Thursday, June 29, 2023

retrotalk2023: recreative garbage

Substack called Anglophone Xenotrope and person who goes as Thunder At Twilight riffs on the "conjunction of futuristic technology and retro" thing I mentioned in the last post. (Strictly speaking retrotalk2022 as the post - titled "The End of Culture" - is from the very end of last year). 

"Retreads, reboots and remakes were ascendant in the first decade of this new century but the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the return of the Star Wars franchise—combined with the digital       de-aging technology, pioneered by Industrial Light & Magic—added considerable fuel to the nostalgia fire.

"When Disney bought Lucasfilm and ILM, they were not just buying Star Wars; the work that Lucas had done in bringing dead actors back to the silver screen in the form of digital composites was arguably even more significant. To that end, the corporate giant has made integrating these creations into existing brands a core part of their corporate strategy.

Examples include: 

"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, featuring actors wearing digital masks of the deceased Peter Cushing and the (then living) young Carrie Fisher"

and Marvel's use of 

"the technology to provide a curious kind of continuity, allowing much older actors to play younger incarnations of their characters in earlier eras."

and most recently (at the time of writing):

"the trailer for the new Indiana Jones film featuring a very respectable depiction of a much younger Harrison Ford."

Twilight at Thunder speculates:

"Seeing cutting edge digital rendering technology used as a means of rehashing and remaking the past leads one to reflect on possibly the ultimate manifestation of the mash-up: AI systems such as GPT and Stable Diffusion. Soon we might be able to look forward to machine created films, featuring digital recreations of characters from existing franchises.

".... AI models cannot create, even if their outputs are novel. By definition, these systems are synthesising based on statistical inferences."

Saturday, June 24, 2023

retrotalk2023: where post-mortem meets postmodern

A Washington Post piece by Bina Venkataraman about the potential use of  AI to create "ghosts" - of famous performers who'll keep making records or acting in films after their physical death - but also of loved ones, who can continue to fulfil the function of companion or confidante long after their decease. 

"But what about people who aren’t so famous? Should we perform from beyond the grave, too, to nourish the nostalgia of family and friends who might want to remember us? We might want to think twice before haunting our friends and descendants like ghosts of Christmas past.

"Grief tech is already on offer. So it might be inevitable, if trends hold, that someone will try to make an AI apparition of you. Seance AI offers an AI chatbot for the living to “communicate” with dead loved ones.

"The current offerings are mostly stilted and glitchy — and a poor substitute for the experience of actually talking to a lost family member or friend. It turns out summoning the King’s likeness to sing and thrust his hips is simpler than capturing your late father’s full personality, let alone the unique way he interacted with each of his kids.... 

"However, as language models get better at imitating the natural speech of individuals, and as techniques improve for cloning human voices and facial expressions, it’s going to get easier to imagine a next generation of these technologies with the same degree of verisimilitude as the musical performances — that is, interactive AI avatars who survive us, embodied by augmented-reality holograms or robots who look and talk something like we once did."

It could be an end to mourning and its healing closure: 

"Avatars lurking around the living room could thwart the grieving process of the living, depriving them of the peace that comes from letting go. People already mistake and confide in chatbots as if they were human; those who are suffering loss might come to depend on AI avatars as stand-ins, prolonging their grief."

On the immortalized performers level -  it's a new twist on that old line (Marx's?) about the dead tyrannizing over the living. Imagine as a new artist / writer / actor / musician, having to compete for attention / support/ audience / a public, not only with your contemporaries, not only with the archived and ever-more-easily accessible works of  the reknowned dead piled up and demanding time from listeners and viewers and readers -  but having to compete with new works and new performances by artists from earlier eras long beyond their natural lifespan! Radical inequality. But it will be irresistible for estates and rights holders to attempt to milk more money from the eminences of yesteryear.

Been doing a few interviews recently about retroculture, part of this recent seeming uptick in retrotalk, and one thing I've remarked upon is this conjunction of retro and futuristic technology - hologram tours, AI (e.g. AISIS, the "new Beatles song" aka "The Final Beatles Song" . the AI-enabled de-mixing and remixing of earlier Beatles albums). This seems to be opening up a new frontier for retromania: the unsettling and eerie convergence of science fiction and nostalgia. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

retrotalk2023: "reunited and it pays so good"

" Your Fave Band Is Reuniting – But Not For the Reasons You Think" - an attempted marshalling of rationales for the legacy act festival / reunion boom, by Danny Wright at Vice

I must say I don't disapprove of this kind of thing nearly as much as I did when I wrote Retromania. "Disapproval" isn't quite the right term, anyway - "distaste" is more like it.  I could empathize with the reasons bands did this kind of thing. What else are they supposed to do with themselves?). Money - you can't blame 'em really, mortgage payments to keep up. Plus there's that resolution of interband conflicts/ friends reconciled / writing a happier end to the story than the probably messy and bitter split-up.  The distaste was more about the idea of me being at one of these events, what it would feel like, and also the sense of being a target demographic. 

But, having gone to a couple of these elder-laden festervals in the last few years, I acquired a teensy bit of taste for this kind of thing (a certain queasiness lingers, though). The events are an intriguing mixture of amusement and bemusement. Simply as a sociological phenomenon, there's stuff to observe and to consider. What happens when a youth culture ages out? How weird does it get when subcultural types valiantly persist with the look, despite the attrition of the years. A mass elegy for one's bygone identifications and intensities. 

There's something salutary about being shoved amidst your own (approximate) kind. Seeing how everybody's grappling with decrepitude. 

Also, occasionally, there'll be some actually entertaining performances. Bands you never quite managed to see in their (and your) prime, but they can still pull it off. They might even be better on some level -  musicianship, having the experience and/or the budget to put on a great show.  

Hey, as I'm about to click post on this, the missus alerts to me an upcoming festerval that is trying to out-Cruel World Cruel World - Darker Waves.  Although the lineup isn't that Gothy in fact. 

I suppose what I wonder about is not the top three ranks of the line-up, but below that.... sub-legends (Clan of Xymox, Chameleons etc).  It can't be that rewarding, financially or in terms of ego, reconnecting with the compact following, having to play in the mid-afternoon. 

Also wonder about the musicians who join legends that have suffered personnel erosion... whose function is prosthetic.  (Like, are they any other original band members in "Psychedelic Furs" now, apart from Butler Rep?). I suppose it's a gig. You get to ply your trade. Maybe you were a fan of the leg in question. 

Thursday, June 15, 2023

magazine as time machine

" To Truly Understand the Past, Pick Up an Old Magazine" -  Brian Dillon in the New York Times writing about the way that reading old magazines (his examples are a 1984 issue of The Face and a 1965 issue of Vogue) immerses you in history in a way that dissolves the inherited and calcified ideas of what a decade or epoch was actually like. It's a battle between "edits" - the original selective version of the then-present as captured in that issue of the magazine, versus the edited-down version of the era that comes down to us through a gradual winnowing into hardened cliches and stereotypes, stage after stage of nostalgic retrospection and generalization. 

"What surprises me now in the pages of The Face: There are just the tiniest hints of the British miners’ strike and the swelling unemployment that are convulsing the country politically. And not a single mention yet of AIDS; in a Wrangler ad, a model’s speech bubble announces, oblivious: “I’m Positive.” In these magazine pages, it both is and is not the 1984 of my memory."

Dillon describes the way that everything about a vintage magazine - not just the obviously notable, signs-of-the-time identifying articles, but the adverts, graphics, listings, etc - is like a plunge into the (almost) raw material of an epoch. 

"When research takes me offline to libraries and archives, or (better) into the depths of a dusty eBay find, I can’t stop at the magazine or journal pages I was looking for; I want to read everything, from masthead to classifieds. Old magazines are cheap time machines, archaeologies of collective desire."

This is where my head has been at for a while now - at a certain point, I got far more excited by and interesting in gathering up ancient print music magazines than old records. Here's something I wrote in an essay for The Wire around the time Retromania was first published:

"Shopping for secondhand vinyl: I can’t be alone in too often chancing on an intriguing record and then being halted just shy of purchase by the thought: “Hmmm, I can probably find this on the Internet for free... save myself $15... do I really need another record cluttering up the house?” Digiculture has here damaged a multifaceted set of pleasures: the thrill of the hunt, the risk of taking a punt, the tactile delight of ownership.

"Curiously, revealingly, my crate-digging lust is shifting to another analogue-era object of desire: the vintage music magazine. Now and then on a blog you’ll come across a download link to a zipped file of scanned pages from an obscure fanzine or periodical, but for the most part these yellowing bundles of ink and paper have yet to undergo the fate of dematerialisation/dissemination that’s befallen almost the entirety of recorded music. Part of the sudden allure of old magazines is, I’m sure, that they retain a scarcity value that records have forfeited (at least in terms of pure sonic information: the physical records obviously retain potent fetish appeal in terms of packaging, the period flavour of the design and the label, etc).

"But there is also a more elevated aspect to the attraction. Packed with uncommon knowledge, these vintage magazines provide the kind of information that’s hard to find on the internet owing to the particular way its archiving system is structured. Online, you can uncover a vast amount about an artist in terms of diachronic trajectory (discography, biographical arc). Much harder to reconstruct is the synchronic context: what was going on at the precise moment in time of a record’s release, whether in terms of the genre in which the group operated, the general state of music culture, or the political and social backdrop. A musty, yellowing 1970s copy of NME or Melody Maker, Creem or Let It Rock, is a precious capsule of circumstantial evidence: reviews and features about contemporaneous groups, but also record company adverts and the graphic design and typography, which ooze period vibe. You can’t fully understand the impact of glam rock without a sense of how drab and style-less regular rock groups looked then, of how visually depleted the whole media environment was. Likewise, the stark angular minimalism of post-punk groups and record covers derived its salient edge from juxtaposition with scruffy Old Wave and Stiff-style pub rock. 

A time-slice of history, stubbornly analogue, the vintage music magazine in some sense resists the decontextualising vortex that is netculture, that endless end of history that never stops churning. "

Actually, nowadays you can find a lot of whole issues of vintage magazines in pdf or online form - there's a list of repositories in the side bar of my own vintage music writing blog Pantheon.

Dillon again: 

"Carry on reading, however, past famous names and images that seem most of their time, and you find the past does not look or sound as you imagined or recalled.... Of course, you might come away from such pages smirking at the fashions, assumptions and ambitions of the past — or with a nostalgic ache for its objects, textures or habits of speech. But also a sense that the past is never the past of present cliché, any more than our present is purely itself, entirely made of the self-celebrating now." 

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

retrotalk 2023: "It’s a risk to put out something completely new"

Yet another Guardian piece on retro culture attempts to explain why "why pop is so heavily plundering the past" - specifically the '90s. 

Writer Shaad D'Souza notes the number of singles in the UK charts that reference "the dance music of the 90s and 00s" -  Switch Disco and Ella Henderson’s React  "samples Robert Miles’ trance classic Children', David Guetta’s Baby Don’t Hurt Me flips Haddaway’s immortal What Is Love, Kim Petras and Nicki Minaj’s Alone recycles the hook of Alice Deejay’s Better Off Alone, and Denham Audio has had a longstanding hit with a version of Strike’s U Sure Do. All of them hark back to an era of bright uncomplicated melodies, big melancholic chords, and messy nights out that went mercifully undocumented on social media."

He argues that "these tracks differ from the way rap music has long used samples: the majority feature a faithful recreation of a vocal hook or the original song’s production. Both options create an uncanny sense of time warp, a kind of musical deja vu. "

Quotes from Radio 1 deejay Natalie O’Leary who says that “in the 90s, the clubbing scene in the UK was a huge thing, and these trance tracks were part of British culture. They’re these feelgood songs that aren’t too deep"

Others argue that nostalgia for the monoculture is part of it. 


On Twitter, It's Her Factory blogger / professor / author of The Future of Rock and Roll Robin James retweets the Grauniad piece but notes that "this article fails to mention Simon Reynolds 20 year old book on musical Retromania"

That's nice of her, but then again, I suppose A/ as much as I'd like to, I don't own the subject B/ the book is actually only 12-years-old! 

Which is revealing in its own way of how Time has become elasticated and mushified in these retro-recursive conditions. It feels like an eon ago since the book came out in 2011, yet also like only yesterday....