Friday, 4 April 2008

Retro Pop Continues to Thrive

Last year I noted how many current pop songs seem to be using 1960s style arrangements even though the artists performing the songs had not been alive during that decade. This trend continues now and seems to show no sign of abating. Despite (or may because of) all her personal problems Amy Winehouse continues to be a best seller with her soul-motown style (and on the album she also has music in dub/early reggae styles too) in both the UK and the USA. Here her profile was mantained by her collaboration with Mark Ronson on the cover of 'Valerie' by The Zutons (2006) and inadvertently creating a lesbian anthem.

Of course in the wake of Winehouse and the other singers like Christine Aguillera and Faith Hill who did one-off retro songs, others are coming to the fore, notably (Amy) Duffy who was born in 1985 but sings as if she was a member of a girl group of the mid to late 1960s. Her style is shriller, less earthy than Winehouse and she even cites Millie Small singing 'My Boy Lollipop' (1964) as an influence, along with Sandie Shaw (with a bit more credibility as Small has a terribly girly voice), but I suppose that fits in with the uber-girly style that so many young women are engaging with at the moment. In her song 'Mercy' which has reached number 1 in the UK the lyrics are incredibly submissive about a woman begging for mercy 'on my knees' to be released from her attraction to a man who wants her simply as 'something on the side' which is hardly an empowered young woman's behaviour. Winehouse's lyrics may speak of losing control to alcohol or love but references in 'Rehab', 'Back to Black' and 'Tears Dry On Their Own' are about women taking back the control with greater experience. Maybe it is time for Aretha Franklin to start re-releasing her back catalogue from 'R,E,S,P,E,C,T' to 'Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves', she was there in the 1960s and it seems, still has a great deal to say to women in the late 2000s as society seems to be pushing hard to return to the gender balance of 40 years ago.

The retro style is not confined to women and a number of established groups are making forays into the retro scene. I have heard a number influenced by the MerseyBeat style sounding rather like The Kinks and other male bands of the time. Unfortunately many of these slip from radio consciousness faster than I can keep track of them. There was one by a former member of Pulp (though half the music population of the UK seems to have been in Pulp at one time or another) and the one that sticks out currently is by Badly Drawn Boy who formed in 2003 and have had moderate success. Their single 'Time of Times' has a kind of cross-over British music scene sound with hippy inputs. You could easily have listened to it in 1967 and not been surprised by it. It is musical, though the concept of the lyrics is limited, I personally would prefer it over any rap track around at the moment. Maybe all of this is about Britain, though clearly US artists are joining in too, it seems more sustained here. The British always took on board all kinds of American influences of all kinds, for much of their career The Rolling Stones were a rhythm and blues band before morphing into more of a rock band in the early 1970s and you can hear the blues in their early songs applied to concerns of the time like abuse of prescription drugs. However, the sounds and style were mixed in with British sentiments as they seem to be doing now. The 1960s were a period in modern British history when the country seem to be successful and the general standard of living was pretty good and opportunities for people to advance in society were greater than before. No wonder there might be a nostalgia for such times or among people not born then an interest in music influenced by that era. The issue is, however, is what messages are being brought forward in time is it the line of Winehouse about becoming stronger after challenges or of Duffy about submitting in a male-dominated society or Badly Drawn Boy about a time of change. Maybe it is only people like me who worry about what songs are saying and the bulk of the population consume pop music because it engages emotionally with them. Of course music of the 1960s was often well crafted and you can note often the complexity of the instrumental usage. Some of it was simplistic, naturally, but maybe after so long of pumped electronic background and grunted lyrics people are seeking something more satisfying.

I had anticipated that the retro pop era would fade, but we are now into its second year and if the sales continue to be this high and the range of artists coming to this style of music in its wide range of forms then we can only speculate how long it will go on. It would be interesting if The Rolling Stones on their next tour started performing 'Not Fade Away' (1964), 'It's All Over Now' (1964 - a counterpoint male dominance song) or 'Time Is On My Side' (1965) or even 'Let's Spend the Night Together' (1967 - too controversial for 1960s USA 'the night' had to be substituted with 'some time' and I could imagine it would still be frowned upon in the sexual abstinence culture of a lot of the USA of the 2000s) or 'You Can't Always Get What You Want' (1973) as a counteraction to our current consumerist obsessions (though saying that Mick Jagger is a terribly Thatcherite Conservative and tax avoider, his solo single 'Let's Work' (1987) was an appalling New Right anthem against 'benefit scroungers'). Personally I am intrigued to see what happens next, which other vein of 1960s music is re-excavated, how well it is accepted and what it can tell us about life in this decade.

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