Revisiting our musical past

The world of trendy music operates according to a paradigm eerily similar to Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence.

If Nietzsche is right and time is infinite, then everything that has ever happened and will ever happen will be played out time and time again into infinity. There are several philosophical implications of this — just some small stuff, like freedom from morality and whatnot.

But along with all those minor details about the abolition of the concept of necessity and the creation of the Übermensch blah blah blah, most shocking would be the consequence that in this hypothetical cluster of parallel universes, we would relive, for example, the late ’90s.

Again, and again, and again.

Take that as you will, but just imagine. Infinity cardigans. Infinity dragon/blue flame-patterned button-ups. Infinity glitter peace signs. Infinity “Felicity.”

This is also how the music world works. Every so often, we come back to musical tropes of a time in the past — kitschy the first time, fashionable the second. According to a psychological study by Janata, Tomic, and Rakowski in 2007, one of the most common emotional responses to music is nostalgia, even among college students.

But here we are, nearly at the Mayan end of history, basically seconds away from Jon Cusack being the only surviving human or something, and we are certainly living it up. We’ve got unfettered virtual access to cats snuggling in baskets. We’ve got the iPhone 4S with which you can literally have a conversation. We’ve got Lou Reed making an album with Metallica. What could we possibly be missing?

Most who keep up with the blogosphere know about the old news that is the Summer of Chillwave 2009, the sudden explosion and slow recession of nostalgic, effervescent laptop pop. Of course, this wasn’t a happy accident; loners across the country weren’t all struck by the same burst of artistic inspiration, emerging simultaneously from their bedrooms to conquer the light with an EP’s worth of ’90s educational video soundtrack music. The influence of blog buzz and the hipness of being square brought together a “scene” of contrived nostalgia.

Some feel that this musical nostalgia is a symptom of a paradoxical desire to be “culturally relevant” by uncreatively rehashing the irrelevant. But originally generated content is so 2007; now is the moment of the past.

Recently, music has returned to reinterpret the past few decades of pop history. The London rock outfit Yuck released a Dinosaur Jr.-inspired album this February, Beyonce’s summer jam “Party (feat. Andre 3000)” could be mistaken for some fine old-school hip-hop, and, looking back even further, Youth Lagoon just released a video for the track “Montana” that could very well be lost footage from a childhood in the 1950s.

Taking the sounds of the past and turning them into something new and wonderful takes an incredible amount of creativity. Continuing the trends of years past in an earnest appeal to a safe listenership is the definition of kitsch. But current trends in music ensure the past is molded, picked apart and turned inside out. Using classic sounds to highlight a contrast between then and now (consider Frank Ocean’s aptly named album, “Nostalgia, Ultra”) and the effective use of sampling (think Kanye West and Jay-Z, Burial or the Avalanches) can create an effect of nostalgia that completely recontextualizes the past and imagines a future built entirely upon the layering of information on information. Sounds a bit like the rest of the zeitgeist.

The greatest musical artists of our time won’t be remembered for creating a brand new sound, but that’s all right. Here, as we float through an open-source galaxy, it isn’t that we miss the past, per say. We’ve just recognized that now, it is up to us to take what history we already have and make sense of things for ourselves. Eternal recurrence is now eternal reworking until we have a present that is at once beautiful and meaningful, inherently linked to the ever-present past but pushing in a new direction.

And then maybe after that we can all become the Übermensch, or at least use our iPads while we dress like Clarissa.

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