'80s Nostalgia and the Vicious Circle

Pardon me for stating the obvious, but one always retains a unique relationship to the music of one's youth. No matter what, the soundtrack to 16 seldom relinquishes its power to return us to situations for which we might remain wistful, but which we would never, ever wish to revisit.

The first '80s nights I attended were in the early '90s and featured, almost exclusively, cool kids in their twenties dancing to songs from their teens. As the night progressed, this growing unease inevitably reached its climax with a desperately euphoric sing-a-long to A-ha's "Take on Me," which sounded like an agonized howl, a pistols-at-dawn challenge to Father Time.

The hidden fact is '80s nostalgia has little to do with the '80s revival in which we currently find our culture immersed. Actually, we seem to be in the midst of two concurrent, but not entirely related '80s revivals. Firstly, we remain trapped in an uncritical, all-encompassing obsession with all things '80s, a trend initiated by those with no first-hand experience of the era, now driven by industry pleased, as it always is, to accommodate. A joyful pastiche of the era that produced foxes Michael J. and Samantha, the revivalists' '80s is more kitschy amusement park than loving re-creation. At the '80s night I attended recently at a popular Montreal night club, hip college girls filled their lungs with smoky oxygen and, with no apparent irony, sang along to, in consecutive order, Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" (1979/1980), Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night" (1983), and Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name" (1986). As a dancefloor packer, the set worked surprisingly well, even as it illustrated, in its collapsing of critical aesthetic, temporal and sub-cultural differences, why it is utter nonsense to assume a position with all the subtlety and nuance of "America – love it or leave it." But whatever.

However, this story is not about '80s nights. It's about 2004 and the second, largely unexpected manifestation of '80s nostalgia – the triumphant return of some of the decade's biggest and most singular stars. In June George Michael released Patience, suitably titled as you have to search back to 1996 to find his last record of new material (not covers). In April Prince released Musicology, a decidedly old school, signature record, largely considered his best since 1987's Sign of the Times. The Cure considered their June 2004 release such a definitive crystallization of their trademark sound, they named it The Cure. Calling it the best record he'd ever done, Morrissey released You Are the Quarry in May, his first new record since 1997's Maladjusted. Finally, June saw The Beastie Boys release To the 5 Boroughs, the group's first record in six years and one that finds the Beasties sounding a lot like the brash kids who recorded the 1986 classic, Licensed to Ill.

The revived interest in some of the '80s most easily distinguishable and charismatic pop acts is intriguing for it resists the casual analyses being offered as explanation. In transcending the time and context of their initial fame, these stars leap over the hurdle of longevity that has become – somewhat oddly, given the ephemeral nature of pop – a key criterion in sifting through claims to greatness. In other words, they're back because they're great and these comebacks prove it, once and for all. At the same time, of course, it seems predictably cynical and manipulative for the record industry and the media to, more or less arbitrarily, ask the public to worship those who, for more than a decade, it portrayed as novelty acts, has-beens, enigmatic charlatans or, more charitably, nice fellows who just don't quite cut it anymore. Robert Smith mused recently, in an interview with Spin magazine, whether to accept an award from Q magazine – given that the magazine had not given The Cure an interview, much less the time of day, in the ten preceding years. After spending the better of the '90s perfecting the art of Morrissey-bashing, the NME this year decided to transform the pop star they'd turned pariah into a figure they dubbed "The Mozfather." This is a fitting Godfatheresque moniker only in that the NME scorned tubby Morrissey as mercilessly as late night talk show hosts did bloated Brando, right up until he died (rest in peace, young prince).

Clearly, as both Smith and the former Smiths' front man realize, their so-called comebacks owe at least as much to cynical, manipulative record industry strategy as they do to the sudden receipt of overdue critical and public recognition, initiated by the admiration of young, popular bands. But that can't possibly be news to anyone. Asking the record industry not to manipulate cynically is like asking Donald Rumsfeld not to appear smug. What's curious is why the record industry has been forced to welcome back a whole bunch of outspoken, mercurial mavericks with reputations for publicly critizing the record industry.

These high-profile returns are clearly not intended exclusively for reasons of nostalgia. Although each of these acts boast dedicated, original fans, these comebacks seem clearly aimed at a new generation of record buyers, members of an age group who know these acts only through their reputation as having once been big, 20-odd years ago. As great as it is to have them back, one has to consider what this tells us about the record industry, and more globally the state of popular music. True: everything old will be new again; pop music tastes tend to run in cycles, and we were about ready for artists, not ciphers showing cleavage; and it's cheaper and easier to re-introduce familiar brands than to try and launch new ones. Still, given the unexpectedness of these returns, the grand scale at which they are occurring, and the way the releases have been sort of carpet-bombed over a two-month target, I can't escape the feeling that we're living some third-rate action hero film. Fifteen years after our heroes were shabbily decommissioned, our new champions have failed us. With mediocrity and conformity threatening to usher us into The Banal Age, who will save us? Help us Beastie Boys-kenobi, you're our only hope.

Clearly, the rapturous reception for each of these comebacks suggests the public has enjoyed the clonal sameness of the past decade or so the same way most people enjoy a tonic colonic irrigation. Critical curmudgeon Theodor Adorno told us that the masses would be easily duped by the offerings of the monolith he called The Culture Industry. He also told us that pop music featured standardized acts as interchangeable as auto parts – and that each of these acts would be promoted with a trick to market them as unique, a bandana in the pocket here, a quiff there to fool the public into thinking they were different when they really were more of the same. He called this pseudo-individualization. About each of these things Adorno was, as he was about most things related to pop music, about half right. There is now, as there was before, a whole lot of suckers who will buy whatever the major labels promote. But – and this is what Adorno and so many who unwisely dismiss popular culture as unworthy of contemplation ignore – not all pop stars fit this bill. Moreover, many among the masses have well-formed critical faculties, well-developed aesthetic taste and are, as it turns out, pretty fucking hard to dupe.

Listen, the record industry will always try to give people what they want. However, if it can convince us that what we want is songs made by clueless kids manufactured to resemble some marketing team's composite of a successful pop star, it works a lot better for them. This is nothing new. What seems curious though is that offered the choice between a new generation of organic, original artists, and a collection of forlorn figureheads, publics of all ages are queing up for the latter. That's simple, of course. No one is actually being asked to choose, and from Eminen to The Hidden Cameras, recent years have given us many artists no one could ever have predicted. Yet a collective craving for these veteran larger-than-life figures, for artists who, whatever else may divide them, share in common a legacy of inventing themselves in ways that no industry executive or focus group could ever have come close to approximating, seems the best explanation for this sudden hunger, for the respect being shown to stars who, just a few years ago, had been mostly forgotten.

Which is why it seems that 2004's manifestation of '80s nostalgia is not, actually, about the '80s. Not principally, anyway. If the nostalgia was really about some quintessentially '80s sound or aesthetic, maybe you'd bring back George Michael, but the others were definitive of their era only in the way they sounded like nothing else. In the same way that they transcended their decade, they've managed to escape being defined by nostalgia for it, rather than them. It's good to see them back, even if their return reminds us just how colourless popular music had become without them.

It's also sad that these returns are being so sycophantically praised because if you've listened to the records you'll know that despite all the fanfare, not one of them is quite as brilliant as we're being told they are. To varying degrees all of the records are, surprisingly perhaps, quite good. It's just that they're each, in their own way, tinged with twilight. The definition of nostalgia is a longing for something past. To feel nostalgic for, say, Prince is to acknowledge that the Prince we once loved is no more. It is also to acknowledge that we seem, as a society, less able to produce these galloping geniuses, whose brilliance lay, in part, in astonishing us with how inventive one could be with just one life. We long for these stars the way we sometimes long for the horse and buggy and unpolluted seas, as representative of things we let pass that maybe we shouldn't have. We shouldn't need Robert Smith anymore. The bands – Interpol and The Rapture, among many others – whose generous acknowledgement of their debt to, and respect for, The Cure brought him back should be more than enough for us, and maybe soon they will be.

Right now, our culture seems stuck – sick to death of the manufactured yet no longer consistently capable of generating or appreciating the flamboyantly new and creative. If there is a short supply of outlandishly creative performers, some might argue that it represents the end of creativity, the triumph of society over the individual. Has growing up saturated with mediated blandness, gradually reduced our collective capacity to grow the sorts of artists who, in turn, allow us to dream? Probably not. Probably, this is just an aberration. Probably we're filled to bursting with creativity, and the lack is just an illusion, as well as providing further proof of the ineptitude of the record industry. Let's hope so.

Let's also hope this: that these performers exact from their comeback a full measure of revenge on the record industry that imagines, perhaps, that it is exploiting them, for one final time. In providing such vivid reminders of what it once meant to be a pop star – and what a glorious, unique vocation it used to be – perhaps they'll instill within us anew a deep revulsion for the insulting sameness the industry perpetrates on us every time we give it the chance. If the enthusiastic response to these returning stars indicates the beginning of a trend, then perhaps when their comebacks have ended, the public will be inclined to seek out contemporary creative equivalents, which remain largely underpromoted, still shadowed by a lot of glossy mediocrity. And if their successful comebacks remind the many fans they have in many of today's best bands to use, or continue to use, pop music in uniquely creative, buoyantly fun and inspirational ways then they'll have done what superheroes always do in the end, and what each of these stars has done before. They'll have saved the day.

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