’s a level I’d rather not bullshit people on when I’m not hearing anything substantial.  Doesn’t mean they can’t aspire to a higher level of creativity.  But chances are they won’t if the deeply average music they make now is heralded as “great” (the most over-used word in music).  There's the rub.


Beatles Comment Guy said...

Interesting thoughts, though I do wonder to what extent the critics and hipsters *really do* like the new stuff. Even if it's average at best, judged by the most objective standards, maybe they sort of dig it.

My wife and I disagree a lot in music taste. The side note here is that I'm generally into music that's melodic and has what I deem to be good lyrics-she prefers sounds that conjure up atmospheres mood, feelings, etc, which can be anything from vaguely rave-like psychedlic stuff from the last 20 years or the alt-countryish stuff (most that sounds to me like garbage-I loved a line a read that The Decembrists sounds like "the worst Neil Young song you've ever heard but with an accordion". I guess it's a matter that I think I appreciate music as music, but for her it's a pleasant sound to have on in the background.

But more on point, we've always had differences, but one of our more recent bones of contention is that she stays somewhat up to date with the new stuff, and, to at least a certain extent, in a deliberate way. I know she's not trying to be "hip" or gain street cred, per se, but I do suspect it's partially motivated to not feel totally out of touch or old or irrelevant or whatever else. I don't know to what extent people really are trying to impress others with their taste, but they have to like the stuff if only to a degree. Personally, I'm more annoyed that they genuinely care for mediocre to crappy music than their attempts to be cool or "with it".

Ken D said...

Read this piece after seeing your comments re lack of greatness over at Burning Wood which I thought were spot on. (I didn't know about your blog before but will definitely return.)
I don't about the etiquette here but I think the Burning Wood readers would appreciate your expanded remarks. Consider adding a link over there?

William S. Repsher said...

Thanks, Ken. I think it was just serendipity that this longer post I wrote a few weeks ago matched up with the topic on Sal's site. As it was, I pretty much summarized what I wrote here! As you can see, I can blow on all day about this topic, but I think I'll leave it at that. I'm sure some folks over there must think, "Jesus Christ, that Repsher guy is going off on another tagent" ... so I'd rather not wear out my welcome!

Ken D said...

Understood. And thanks for articulating some things that feel very familiar to me (but I'm not a writer).

And I don't think you're anywhere close to wearing out your welcome at Sal's site. Your comments always seem to elicit thoughtful response. Don't back off...

William S. Repsher said...

Thanks. Sal's got a good thing going on over there, and I'm sure you agree that it's a pleasure to chip in every now and then with our takes on whatever's being put forth.