Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Franz Ferdinand

 


There’s a theory of the fin de siècle that claims the end of a century is typified by a period of culture reveling in its recent past, reliving its modes and styles in hyper-accelerated, retro slideshow fashion. This exhumation of ghost memories is thought to be a necessary purging in order to clear the slate for the innovation of the century to come. Less burdened by a numerically fixed and cyclical worldview, Frederic Jameson introduced the concept of pastiche to the debate on postmodernism, claiming that the cultural mode of late-capitalism would see history’s boundary lines dissolve as culture consumed its past with an omnivorous appetite for contextless—and hence substanceless—style. The most dour possibility in Jameson’s scenario is that such a cultural mode would be a historical dead-end, a “final stage” of culture that will stagnate in its inability to use history as a foundation for something new.


Both of these ideas are speculative at best, but how you feel about the existence of retro fashion might determine how you respond to the familiar lament that “There’s nobody trying to create something new in pop music”. It’s undeniable that we love our retro romanticism right now, easily as much as we did leading up to the end of the 20th century, and it’s not just the VH-1 Will Eat Itself cottage industry that feeds it. It’s something that recurs in all of our fashion, and for music in particular innovation has become something of a golden ring that critics ask every band to jump for, mostly because it’s a rare commodity. Paradoxically, both critics and fans have heaped their praise and dollars on bands that deliberately plunder the treasures left behind by their forefathers and repackage it for a fresh audience. If it’s not Oasis, it’s the Strokes, or Olivia Tremor Control, or Belle and Sebastien, and so on.


But who’s to say this is a bad thing? Do guitar tones and keyboard settings have a mandatory shelf life? Are the sonic achievements of the past required to gather dust in the historical museums of CD collections, consigned to relic status? Or is it possible to admit that music can remain consistent and familiar and yet still vital? Are retro pop stars pirates and poseurs, or torch-bearers, keeping musical traditions alive?


Answers to these questions remain a matter of opinion and taste, but 2004 was a year marked by as many re-hashes as revelations, for better or for worse. With the release of Interpol’s acclaimed full-length debut in 2002 coinciding with a widespread weariness with garage rock, it seemed inevitable that the return of the post-punk ‘80s was upon us. The year’s releases didn’t disappoint. Reflections of Talking Heads, Wire, and Gang of Four dominated the indie and college rock scenes, making angular, clipped guitars the order of the day, along with their attendant art and fashion sense. Isaac Brock’s channeling of David Byrne made Modest Mouse early front-runners in bringing the sound back into mainstream consciousness, and they were soon followed by Franz Ferdinand’s arty, danceable post-punk, opening doors for likeminded Brits such as the Futureheads and the Zutons. Interpol re-emerged with their version of Joy Division’s gloomy vision in a statement that was consistent with their first outing, and bands like the Rapture and !!! had hipsters shaking their asses (cool irony and all) to a revived dance-punk vibe.


Nor was this revivalism solely limited to post-punk. Of Montreal released a gorgeous Satanic Panic in the Attic, keeping Elephant 6’s fully retro psych-pop legacy going. Following the release of their highly-praised and Beach Boys-loving debut, Ireland’s the Thrills returned with an album that eclipsed its predecessor by reanimating the big ‘70s American pop sound. Meanwhile, the Scissor Sisters continued this continental origin swap by releasing the best Elton John album since Captain Fantastic. I haven’t even touched on the boom in neo-folk music, mostly because I somehow managed to remain mostly unexposed to it, despite the critical praise given Joanna Newsome, Sufjan Stevens, and Devendra Banhart.


As if that weren’t enough, 2004 seemed to be one long string of new releases from famous names, post-punk and otherwise. The press spent much of its time enthusing over the return of the Pixies—a reunion many deemed impossible—in addition to reverentially bowing to new releases from the Cure, Mission of Burma, Camper Van Beethoven, and Morrissey. If anything, that these returns were greeted with enthusiasm and a return to form rather than wince-inducing retreads speaks volumes to the possibility of long-term relevance. And as far as musical history goes, the biggest story of the year was the even more improbable release of the legendary and infamous SMiLE, Brian Wilson’s 37-years-“lost” masterpiece. That the release finally closed the books on one of pop’s most debated works and turned out to be splendid is enough in its own right to make 2004 a year to note.


Of course, innovation wasn’t entirely absent in the year’s releases, and there was plenty to be excited about in the new. Using the open-source sampling of pastiche to their advantage, the Go! Team’s full-length debut made good on their promise of creating something fun and catchy and vibrant out of disparate elements. Green Day’s American Idiot was the phenomenal maturation of pop-punk into a punk and pop opus (if not opera). Even more essential, TV on the Radio crystallized their fusion of doo-wop and drone rock into something moving and powerfully unique.


As far as I’m concerned, this all came together to make 2004 a great year in music, but I’ll admit that it’s probably because both post-punk and classic pop are longtime loves, the foundations for the music I grew up on. As a consumer, I’m not immune to the nostalgia of the retro industry. Moreover, the acts that managed to break new ground were enough to keep me excited for what’s to come in the future. Not that this answers the debate over retrograde music. If we’re following trajectories, in the next couple of years it could be goth or industrial or synthpop revitalized as the Next Big Old Thing. And whether we’re trying on old clothes while clearing out our closets before the emergence of a wholly new scene, or stuck in a loop of recycled sound—or simply recognizing that the sounds which made past groups great never stop being effective—all remains to be seen.


My personal Top 10 for 2004 reflects a sense of my own tastes, and whether or not these albums become touchstones in history or not, they made my year:


1. Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand (Domino)
   :. original PopMatters review


2. TV on the Radio, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes (Touch and Go)
   :. original PopMatters review


3. Brian Wilson, SMiLE (Nonesuch)
   :. original PopMatters review


4. Modest Mouse, Good News for People Who Love Bad News (Epic)
   :. original PopMatters review


5. The Arcade Fire, Funeral (Merge)
   :. original PopMatters review


6. The Thrills, Let’s Bottle Bohemia (Virgin)
   :. original PopMatters review


7. William Shatner, Has Been (Shout! Factory)
   :. original PopMatters review


8. Interpol, Antics (Matador)
   :. original PopMatters review


9. They Might Be Giants, The Spine (Idlewild/Rounder)
   :. original PopMatters review


10. From Bubblegum to Sky, Nothing Sadder Than Lonely Queen (Eenie Meenie)
   :. original PopMatters review

Patrick Schabe is an editor, writer, graphic designer, freelance copyeditor, and digital content manager, depending on the time of day. He has also worked in a gas station, at a smoothie bar, as a low-level accountant, taught college courses online, and cleaned offices, so he considers his current employment a success. Under his unassumed identity, Patrick holds a BA in English -- Creative Writing from Metropolitan State College of Denver and a Master of Social Science with an emphasis in Popular Culture Studies from the University of Colorado. He's currently at work on a first novel and a non-fiction piece on cultural theory. Patrick lives in Littleton, Colorado, with his wife, Jessica, who makes everything worthwhile.


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