Tuesday, August 30, 2011

As the writer Touré noted (via his tweetstream), last Sunday’s Video Music Awards was a veritable retro-fiesta.
It was almost as though MTV was purposefully presenting a smorgasbord of evidence to substantiate the claims of Retromania.
Exhibit 1:
Accompanied by simple ‘n’ spare piano, wearing a vintage frock, her hand fluttering over her chest to signify the bursting pressure of all that heart ‘n’ soul, Adele’s “Someone Like You” – vowel sounds stretched out like lovesick moo-ing, a parody of Etta-circa-1965 passion.

Exhibit 2:
The tribute to the late Amy Winehouse... Russell Brand and Tony Bennett both separately invoke Billy Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald as her ancestors. Proclaming Winehouse’s influence on contemporary pop, Brand singles out Adele in the audience as someone who’d gladly admit her debts to Amy. But how can someone so influenced and indebted herself actually be described as an influence, be deemed an artistic creditor? Footage of Bennett and Winehouse duetting just a few months before her death offers yet more grotesque caricature of bygone blackness in the grand Brit tradition of Joe Cocker.
The Winehouse tribute is completed by Bruno Mars’s version of “Valerie” , the singer, band, and backing vocalists all done up in Motown Revue- style suits. My wife says it sounded like a Wham! circa “I’m Your Man” B-side; I reckon more like a Jo-Boxers B-Side.

Exhibit 3:
Lady Gaga’s drag king alter-ego “Jo Calderone”—greased back hair, cigarette tucked behind the ear, lip-curled sneer. A routine that commentators have variously sourced in Annie Lennox’s turn as a sideburned 1950s hood when Eurythmics performed “Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This” at the 1984 Grammys, and “Johnny” in The Outsiders as played by Ralph Macchio. Personally I was reminded somewhat of Anybodys, the dykey tomboy Jets hanger-on in West Side Story who with painful-to-watch desperation wants to join the gang. But whatever it was meant to refer back to, a retro cliché all the way.

Exhibit 4:
Beyonce’s “Love On Top” could be one of the non-successful follow-up singles to disco-funk smash “The Best of My Love” by The Emotions, who were Sister Sledge to Chic’s Earth Wind and Fire. There is nothing about it that couldn’t have been recorded in 1979.

Exhibit 5:
Piece de resistance of the retrospectacle: Chris Brown’s Nineties tribute, a medley that ran through Wu Tang’s “Protect Ya Neck” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” At the switch between tunes, a robot voice helpfully pinpointed the year: “1993”, “1991”. Then the femmebot voice declared “the present: the future”. Cueing a Chris Brown song from this year’s LP that sounds exactly like mid-Nineties trance. The music was overshadowed by the theatrics: oddly graceless and stompy dance routines, plus Brown upping the ante on Pink’s circus wire renditions of a few VMAs ago by doing aerial backflips hither and thither across the stage. Yet more proof that Las Vegas—in the Cirque Du Soleil/Siegfried & Roy sense--is today’s world capital of pop.

There were plenty of NON-retro things about this year’s VMA to bemuse-amuse the viewer: Pitbull’s red pants and white jacket combo; Justin Bieber making a point of thanking not just God but Jesus too; Tyler the Creator’s non-eloquence; Lil Wayne’s closing farrago of senseless gestures, climaxing with that most exhausted of stunts-- the smashing of an electric guitar.
But my enduring memory is of Kanye West, so excited by the spectacle he couldn’t stay in his front row seat but kept leaping up (rudely blocking the sightlines of the celebs behind). He seemed particularly mind-blown by the aerobatic exertions of Chris Brown. Alternating between jigging about and being frozen stock still, he appeared to be very much performing his own amazement, loudly signaling to everybody in the hall and out there in viewerland that “man, this is some next level shit” and “boy are we blessed to be living through such times as these”.
Kanye’s making-a-spectacle-of-his-own-spectacting flashed me back to something he said several years ago at a different American music awards ceremony:

“I wake up in the morning just thinking about which stereotypes I want to break … I see artists like Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Rihanna, Chris Brown, Chris Martin all in the same room, and we're going to push this music to the point where it was like in the sixties, in the seventies, where you talk about Led Zeppelin and Hendrix and the Beatles. We will be the new Beatles, the new Hendrix."

No comment.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

"The Ghost of Teen Spirit" - piece by me on grunge nostalgia for Slate


"Rejecting the Remix" - Op-Ed by Trevor Butterworth at The Daily addressing Retromania and related issues

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

alongside Tom Payne's review (see below) for The New York Times Book Review there is also an excerpt from Retromania

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

round up of Retromania US coverage so far:

nice review by Eric Been in The Boston Globe

nice review by Tom Payne in the New York Times Book Review

supersharp review by Nicholas Carr in The New Republic

smart review by Michael Azerrad for Wall Street Journal

smart review by Nitsuh Abebe in New York magazine

smart review by Eric Harvey for The Atlantic

sharp review by Timothy Gabriele for Pop Matters

sharp review by Neil Baldwin
for The Faster Times

sharp review by Noel Murray for Columbia Journalism Review

sharp(ish)review by Vadim Rizov in A.V. Club / The Onion

smart piece by Ann Powers at NPR connecting Retromania and the ritual pleasures of seeing beloved bands (in this case, The Feelies) year after year after year

smart piece by Amanda Petrusich on Nineties revivalism and retromania for Salon.com

really good dialogue with Steven Hyden for the A.V. Club/Onion

interview with John Williams at The Second Pass

interview with Mark Richardson to launch Paper Trail, Pitchfork's new series of chats with music authors

interview with Mark Spitz for Vanity Fair

interview with Thomas Rogers for Salon

interview with Sophie Duvernoy for LA Weekly

interview with Scott Timberg at his blog

radio conversation with John Schaefer for his WYNC show Soundcheck

conversation with Erik Davis for his Progressive Radio Network show "Expanding Mind"

my piece on "searching for the sound of now" and pop in the age of atemporality The New York Times

an adapted extract from Retromania as featured in the Los Angeles Times


and two late breaking non-American interviews

a three-part chat with Luke Clancy of RTE (Ireland’s counterpart to Radio 4 or NPR) - the instalments are dated July 12th/ 13th/ 14th and can be found here if you scroll down a bit

dialogue between me and Matthew "Woebot" Ingram at FACT magazine

I'm pleased to announce that Retromania is being picked up for German translation by Ventil Verlag. Publication sometime in 2012.