Throwbackism

No one could possibly have foreseen […] that the Octet was destined to influence composers all over the world in bringing the latent objectivity of modern music to full consciousness by frankly adopting the ideals, forms, and textures of the preromantic era.   — Aaron Copland, about Stravinsky (1941)

As RT points out, nothing is truly innocent of history, least of all instances of artistic revival masquerading as the real thing, “on its own terms.” This critique was at the core of his indictment of the “authentic” performance practice movement, and it makes an appearance in his discussion of neoclassicism as well: Stravinsky’s 18th century affectations tell us much more about the 1920s than the 18th century.

The “Pathos is Banned” chapter resonates uncannily with a similar conundrum we face in the world of popular music today, though with some pronounced differences. This position was quite recently summed up by music critic Simon Reynolds in a piece from this Sunday’s NYT, “The Songs of Now Sound a Lot Like Then.” Reynolds examines the “atemporality” that marks much of the pop music from the last decade, claiming that – short of auto-tune – we don’t really have any distinct, identifiable sounds or genres that define our era, nothing “that screams, ‘It’s 2011!'” Cataloging the various styles that helped to date and define the pop cultures of decades past, he goes on to write: “The fading of newness and nowness from pop music is mystifying.” Here are a couple of his examples of throwbackism in today’s pop, from Cee-Lo Green and Adele:

The prefix “neo-,” like the neoclassicism of yesteryear, has become synonymous with atavism, and there are no shortages of “neos” in today’s pop. I don’t buy Reynolds’s argument that there is literally nothing differentiating this music from its earlier models, but it’s hard to contest that “pop eats itself” in 2011 is less about synthesis, for many, than it is about crafting historically “authentic” replicas of music from the 60s through the 90s, down to the superannuated technologies used in its production. On this point, “atemporality” in pop differs considerably from Stravinsky in the 20s. Indeed, as RT makes clear, there is nothing authentically “classical” about Stravinsky’s neoclassical music: his harmonic palette, counterpoint, and voice leading would have been impossible in the time of Mozart. For Stravinsky to adopt an “atemporal” stance a la Cee-Lo Green, he would have just written a Mozart symphony. No, neoclassicism gestures toward the past while remaining uncompromisingly modern, in the sense that it is clearly a product of its post-Great War European moment.

Today’s “fading of newness” emerges from a very different set of cultural and historical circumstances, but it’s just as much a marker of our present moment as the Octet was of 1923. Perhaps what “screams 2011” is indeed its atemporality and fragmentation. (This gets into some postmodern territory, of course: how can we forget Frederic Jameson’s prognostication that “we seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience.”) And just as it’s not entirely mysterious why Stravinsky made his move when he did (as this chapter virtuosically demonstrates), today’s throwbackism is, despite Reynolds’s head-scratching, entirely explicable from a variety of perspectives, many of which Reynolds goes on to list.

Is today’s pop music atavism indeed as “mystifying” as it might at first seem?

2 Comments

  1. I think it ties in with what you said in the last post about the loss of the drive towards perfection and transcendence. When there is no absolute truth and beauty to strive for, there is not much point in moving forward. Instead we scavenge from what we have and what we already know. Like T.S. Eliot said: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

    Thanks for the post, I am enjoying your blog very much.

  2. I read some sad news this morning—the queen of throwbackism from a couple years ago, Amy Winehouse, has been found dead in her home. I post it here because I know that you’ve commented on her music in the context of this concept before.

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