Your Kids Are Gonna Love It
We’re watching ‘Back to the Future’. It’s 1955, and Marty McFly is playing in the band at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. He plays a solo, gets a bit carried away, and forgets what decade he’s in. His 1955 solo turns into a 1985 solo, in the style of Eddie Van Halen, full of fast runs and long squealing notes soaked in distortion. The kids stop dancing, the band stops playing, and everybody stares at Marty like he just took a crap on the floor. He mumbles a faint apology. “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that. But your kids are gonna love it.”
Most of us just have to guess what kids might be dancing to in the future, and it’s not easy. Pop history is full of cautionary tales to this effect; now-classic albums ignored in their day, bands who would later shape the course of music booed off the stage. These stories remind us that almost nobody recognised the sound of the future when they first heard it, and the only general conclusion for the artist to draw from them is that the music of tomorrow will be nothing like the music of today. Marty McFly knows, in 1955, that music will sound like Van Halen in 1985. But the only thing Van Halen singer David Lee Roth could tell us in 1987 was that music in 2007 would not sound like Van Halen. “I don’t know what I’m gonna be singing, 20, 30 years from now. I don’t know what we’ll be dressing like. It won’t be like anything we’re familiar with, I know that. And I’m looking forward to it.”
Roth was here employing a mode of thinking about time common to over 2000 years of history in the western world, from the old testament to the essays of Arnold Schoenberg. It’s a notion of history as progress, each step taking us closer to our goal. It’s a construct still used today by many pop artists, critics and fans when they use phrases like “they were ahead of their time”. Here, the future is the goal, the highest praise is reserved for those who get there first. But such statements are often slightly at odds with the speaker’s actual beliefs. The idea of historical progress might still be self-evident in science, but not in the arts and humanities, and especially not in the sentimental world of pop and rock music.
If Roth’s attempt to predict the future seems a little off today, it’s most likely for this reason. As far as technology goes, his statement rings true - if I travelled back to 1987 and showed him Google Earth, he’d be surprised, in exactly the way he expected to be. But when it comes to fashion and music, he would be confronted with the sight of hip twenty-somethings wearing clothes much like the ones he wore in the 80s, often listening to music he would find shockingly familiar. In other words, I think he would be less surprised by my iphone than by the Daft Punk album I’m playing on it.
Because their 2001 album ‘Discovery’ seemed to anticipate the direction of music in the following decade, Daft Punk are seen today as innovators. But the duo are the opposite of futurists, their sci-fi imagery speaks of a longing for 2024 as it was represented in movies in the 80s, rather than the inhuman void they suspect it will actually turn out to be. This inability to imagine the future might be symptomatic of a culture in decline. But it could also be part of a romantic, humanist tradition which, since the 19th century, has consistently used the past to launch its critique of the present. It may turn out to be a better use of the artist’s time to turn to yesterday in search of what we’ve lost on the road to tomorrow, than to spend it rushing to reach a future no one really looks forward to anymore.
"What the audience demands of the artist - really demands, in its unconscious desire - and what the artist thinks it ought to be given... [is] the same thing: the sentiment of being. The sentiment of being is the sentiment of being strong... such energy as contrives that the centre shall hold, that the circumference of the self keep unbroken, that the person be an integer, impenetrable, perdurable, and autonomous in being if inot in action."
marina and the diamonds | the family jewels | identity | personality | realism | authenticity | lionel trilling
"Music was now an object that could be owned by the individual and used at his own convenience... Now the Symphony of a Thousand could play to an audience of one. Now a man could hear nocturnes at breakfast, vespers at noon, and the Easter Oratorio on Channukah. He could do his morning crossword to 'One O'Clock Jump', and make love right through the St Matthew Passion. Anything was possible; nothing was sacred; freedom was absolute. It was the freedom, once the cathedral of culture had been wrecked, to take home the bits you liked and arrange them as you please. Once again, a mechanical invention had met capitalism's need to recreate all of life in its image. The cathedral of culture was now a supermarket."
Evan Eisenberg, 1987
wu-tang clan | shaolin | age of mechanical reproduction | aura | ritual | art | artists
"What if I tell you now that I have often longed even for plays I have seen performed - frequently the very ones which bored me most - or for books I have read in the past and did not like at all? If that is not madness, there's no such thing."
"And you must not let yourself be misled, in your solitude, by the fact that there is something in you that wants to escape from it. This very wish will, if you use it quietly and pre-eminently and like a tool, help to spread your solitude over wide country. People have (with the help of convention) found the solution of everything in ease, and the easiest side of ease; but it is clear that we must hold to the difficult; everything living holds to it, everything in nature grows and defends itself according to its own character and is an individual in its own right, strives to be so at any cost and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must hold to the difficult is a certainty that will not leave us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; the fact that a thing is difficult must be one more reason for our doing it."
Rainer Maria Rilke, 1904
rainer maria rilke | kate bush
'Acousmatic, the Larousse dictionary tells us, is the 'name given to the disciples of Pythagoras who for five years, listened to his teachings while he was hidden behind a curtain, without seeing him, while observing a strict silence.' Hidden from their eyes, only the voice of their master reached the disciples.... In ancient times, the apparatus was a curtain; today, it is the radio and methods of reproduction, along with the entire set of electro-acoustic transformations, that place us, modern listeners to an invisible voice, under similar conditions.'
Pierre Schaeffer, 'Acousmatics', 1966
pierre schaeffer | musique concrete | sonorous objects | acousmatics | pythagoras | phenomenology | twin peaks | red room
'Imagine a traveller from a hundred years ago arrives at our doorstep and asks us why the music of the 20th century operates so frequently on the basis of cyclic repetition. Not just the rap and dance genres of popular culture, but also minimalism - perhaps the single most viable strand of the Western art music tradition... why does so much of our music work this way? What kind of needs do these patterns satisfy?'
Susan McClary, 1999
stardust | daft punk | susan mcclary | minimalism | loop | chaka kahn | repetition