Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Retro Pop

Today I am so full of anger. Many of my colleagues seem to want us to work as if it was 1970 rather than 2007. I am supposed to make sure we work in an up-to-date way in my business but they simply want to turn the clock back; clearly been watching too many episodes of 'Life on Mars' (a recent UK TV series in which a police officer from 2006 is transported back to 1973; a sequel called 'Ashes to Ashes' about a police psychologist going back to 1981 is following. The titles are from David Bowie tracks of the relevant years). Anyway, thinking about minds locked in the past, reminded me of a trend I have noticed in recent weeks for what I can really only term 'retro pop' music. I am sure there is some other term put around in the media but this is the one I'll use until I come across the one in common usage.

Three tracks illustrate my point 'Candyman' Christine Aguilera, 'Back to Black' by Amy Winehouse and 'Listening Man' by The Bees. 'Candyman' sounds as if it was written in 1942 and you can envisage couples jiving to it. It is reminiscent of things like 'Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy' with the only anachronism the line about this candyman making 'panties drop' which I do not think they would have got away with in a song 65 years ago. Amy Winehouse seems to have been moving through the decades for a while now, 'Rehab' her previous single sounded like a Blues track of the 1930s and 'Back to Black' is a kind of Nina Simone meets The Supremes, somewhere in the mid- to late 1960s. In the case of 'Back to Black' her video is in black and white with her looking like a gangster's mistress of the early 1960s. Joss Stone, similarly has raided the 1960s Motown and 1970s funk scene for her tracks.

You may ask, as I do, why is there this trend towards using the style of tracks recorded long before the artists were born [Aguilera - 1980, Winehouse - 1983, Stone - 1987; cannot find the age of either of The Bees members]. Is it because the biggest consumers of popular music are now in their 30s or 40s (even then that makes them born in 1948 at the earliest) with a nostalgia for tracks of their youth or the tracks their parents listened to? Is it because the music genres of the past decade notably rap and dance music have come to a dead end, simply self-referencing or almost parodies of themselves? Is it because you can listen to these tracks without them mutilated to remove the swearing? Of course these genres are not dead but it is interesting that older stylings can fight with them on equal terms for sales.

Maybe it goes back to the attitude seen in 'The Commitments' (1991) [in the book the hero - Jimmy Rabbitte is less devoted to soul music than in the film] when Rabbitte is telling the members of his putative soul band why soul music of the 1960s is relevant to Ireland of the 1990s, because it is about working class people 'riding' (i.e. having sex), it touches on an eternal theme in away that can be understood by people even decades after it is recorded. Maybe how well the two albums which came out of the movie sold shows there was a truth in this. The interesting thing will be, if the pop music consumers will follow it up and start buying stuff by Johnny Mercer, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, The Supremes, Jean Knight, Funkadelic or even the Puppini Sisters?! I suppose we should not be surprised. Pop music is often portrayed as being ephemeral, but in their day Beethoven, Handel and especially Strauss were seen as the pop music of the day but still sell centuries later.

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