Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019

Post-Nostalgic Music

Why the music industry needs to slow down.

The Black Kids, a indie-pop band from Pensacola, Florida with a heavy debt towards The Smiths and The Cure, started building a buzz around its music in the summer of 2007. Though the five members had only been together for about a year, a couple of well-received live performances in their area gained the attention of bloggers who wrote glowing praise about the band. Not long after, the influential website Pitchfork, whose positive endorsements helped launched the careers of Wolf Parade, Arcade Fire, and You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, reviewed their Myspace demo, Wizard of Ahhs, and gave it an 8.3. A bidding war started and they ultimately signed with Columbia Records.

The Black Kids faded from the spotlight for a couple months while they recorded their debut album, Partie Traumatic. Within that time, new bands emerged, notably Vampire Weekend, another upstart band from Brooklyn that was embraced by the blogopshere. After The Black Kids finished their album and announced a release date, buzz began to build again but the anticipation was noticeably tame compared to just six months earlier. When Partie Traumatic was released in July, almost a year after the performances that garnered the band its initial notoriety, Pitchfork gave the record a 3.3 and in lieu of an actual review simply showed a picture of a pair of sad puppies with the word “sorry” on the top. The buzz was dead.

Flash in the pans are nothing new in the music industy. But what happened to The Black Kids is different: they were merely the latest victims of our a hyper-critical, mp3-infused world. Bands too soon for the spotlight are being chewed up and spit out before they can realize who they are as artists. The speed at which we consume music (and I include the general fan along with the media) is adversely affecting the industry. If music turnover were a treadmill, then it’s currently set at the highest speed. This unrelenting search for what's new and what's fresh has almost become more important then the music itself. How else can it be explained that bands like the Strokes and Arctic Monkeys received critical and popular backlashes before their debut's were released? Or that, because of illegal downloading and the blogosphere’s daily zeal to be ahead of the curve, by the time a band's album is released it feels anticlimactic? 

The real shame about this turnover is that it is happening at such as pace that it's almost impossible for new music to leave a mark on our lives, much less create a shared consensus about its importance. How will we be able to become nostalgic for a musical period if we don't listen to the music long enough for it to mean anything?  

Some periods in music are so indelible that just the mention of them brings to mind artists and albums, even to those who weren't alive. The Summer of Love in 1967 conjures images of hippies swaying to Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, The Mamas and The Papas and the unofficial anthem of the summer, Scott Mackenzie's “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair).” To say a band plays '77 style punk immediately narrows the definition of the what that sound entails: a frantic, energetic style patterned after seminal bands like The Ramones and The Sex Pistols. But everything is fracturing now. There is no communal awareness.

I'm sure we've all been taken back when a song we haven't heard in years comes on over the radio or at a party. The flood of memories. Old friends. Funny stories. Moments like that speak to the anchoring power music has on us. But the music needs time to percolate inside us, to reside in our heads first, then our hearts. Sure, I remember exactly where I was when I first heard The Smashing Pumpkins “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” or Neutral Milk Hotel's “Aeroplane Over the Sea,” but those songs resonate with me because I played them over and over again; while doing homework, when I was happy, when I was sad.

Many older and/or established acts have taken a unique strategy to combating the short attention span. There has been a growing trend in recent years for artists to perform a series of shows playing their most accomplished album. It's not a new trend. It was not uncommon for artists in the 60s and 70s to only play the music they released in the previous year (bands then also released albums with less songs but released albums with more frequency). But the practice picked up steam again a few years ago when Brian Wilson, orchestra in tow, toured the Beach Boys' seminal album Pet Sounds around the world to massive critical and commercial success. 

Since then, many have followed that route, eschewing releasing new material and instead play to appreciative audiences who want to relive their glory days or who were unable or unaware of the music during it's initial go round. To celebrate and promote the 15th anniversary of Exile In Guyville, Liz Phair is playing her debut record around the United States. Wu-Tang Clan member the GZA has been playing his game-changing album Liquid Swords around the world the last couple years.

The cynical response is that it's a cash grab, a calculated choice to make money off the past as opposed to creating something new and putting it out there. The people who were in high school and college when those albums were released are happy to spend one evening reliving their past. And more importantly, can afford the high ticket prices that go along with that trip. 

But whatever the skepticism about an artist recycling their past successes, you have to admit enthusiasm for the music is strong enough to be able to tour behind it. What albums released this decade could that be said of in our hyper consumption age? The only album that quickly jumped to mind was Arcade Fire's Funeral. Thinking a little more, Interpol's first album, Turn On The Bright Lights, would likewise be met with excitement.

All told, good music is good music and will find its audience. With a record deal in tow, The Black Kids have at least one more opportunity to strike a chord with the populace. Whether their music will be remembered fondly years from now, only time will tell. But first we’ll have to make time, and listen.