The Songs of Now Sound a Lot Like Then
By SIMON REYNOLDS
ONCE pop music was something by which you could tell the decade, or even the year. But listening to the radio nowadays is disorienting, if you’re searching for a sound that screams, “It’s 2011!”
Take the biggest hit of the year, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” The song is basically 1960s rhythm-and-blues tightened up with modern production. Everything about “Rolling” — its melody and lyrics, Adele’s delivery and timbre, the role played by the backing vocalists — gestures back to a lost golden age of soul singers like Etta James and Dusty Springfield. Then there’s Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You,” a hit from last year that’s still on the radio, and which moves a decade nearer the present through being steeped in the ’70s soul of acts like the Staple Singers.
Elsewhere on Top 40 radio you’ll hear a lot of brash, pounding songs that sound like ’90s club music. Recent smashes by performers like Black-Eyed Peas, LMFAO, Kesha, Pitbull, Taio Cruz, Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears recall the “hip house” sound of hitmakers like Technotronic and C&C Music Factory, or mid-’90s trance anthems by Paul Van Dyk and B T. It may require a mental exercise to bring out the true weirdness of this development: Imagine how peculiar it would have been if in the early ’90s the charts were suddenly flooded with music that sounded exactly like ’70s disco.
Figures like Lady Gaga and groups including the Black Eyed Peas reach even further back and throw ’80s flavors into the ’90s Eurohouse mix: the resemblance between Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” was widely noted on its release this year. “Just Can’t Get Enough” by the Black Eyed Peas references Styx’s “Mr. Roboto,” while their song “The Time” borrows its chorus from Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’s “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life.”
Much of this déjà entendu dancepop is exciting in its crass, energy-drink-blast kind of way. So why does the aural overfamiliarity matter? Well, up until the 2000s pop decades always had epoch-defining sounds. Two or three (sometimes more) genres would emerge to achieve dominance or, at the very least, prominence in the mainstream. Musical styles usually build on the past to some degree, but these genres always took their sources in striking and fresh directions, and they often wrapped the music up in subcultural garb, with a distinct fashion element, new rituals and dance moves, and so forth.
The ’70s generated heavy metal, punk, disco, reggae and more. The ’80s spawned hip-hop, synthpop and Goth. The ’90s had grunge and the techno/rave/electronic explosion. But the decade and a bit that followed the turn of the millennium has produced — well, what exactly? Hip-hop and R&B have built incrementally, at times imperceptibly, on where they were at during the ’90s. Emo is a tuneful and melodramatic merger of pop-punk and Goth. True, if you venture into the musical left field, you will find various underground genres that can claim at least relative freshness: grime and dubstep in Britain, the post-indie sounds of Animal Collective and similar bands in America. But their effects on mainstream pop music has been minimal.
Those who don’t have much personal investment in the idea that popular music should always be pushing forward probably won’t be especially troubled by the current pop scene’s muddled mix of stasis and regression. But those whose expectations have been shaped by growing up during more fast-moving and ever-changing pop decades — which is basically all of them to date except for the 2000s — are likely to be perplexed and disheartened by these developments. In particular the innovation-obsessed ’60s and the cyber-optimistic ’90s instilled an ideal of pop music as herald of the future, a vanguard sector of the culture that was a little bit ahead of the rest of society.
The fading of newness and nowness from pop music is mystifying. But in the last couple of years a concept has emerged that at least identifies the syndrome, even if it doesn’t completely explain it. Coined by the co-founders of cyberpunk fiction William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, “atemporality” is a term for the disconcerting absence of contemporaneity from so much current pop culture. This curious quality can be detected not just in pop music but in everything from fashion to graphic design to vintage chic.
A prime example of atemporality is the fad for photography apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram, which digitally simulate the period atmosphere of pictures taken in the ’70s or ’80s, using the cameras and film stock of the time. Instant-nostalgia snapshots are part of a culture-wide fascination with outmoded technology and “dead media” (Mr. Sterling’s term) that encompasses everything from the cults for manual typewriters and cassettes to the steampunk movement’s fetish for Victoriana to the recent movie “Super 8.”
Mr. Sterling sees the time-out-of-joint nature of today’s pop as a side effect of digiculture. One of the curiosities of the futuristic-seeming information technology that we now enjoy is that it has dramatically increased the presence of the past in our lives. From YouTube to iTunes, from file-sharing blogs to Netflix, the sheer volume and range of back catalogue music, film, TV and so forth that is available for consumption is astounding.
We can access all this stuff with incredible speed and convenience, share it and store it with minimal effort. But a potential downside of this sudden “affluence” is a flood of influences that can overwhelm the imagination of young musicians, who are absorbing five decades of pop history in a frenetic jumble. Their attention is also being competed for by music from outside the Anglophone rock and pop traditions, everything from West African guitarpop to Soviet New Wave music to Ethiopian electronic funk from the 1980s.
The musical omnivorousness that the Internet has encouraged and enabled is one reason atemporality is even more pronounced when you listen to alternative radio stations, which specialize in music by bands that consciously aim to have broad taste and to develop unusual portfolios of influences. Listen to KCRW (89.9 FM), the NPR-affiliated station in Los Angeles whose programming often wanders between genres and decades, leaving listeners to wonder if a particular track was recorded in 2011 or in 1981, or in 1971.
A few weeks ago the station played a gorgeously dreamy tune whose rippling, dewy-with-reverb keyboard part and yearningly melodic bass line seemed uncannily redolent of late ’70s Fleetwood Mac. Was this actually a lost Mac song circa 1977’s “Rumours”? Or was it an offering from one of the growing number of contemporary indie bands influenced by ’70s soft rock? The song turned out to be “Roscoe” by Midlake, a group of 21st-century soft-rockers from Denton, Tex. But it was a remixed version made by the British outfit Beyond the Wizard’s Sleeve with clear intent to bring out further the Fleetwood Mac-iness of the song. And then, to show they were in on it, the programmers at KCRW followed “Roscoe” by playing “Rhiannon.”
That 1976 Fleetwood Mac hit is the kind of staple tune you’d normally hear on a classic rock station rather than KCRW, whose sensibility is like a slightly more adult version of the online hip music magazine Pitchfork. And this shows how atemporality has not just jumbled up the decades, it’s eroded the barriers between genres. The iPod shuffle is the era’s defining music technology. One result on the radio dial is the rise of formats like Jack FM that seemingly mimic a middle-aged man’s iPod in shuffle mode: a restless drifting that nevertheless stays within defined taste limits.
The iPod shuffle and similar digital platforms for music listening have a contradictory result: on the one hand it serves to erode the historical divisions between kinds of music by its decontextualizing effect, on the other hand it enables fans to avoid entirely music they don’t like. So the programming on Jack FM (whose slogan is “Playing what we want”) slips back and forth between ’70s and ’80s, Old Wave and New Wave, with occasional excursions into the late ’60s (Hendrix, Creedence) or the ’90s (Sublime, Smashing Pumpkins). It’s a world where hip-hop and techno-rave never happened, but also where ZZ Top and the Clash are no longer on opposing sides.
Does the atemporality of so much modern pop music mean that when in the future we listen back to early-21st-century pop, we won’t be able to identify a sound that characterizes the period? Fans often identify periods of pop by their production hallmark. So they’ll talk (usually to complain) about ’80s drum sounds. If there’s a modern equivalent, it’s the superhumanly perfect vocals featured in so much current pop and rock thanks to Auto-Tune, the pitch-correction processor made by Antares Audio Technologies.
The slickness of Auto-Tuned singing seems to have a similar aesthetic quality to the design of smartphones and MP3-players and other hand-held gadgets, or to the C.G.I. effects in modern Hollywood blockbusters and the glossy hyper-real imagery in video games. Auto-Tune vocals even seem a bit sci-fi. Which is why in one Black Eyed Peas song Will.i.am sings, in heavily processed tones, about how he’s got “that future flow/that digital spit” (not a reference to saliva, but to rapping). Take away the Auto-Tune sheen, though, and there’s little about Black Eyed Peas records to indicate they weren’t made in the ’90s. The same applies to other recent dance pop smashes by the likes of Taio Cruz, Kesha and Lady Gaga.
Pop music in the 2000s may not have made any huge strides on a formal level (the way songs are written, grooves constructed and so forth), but on this cosmetic level of the digital gloss that’s been applied to the vocals you could say that it does sound of its time. (Which is also why the rasp of Adele and Cee-Lo Green is a deliberate throwback to the era of vocal grit and grain, a bid for “timelessness.”)
For better or worse Auto-Tune is the date stamp of today’s pop: it will date badly, and then it will go through all the stages of starting to see charmingly quaint, cute, cool. Who knows, at some point in the near future it might well become a revivable sound, embraced first by early adopter hipsters who will hunt down “vintage” Auto-Tune plug-ins in the same way that they currently collect antique synthesizers and old-fashioned valve amplifiers.