[5 October 2005]
Is the new Gang of Four album some sort of subversive commentary on the lameness of retro nostalgia, as Simon Reynolds proposes in this article? If you don’t know, the band has decided to re-record some of their classic songs from Entertainment! and Solid Gold (Suprisingly, nothing from Hard made the cut) and issue it as a new album. Why? Here’s Reynolds thesis:
Return the Gift places in plain, unavoidable sight the redundancy and reconsumption involved in rock’s nostalgia market. When fans buy new albums by reformed favorites of their youth, at heart they’re hoping for a magical erasure of time itself. They’re not really interested in what the band might have to say now, or where the band members’ separate musical journeys have taken them in subsequent decades; they want the band to create “new” songs in their vintage style. Such consumer bad faith is precisely the kind of phenomenon that the old Gang of Four enjoyed skewering. Could it be that Return is saying, “You want a Gang of Four resurrection? Here you are, then, exactly what you secretly, deep-down crave: the old songs, again.”
I truly hope Reynolds is right about this, but it’s more likely his hundrum alternate explanation—that they want to reissue songs in a format that will be more profitable to them, as when Neil Sedaka and Paul Anka remade some of their own hits in the 1970s—is the more accurate one. This is, after all, the band the recorded Hard, one of the most craven sellouts in rock history. But was it? i suppose one could make the case that that album too was some big ironic joke that no one was hip enough to discern, much like Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait could be considered a brilliant commentary on the status of his own notoriety and influence.
I admit to the strong desire to concoct clever rationalizations that excuse my musician heros for their more perfidious releases, want to evince the faith that no matter what they’ve done, it’s somehow worthy of careful attention and illustrative at some level of their far-reaching genius. (Much like Bush loyalists must take it on faith that there’s some noble purpose behind his putting a crony on the Supreme Court.) This is what makes the worst Dylan album and even the worst Gang of Four infinitely more interesting to me than, say, Franz Ferdinand. Perhaps squandering credibility is far more fascinating to listen to than a band struggling to earn it in the first place, trying to disguise and transcend their obvious indebtedness to the bands before them and trying to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of hyperbolic press hype and noncritical fans. That is part and parcel, I suppose, with my paean to negative thinking—a band’s failures, in eliciting criticism and idealized thinking of what should be, point the way to utopia far more successfully than a band’s successes, which tend to reinforce what already is, smoothing further the well-worn path to success that society already sanctions. In retrospect, a band’s successful work is that which reified its image and put them in the static firmament of celebrity, nothing can be found there but what has been mythologized, and what has been mythologized has already been smoothly integrated into the culture machine’s method for institutionalizing the status quo.
When Entertainment! was first released, and when it was just anther deleted album by a little-known British band, it fully retained its power to subvert and startle. But as it’s slowly adopted into the pantheon of the “50 Most Important Albums of All Time” it becomes a hallowed relic, a canonized icon to revere rather than the incendiary blast it’s reckoned to be. That album in particular seems to have been made to make one recognize the deleterious effects of pop music, the variety of ways it smooths over contradictions and forwards consumerist ideology. If it is instead heralded as a brilliant instantiation of pop music, then it has become moribund, and no number of re-recordings of it will make it live again.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/return_the_gift/