Ed Power looks at the state of popular music which is increasingly dominated by performers working their back catalogues to death.
The most significant moment of Michael Jackson’s early solo career occurred on March 25, 1983, at the
Pasadena Civic Auditorium in southern California.
Motown Records was celebrating its 25th anniversary with a televised concert, at which Jackson and his brothers, with whom he had performed in the Jackson 5, were invited to reprise several of their hits.
After running through a medley of their biggest smashes the rest of the group exited the stage, leaving Jackson alone.
“Those were magic moments,” he told the audience, that reedy speaking voice containing unexpected glints of steel.
“Those were good songs. I like those songs a lot. But especially I like the new songs.”
At this, the jittery opening beat of his new single, ‘Billy Jean’, kicked in and Jackson began grooving on the spot and clutching his crotch. He was soon sliding backward across the stag. It was the debut of his Moonwalk. The crowd were on their feet, baying.
Thirty-four years on, Jackson is gone and it is hard to imagine an artist or audience responding with the same excitement to “new songs”.
Consider that the highest earning tour of 2017 was a comeback featuring three- fifths of the classic Guns N’ Roses line-up.
Second place went to U2 performing the Joshua Three, a 30-year-old album.
The season’s hottest ticket on Broadway, meanwhile, is to see Bruce Springsteen reminiscing about his career and delivering acoustic highlights from his catalogue. Tickets on the secondary market start at €760.
Nostalgia is the monster that has devoured rock ’n roll. As records sales have collapsed, so a solid back catalogue has become essential to any artist hoping to turn a decent living.
It has, for instance, been decades since Norwegian pop group A-ha troubled the charts, even in Scandinavia. Yet a concert at Cork’s Live at the Marquee festival next summer sold out in a morning.
Other spotlight gigs in 2018 include Roger Waters, of Pink Floyd, who has promised fans that he will be delving into his 70s catalogue (there will be newish songs but not, it is implied, too many), and the return of Tears For Fears and Erasure.
The autumn just passed meanwhile saw 3Arena in Dublin welcome Steely Dan, Hall and Oates and Chic — none of whom have had a sniff at the charts in the past 30 years yet continue to clock up huge box office on the live circuit.
It is important to recognise that nostalgia isn’t confined to music. Society is suffused in it. Star Wars: The Last Jedi has become the year’s highest grossing movie, largely by appealing to Generation Xers eager to reprise the experience of sitting in a cinema as a 10 -year-old gasping as the Millennium Falcon evaded Tie Fighters.
Today we no longer chase our youth — we chase our childhoods.
In 2018, Steven Spielberg, for his part, returns to the blockbuster frontline with Ready Player One, adapted from a novel that celebrates the arcane minutiae of 80s culture: Old Dungeons and Dragons adventures, Atari games consoles, 80s pop groups (Oingo Boingo’s Dead Man’s Party is referenced on the book’s very first page).
It’s the same formula that has turned Netflix’s Stranger Things into a phenomenon.
Set in small town America in the early 80s, the drama is strewn with pop culture bread crumbs: Ghostbusters, D&D (again), retro video games such as Dragons Lair.
“Lady Gaga has replaced Madonna, Adele has replaced Mariah Carey — both distinctions without a real difference — and Jay-Z and Wilco are still Jay-Z and Wilco,” wrote pops culture journalist Kurt Anderson in a Vanity Fair essay about the nostalgia entertainment complex in 2012.
“Except for certain details … ambitious fiction from 20 years ago (Doug Coupland’s Generation X, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow) is in no way dated.”
Though lucrative, pandering to an audience’s nostalgia cravings is not necessarily creatively satisfying. When I spoke to the guitarist Grant Hart of Husker Du (who died earlier this year), he was hostile towards that component of his fanbase only interested in songs from 25 years ago.
“There is a difference between art and marketing,” he said. “It’s not very rewarding where you play 90% of everything you have written and, at the end of the night, there’s some drunken old sot yelling out [Husker Du classic] ‘Diane’. It’s not very fair to me. I think Husker Du played a successful role in my artistic evolution.
“Meanwhile, you have all these people who went on to become bankers and insurance specialists, feathering their nests basically. And now they are having a midlife crisis they are coming to my shows and expect to buy their way back the 80s via the vehicle of Grant Hart and his music. Well, it’s not bloody going to happen.”
“We’ve done some of those nostalgia gigs and you see bands who haven’t plugged in an instrument for years,” Ashley Keating of Irish rock group The Frank and Walters told me recently. “And you can tell bands that have kept at it.”
In an interview with the Irish Examiner earlier this year, James Dean Bradfield of Manic Street Preachers said: “I used to think that bands that just tour their classic works were in danger of becoming a museum piece. You have to be careful.
“Do that too much and you’ve nothing new to offer.”
During an interview about Retromania, his 2011 exploration of the relationship between pop and nostalgia, writer Simon Reynolds offered the suggestion that perhaps the idea of music as something that innovates, was a fluke.
“It happened in the 60s when there was a fetish for everything that was new and breaking with tradition,” he said. “A lot of these bands were from art-school.
“There were big developments in technology, studios going from eight to 24 tracks, the electrifying of guitars. It all converted to create this surge. Perhaps it was unsustainable.”
In an article in the LA Times on the same topic, Reynolds wrote: “We live in a pop age gone loco for retro and crazy for commemoration.
“Band reformations and reunion tours, tribute albums and box sets, anniversary festivals and live performances of classic albums: Each new year is better than the previous year for music from yesteryear.
“Could it be that the greatest danger to the future of our music culture is its past? There is a case for saying certain kinds of art form can only endure for so long.
“Sonnets, as a poetic form — there was only a certain amount of time until nobody could do them any more. Maybe music is the same.”
The sobering lesson is that, with records sales slumping, artists are increasingly enslaved by the public’s desire for nostalgia and nothing but nostalgia.
Back to the Future: The Big Nostalgia Gigs of 2018
Erasure, Olympia, Dublin, January 29-31
Supporting Robbie Williams in the Aviva Stadium last summer, Erasure’s vintage synth-pop found an enthusiastic audience among the middi-aged crowd. Expect an equally raucous reception as they return for three nights in Dublin.
Paul Weller, Olympia, Dublin February 12-14
The ‘Modfather’ and postpunk icon returns to Ireland for a brace of gigs, which will learn heavily on his late-70s The Jam and mid-90s solo period — or at least they will if fans have their way.
Tears For Fears, 3Arena, Dublin, May 2
It’s retro overboard as the frowning 80s duo are joined by Alison Moyet as support.
Beck and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, 3Arena, Dublin May 23
Nostalgia doesn’t just mean Bob Dylan or Beatles covers bands. The Nineties were a long time ago — and artists from that era are in demand on the live circuit. Disconcertingly, however, this co-headliner show features early 2000s group Yeah Yeah Yeahs — proof that retro-mania has now entered the 21st century.
A-ha, Live at the Marquee Cork, June 12
The only Irish performance by the 80s stalwarts was an instant sell-out.
Roger Waters, 3Arena Dublin, June 26-27
The “pioneering new tour” from the ex Pink Floyd man will feature “classic….Floyd, some new songs and solo work.”
Alanis Morissette, Live at the Marquee Cork, July 4, Iveagh Gardens Dublin July 5
Twenty-two years ago, Morissette redrew the rulebook for confessional rock with Jagged Little Pill. The Dublin concert sold out immediately — proof that 90s nostalgia is as potent as
any other variety.
Jeff Lynne’s ELO, 3Arena, Dublin October 25
The 70s soft-rock supremo takes his 40-year-old catalogue back on the road — with tickets starting at a cheeky €79.
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