‘Are We Not New Wave?’ Makes Me Wish I Could Take Theo Cateforis’s Class

Theo Cateforis is a professor of music history and culture at Syracuse and I wish I could take his class. After you read, Are we Not New Wave?: Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s you’ll feel much the same.

In his new book, Cateforis explains and explores not only the origin of New Wave, but makes a series of brilliant connections that open up the history of the musical style that briefly seized a transatlantic audience at the beginning of the ’80s. Beyond that, we learn why early MTV featured so many British bands, the relationship between New Wave and punk and why we ought to give The Cars more respect. The author even gets around to explaining why David Byrne used to be considered neurotic, and what the hell the B-52s were up to, anyway.

Are We Not New Wave? opens with an excellent exposition of the meaning of the term and its relationship to its genre predecessors. In discussing the meaning of “new wave” itself, Cateforis allows it to be an elastic term while tracing the deep cultural roots of the idea, including its meaning in relation to ’60s French cinema.

The style has often been seen as a kind of tamed punk, an aesthete’s punk drained of anger. Punk you could dance to, more cerebral and less rage-fueled. The author certainly shows the limited truth behind this idea while also suggesting that British New Wave really constituted a second British invasion for American music and a response to classic prog rock as much as to punk.

The New Wave was more than ready for that moment when video killed the radio star. Groups like Human League had already made use of visuals in their stage shows and the MTV format proved a natural progression for them. Moreover, the use of drum machines and synthesizers freed up performers to act out video narratives while lip-syncing the music.

This is a book that could have been interesting at first only to become a mind-numbing exposition of each and every new wave band, their discography and their influences. Luckily for the reader who is not necessarily a New Wave aficionado, Cateforis uses the rest of the book to examine the cultural history of the genre, specifically its use of the tropes of nervousness, its complicated affection for the ’60s, it appropriation of kitsch and its valorizing of the often despised synthesizer and sequencer.

The best of these discussions is likely the author’s “Camp! Kitsch! Trash!” In this chapter, Cateforis explores new wave’s tendency to borrow the objects and aesthetics of others eras, especially what he refers to as “recent modernities.” Rock critics read these allusions as acts of ironic appropriation, viewing them as celebration of trash and a campy celebration if kitsch.

Most of his emphasis is on the Athens, Georgia phenom The B-52s with their aesthetic of fake beehive hairdos, thrift store ’50s housewife loungewear, and borrowings from science fiction costumes and soundtracks. The author shows that the B-52s themselves refused the label of kitsch, or at least proved “evasive” in response to it. Indeed, they rejected labeling their obsessions kitsch in favor of suggesting that the “objects themselves were meant to be enjoyed for their own inherent worth and value.”

I think this is a somewhat problematic claim on the author’s part since there is nothing to say that kitsch can’t be enjoyed for its own sake. The argument can be made, after all, that kitsch and camp result from new kinds of human desires awakened by late industrial capitalism’s tendency to produce items that quickly become obsolescent (“trash”). Cateforis himself alludes to this idea but it doesn’t become his final explanation for the B-52s appropriation of such objects.

There are a couple of other places where the author leaves us hanging. Although he alludes in general terms to the concept of “white nervousness,” he never fully explores the racial tropes that this idea employs. He is certainly on to something but I wanted to see if it worked beyond his very fine exposition of the Talking Heads’ project Stop Making Sense. The idea of black authenticity in contrast with white desires for the cool is too simplistic an explanation.

Race might not be the best way to understand what Cateforis is describing. Maybe the template here is not Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer but rather Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. His discussion of Devo raises the possibility that the New Wave’s exposition of modern alienated nervousness has more to do with a growing 80s concern about our relationship to the technological than notions of race tied to authenticity or the lack thereof.

Some readers will also be surprised that the author doesn’t spend more time on the significance of gender and sexuality in new wave. Cateforis certainly alludes to the role of androgyny in the self-presentation of the B-52s and The Human League. He also shows that the Cars disliked some of the images that made their way to their album covers, images of sexualized machinery and objectified female bodies. These images were very much out of sync with their own musical persona and thematic concerns and has led too many to dismiss them.

Cateforis also discuss’ how the performance styles of singers like Byrne and Elvis Costello challenged traditional representation of rock masculinity. They represented an alternative to the cock rock bravado that constituted much of the performance style of guitar driven classic rock.

Highlighting these points is certainly important but these tend to be allusions to the issues of sex and gender rather than a close analysis. I found myself wondering throughout how Cateforis understood NewWave’s appropriation of androgyny, both in relation to the culture of the moment and to influences like Bowie and the New York Dolls. I also wanted to hear more on his ideas about gender performance on-stage and whether this new style of rock ‘n’ roll masculinity influenced the larger cultural turn toward the celebration of the awkward nerd as culture hero.

Are We Not New Wave? is one of those wonderful reading experiences where there the author puts on such a cerebral fireworks display that you want more from the author. My criticisms of the book should be seen in that light, as questions nurtured by a very fecund discussion of a musical style that becomes an exploration of cultural history at its best.

Like I said, it’s a book that will make you want to take one of this guy’s classes.

RATING 8 / 10