Things We Were Due to Forget

The Cold Undertow of Minimal Waves

by Timothy Gabriele

30 April 2010


Step in Time

“Our music is both a lament to modernity’s undoing and a rally cry to its confrontation”, says McBride, who, in addition to being one half of Xeno and Oaklander, is also the lone member of Martial Canterel. If revival always maintains an inherent conservatism, particularly when it is invested exclusively in old technologies as many nu-coldwavers are, what to make of music that celebrates a scene that time forgot? What does it mean to relive a memory that we never even had? Only in collapsed time, where history has lost its object (that which occupied a space and a time), is this even possible.

When a music “comes back”, it forces us to think about its lifeline, particularly its death. If coldwave and minimal wave have come back, it must mean that they had once departed. Yet, it is only long after their apparent death that we have found out that they were ever alive, so they only really “exist” in the present.  In this sense, minimal wave and coldwave are a bit like the specter in Derrida’s hauntology, in that they do not long belong to either the past or the present. 

What does it mean to relive a memory that we never even had?

The revival then, based around a history that never was, does not celebrate either the past or the present, but rather the deconstruction of historicism itself. Thus, like every cultural recycling, the “new” brands of coldwave and minimal wave continue to make an argument in favor of the end of history rather than what Baudrillard calls “endless history” or, more opaquely, “beyond history”. The crucial difference is that in this version of history repeating, what is being reborn is no longer the past, but the present’s perception of the past. It can be argued that perhaps this is always the case, that every replication passes on the replica’s newly derived subjectivity, but here the subject-object problem is not even up for debate. Only the reconstructed history exists.

Nearly a decade ago, retro-obsessed analogue electronic music was one of the first major musical movements of the 20th century. Electroclash was a movement built around what Simon Reynolds at the time called “contrivance and superficiality”. (“The 70’s Are So 90’s. The 80’s Are the Thing Now”, New York Times, 5 May 2002) Adopting camp poses copped from queer culture, electroclash had no stake in originality and even less in authenticity. It didn’t strive for impermanence, but rather knew its number would soon be up. By the time a musical partner of mine began interviewing members of the scene for a never-finished documentary, most of the participants were already convinced that electroclash would be over within a year. “Analysis itself is part of the process of disappearance”.

Yet, electroclash took on a weird afterlife and not just in the recurring novelty of the ensuing sound-alike singles from Fannypack’s “Camel Toe” to Farah’s “Gay Boy” or the arguable ways it infected mainstream pop from Ke$ha to Lady Gaga. Electroclash’s predisposition of boredom and tedium towards the glamorous and superficial life it dreamed of became less a pose than an embrace. The original attitude was best typified in Miss Kittin, who sang about “endless pleasure in a limousine” and “sniffing in the VIP area” in a deadpan faux Eurotrash accent that suggested that the story was so dreadful, trite, and deficient in mystery that she was bored just singing about it. 

Yet as electroclash imagined itself as a comment on pure entertainment, it became the hollow dream it sung about, just as Heaven 17 and ABC were cradled by all the Patrick Bateman types they mockingly evoked. The dispassionate electroclasher soon became the very living image of the prototypical “hipster”, the supervillian of the 21st century that, fittingly enough, never really existed.

Seeing the sounds of the early ‘80s re-return is a bit bizarre. Electroclash was the first electronic music scene that I actively followed (my first ever published music review was for Ladytron’s Light and Magic). Some of the more electro stuff could even be mistaken for coldwave/minimal wave. Add some thick-accented Euro vocals to Savas Pascalidis’s “Space Woman” or Der Zyklus’s “Der Tonimpulstest” and those songs could have appeared on The Minimal Wave Tapes, Cold Waves and Minimal Electronics, the Flexipop bootlegs or any of the other regional compilations that have been released since. It’s a bit like déjà vu, but with something a bit off, something a little more self-serious. It’s not for nothing that Schoolwerth started his Wierd club nights in 2003, the exact moment when electroclash died.

As the second decade of the 21st century begins, we’re not only trapped by the previous century, but now by this century’s memory of it, as well. The simulacrum may deviate from its host model with every duplication, but the changes become less palpable or significant when the representation actively tries to replicate the original. If the coldwave and minimal wave revival is to successfully divorce itself from the reissued materials (it’s not yet clear if this is the goal or not), it needs to appropriate the abstract ideals of the latter and combine it with the potentialities of electro-modernism, contemplating its way through the gridlock as it travels forward. 

If coldwave and minimal wave are now undead, living corpses created from the recombinant DNA of various unmarked graves, it remains to be seen what kind of creature they will become. Will they be zombified like all those genres which never went away but continue on in a lifeless trance, hypnotized by the muscle memory tics of their own nullified bodies? Analogue synth music has the potential to sit alongside pub rock as yet another outmoded ritual, a music whose only end is the perpetuation of its pulse even as the body decays. Yet this music could instead be the vampiric undead, feasting on the live blood of new ideas, current moods, and future contemplations, immortalizing itself as a revitalizing force. This could be the hidden elixir that allows us to get over our jealousy of the 20th century by becoming a center worth celebrating, an object for a continued history to focus on.

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