This week, we bring you posts from guest blogger Robert Loss, author of Nothing Has Been Done Before. Read on to learn what inspired him to write the book, why he thinks that there is room for newness in popular music, and how this newness can evade being defined by demands of consumerist culture in popular music. Plus! A bonus playlist to accompany the music covered in the book.
“Britney Spears is constantly coming up with something new and innovative. Pere Ubu does the same old thing. ‘New’ is a trap and a scam to dupe student-types and other naive people.”
– David Thomas of Pere Ubu
For traditionalists like Thomas—and despite making self-described “avant-garage” music in Pere Ubu, Thomas is a traditionalist—the questions concerning popular music are answered before they’re asked, and no question is answered so quickly, so easily as that of legitimate newness. Is it possible? No. Case closed. Believing this requires a kind of faith that prevents one from digging deeper and discovering that meaningful newness in popular music is possible.
In considering newness in popular music, one is faced with two predominating viewpoints: (1) the pessimism presented by Thomas’ statement (or by the music critic Nick Tosches when he wrote, in 1984, “To begin to see that there really is nothing new under the lucky old sun is to begin to understand the nature of popular culture and the business of fame”) which is what we might call the Ecclesiastes Argument; and (2) the boundless Enthusiasm™ about newness pushed on us by the villains Thomas and Tosches identify and defy: the music industry, advertising, capitalism, and a restless American pop culture. What’s “new” can certainly disguise what’s essentially a profitable con, but so can traditionalism and nostalgia. The last time I checked, there are cable channels devoted to infomercials selling the music of the 1960s and 1970s, and they wouldn’t exist if they weren’t making bank.
The real problem is this binary of “nothing is new” and “everything is new.” Like the rockist v. poptimist argument it mirrors (with some qualifications on both sides), this dualism is an emaciated way of thinking about popular music. At the least, it’s misguided. At worst, it’s destructive. It makes people ashamed of the music they enjoy. It cuts the ties of commonality between music and listeners. It’s a dumb way of understanding history. And it doesn’t really do justice to music’s power.
That’s the refusal in Nothing Has Been Done Before, the refusal to play by those binaries, and it’s probably why I wrote the book. In many ways, my book responds to Simon Reynolds’ thoughtful Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, published in 2011. Reynolds’ pessimism about the newness of contemporary music is much more complex than the Ecclesiastes Argument, but he does arrive at similar conclusions. He writes, for instance, that like the world economy in 2008, “music has been depleted of meaning through derivativeness and indebtedness.” That is a remarkable claim.
Reynolds and I are diagnosing the same problem, this question of newness, but going about it in very different ways. A key difference is that Reynolds is obsessed by form, style, and genres at the expense of social, cultural, and historical contexts outside of the music world. For example, Reynolds considers it a problem that “heavily indebted bands” like The White Stripes became “epoch-defining figures even when the substance of their sound referred back to a much earlier epoch.” In other words, no matter when or where you might happen to play garage rock, you’re always just doing something that’s been done before. As I write in Nothing Has Been Done Before‘s prologue, however, “when and where do matter, so long as music is more than just sonic information.”
The title of the book is, to be completely honest with you, a trap. It makes it seem like I come down on the optimistic side, that I agree with the subtle and not-so-subtle voices of mass consumerism and pop culture that whisper to us all, “Look at this! New and improved! You need this.” But it’s not nearly that simple. Instead, the thesis of the book goes something like this: “This moment, right now, is entirely unique from the previous, and will be from the next. Nothing has been done before. It doesn’t always feel that way, though. The trick of art, then, its highest calling, is to remind us.”
The central argument of Nothing Has Been Done Before is that performance is the being of music, and it is this being in a field of history that gives music its potential to be new. Nothing is guaranteed. Everything depends on the creation of significant differences between then, now, and the future.
Curiosity about everything in between those two ends of the spectrum is what drives this book: visions of revolution, remixes of the past, exhumations of failed promises, declarations of a pop democracy, unheard voices, voices reinventing themselves. My only significant rule was to follow the music wherever it led me. That’s why a chapter on Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft” goes back to his 1965 performance at the Newport Folk Festival, why a section on contemporary synthwave, or outrun, recalls F. T. Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto from 1909, why, in this book, Kanye West is walking through a contemporary art museum, and why Hurray for the Riff Raff’s “The Body Electric” inevitably brings forward Delia Green and Walt Whitman. The musicians who populate this book are diverse in sound and beliefs—Drive-By Truckers, Taylor Swift, Goodbye Tomorrow, The Wrens, Janelle Monáe, LCD Soundsystem, Devendra Banhart—but I take them to be artists who have struggled like every other artist to find something new in themselves and their work.
At the same time, I account for various models of the new, many of them drawn from the world of art and philosophy. Michael North’s useful distinction between historical methods of recombination and recurrence in his 2013 book, Novelty: A History of the New, forms an important foundation. So, too, does the concept of the “cultural economy of exchange” theorized by the philosopher of art Boris Groys in On the New. Then there’s the most radical kind of newness, the “event,” a central principle in the philosophy of Alain Badiou. They share space with astute critics like Greil Marcus, Reynolds, and the great Ellen Willis, the poet Charles Bernstein, and the words of the musicians themselves.
What I’m hoping is that Nothing Has Been Done Before resets, enriches, and reinvigorates our cultural conversation about popular music and the question of the new. If we can begin to think differently about music, we might begin to hear it differently.
Listen to the Nothing Has Been Done Before playlist:
Additional information about the book, including events and a complete discography visit: www.nothinghasbeendonebefore.com
To purchase Nothing Has Been Done Before, visit www.bloomsbury.com.