[17 November 2010]
It’s been said that nostalgia is the most dangerous and seductive of human emotions. In his classic novel of consumerist paranoia, White Noise, Don Delillo’s neurotic sidekick Murray Jay Siskind called it a byproduct of fear and rage. And even a casual observer of history could note that nostalgia often reaches a ferocious peak when there’s a sense of foreboding lurking in the collective future. Simply put, when all things seem grim and hopeless, we often take a longing glance backwards, to a time we call more innocent, conveniently rewriting both our frame of reference and the reality of such eras that were as equally troubled as our own, creating a myth of some halcyon golden age.
In the US, no era is subject to this more than the 1950s. Fact is, the ‘50s were never the sock-hop, good-time, hot-rodding malt-shake paradise everyone now takes them for. To see it as such is to discredit the effects of Cold War secrecy, sexual repression, and racial intolerance on that time period. The ‘50s were a lot more complicated and disturbing than many have made them out to be. Still, in this time of corporate bailouts, racist Tea Party lunatics, and rampant xenophobia along our southwestern borders, Americans need a more “innocent” time on which to gaze back fondly. Unlike the ‘60, where a generation rebelled with every ounce of strength they had and looked forward to a brighter tomorrow, our generation looks backwards, fearful for our future and taking shelter in the past. Not looking back to the ‘60s themselves, a time too reminiscent of our own to be anything but nervously ridiculed, but to the ‘50s, for better or worse. Say what you want about ‘80s and ‘90s nostalgia these days, but ‘50s nostalgia, no longer the province of old men at classic car shows, is still going strong, from the trashy motorcycle danger of the Raveonettes to the shiny girl-group yearnings of the Pipettes.
It’s true that most “cultural decades” bleed over into the following one, so that in reality the cultural ‘50s lasted until 1964 or so, when the Beatles and their countrymen erased American doo-wop and surf-music fads with one jangling Rickenbacker chord. For awhile there, it was Phil Spector whose wizardry in the control room reigned supreme, a Phil Spector as yet untainted by insanity, obsessive compulsion, and eventually murder. It’s this sound, the last manifestation of ‘50s pop, that the Pipettes have thusfar been closest aligned to. 2006’s We Are the Pipettes was a perfect gem of such a sound, condensed to fit ideally with the times and their yearnings, as sung by three polka-dotted Brighton girls clearly assembled by male marionetteers’ hands, which is also true to recalling that lost era of manufactured studio pop. But one touch that’s more telling of the current era than the one the Pipettes wish to evoke is their revolving door of membership, so whirling and disorienting that now, just a bare four years after the fact, none of the original female members of the band remain. That kind of muddled commitment is not something that likely would have been tolerated in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, when pop artists were mostly puppets manipulated through the experience of singing in a group by a rogue’s gallery of agents, managers, and stylists. There’s more independence nowadays, but less familiarity, less building of groundwork.
So now we’re left with the sisterly duo of Ani and Gwenno Saunders on 2010’s somehow unsurprisingly-titled Earth Vs. the Pipettes. And there’s that nostalgia again; the corny sci-fi of the album’s name that’s ten years too late of the nu-garage movement to be witty is a good signifier of how desperately this album tries to be smart, ingratiating, and pleasing. On many counts, it succeeds winningly. However, like all good followers of where the nostalgia train steams away to next, it seems the Pipettes have clued in to just how outdated their brand of Spectorian pop has become in 2010. Accordingly, they’ve updated their sound to a much more current nostalgic trend, the 1980s. Following this current flightplan, does that mean their next LP will be a grunge tribute?
The problem with this revival-act mentality is that where often they try to evoke the sunny synth-pop of say, the Human League or Bananarama, instead they come off as sounding little different to the modern wave of pop zombies that terrorize our radios, which raises a frightening question: if both indie and shitty pop radio both evoke the sounds of the 1980s at once, will we eventually be unable to tell the difference? It’s enough for any Dirty Projectors fan to break out into a cold sweat in bed late at night.
As for the Pipettes, as said, some of the songs here are charming enough. “From Today” has the surface sheen of an enjoyable disco mockup, despite a confusing mix and structure that threatens to sink it before its third act, and “Ain’t No Talkin” has the kind of catchy guitars the album could use much more of. Yet there are also failed experiments like “History” and its cheesy analog 8-bits and melted twinkles, and the Eurotrash rehash of “Need a Little Time”. At times, the melding of ‘50s space/sci-fi themes with the disco and ‘80s-pop touchstones make for uncomfortable bedfellows. In the end, Earth Vs. the Pipettes is more than a transitional album, it’s an identity crisis.
Perhaps the Pipettes 2.0 will find their voice as the pressure to top their previous work recedes and they settle into a comfortable new identity. There’s talent and potential here to do so by the boatload. But if they continue down this path, holding onto the nostalgia lever on one hand and trying desperately to expand and shed it on the other, they run the risk of becoming something even worse than a handy Sugarbabes reference; in the Pipettes, our generation could have our very own Sha Na Na if they aren’t careful.