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The Quietus Essay

Welcome To The New Age: 2014 & The New Utopian Pop
Alex Niven , January 14th, 2014 08:15

As we approach the mid-point of the decade, Alex Niven argues that pop music is losing its retromanic urge, and starting to look to the future

The curtain opens on an opaque wasteland filled with smoke wisps and gas clouds, the aftermath of an unnamed disaster still purling in the distance. Amid a landscape of Hollywood apocalypse we hear the sound of campfire singing – it could be Fleet Foxes or the dreaded Mumford clan – attenuated wailing from a world drained of colour and confidence. But then something magic happens. The intro fades, the guitars die, and like a peal of thunder, bass returns – churning, venomous synth swirls jack-knifing with 'Kashmir'-meets-dubstep drums. The singer is suddenly bellowing a lyric about coming up for air after years of torpor and decline, a lyric about beginning to see the future again: "I'm waking up I feel it in my bones / Enough to make my systems blow / Welcome to the new age."

We arrive in 2014 with a dawning sense that the decade is surely, finally, about to kick into life. For months now, the portents have been gathering even in the deserts of MOR pop culture. At the risk of understatement, Imagine Dragons' 'Radioactive' – the tune summarised above – was not quite the single of last year. But it was interesting for one very specific reason: with its disavowal of retro, its cautious embrace of EDM, and the rousing Hunger Games futurism of its chorus, this million-selling slab of corporate rock was a sign that even in the reactionary heart of the US music industry, a yearning for newness is tentatively beginning to win out over the conservatism of the last decade or so. After a slow start, it seems that a sense of timeliness, of generational consciousness, is beginning to descend on the 21st century as it emerges from the retromania and pessimism of its opening years.

Even if Imagine Dragons aren't your thing (and really, why should they be?) it's highly likely you've come across other examples of the epochal mood building in mainstream pop in recent months. Everywhere you look in the chart music of the moment, themes of collectivism and contemporaneity are being pushed front and centre. The Now is becoming acceptable again. 'We' is fast replacing 'me' as the pronoun of choice for producers seeking to latch onto the pop zeitgeist of the 2010s.

Some examples chosen at random: Miley Cyrus's 'We Can't Stop' dragged the hip-hop-lite party anthem into the realm of generational statement, with its evocation of a cut-loose delinquent tribe who own the night and take nothing from nobody; Tinie Tempah's 'Children Of The Sun' adopted a similar posture, also appearing to nod at the defiant hedonism of recent teensploitation films like Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers and Sofia Coppola's Bling Ring. Even Sussex lads Rizzle Kicks felt compelled to distil the spirit of the age – in the surprisingly good 'Lost Generation' of last August, a Jeremy Kyle-baiting protest song that bore faint traces of The Specials' era-defining eighties masterpiece 'Ghost Town'.

Coupled with its au courant rallying cries, this decade's pop is also cautiously beginning to sound of the moment, even if we still await a sonic breakthrough on the level of a punk or a drum and bass. In an extract from one of 2014's most eagerly anticipated books published on this website last summer, the critic Mark Fisher bemoaned the 'anachronism and inertia' of 21st Century culture, and suggested the following thought experiment:

"Imagine any record released in the past couple of years being beamed back in time to, say, 1995 and played on the radio. It's hard to think that it will produce any jolt in the listeners. On the contrary, what would be likely to shock our 1995 audience would be the very recognisability of the sounds: would music really have changed so little in the next seventeen years? Contrast this with the rapid turnover of styles between the 1960s and the 90s: play a jungle record from 1993 to someone in 1989 and it would have sounded like something so new that it challenged them to rethink what music was, or could be."

This is a fair summary of the post-millennium popscape taken as a whole. But, I would argue, the ground has shifted subtly over the past year or so.

It's undoubtedly true that the cultural scene is still dominated by various manifestations of postmodern retro, from the lingering Toryism of the nu-folk troubadours, to Bastille's middle-class rave karaoke, to the legions of trendier bands still allied to the post-punk revivalism of the mid-noughties (see Savages). But I think that there are signs that retromania is approaching a point of exhaustion. While the last decade was defined by guitar bands, tongue-in-cheek cover versions, and the trad-rock 'live music revival', what's notable about pop right now is its lack of traditional anchoring, its emphasis on overt studio production techniques and – perhaps most important of all – its aversion to the guitar as a focal point of arrangements.

Turning on the radio in, say, 2006, was a traumatic experience, embodying exactly the sort of hellish 'anachronism and inertia' Fisher diagnoses. As recently as the start of this decade, it was still difficult for the music fan to get through the day without somewhere or other encountering reactionary horrors like Razorlight, Kaiser Chiefs, and Kasabian (or, more recently, Mumford and Sons, The Vaccines, and Peace). Now, the hegemony of landfill indie appears to have been decisively broken: the guitar has been relegated to a tertiary instrument when it appears at all. This shift away from vintage riffology has encouraged new stirrings of modernism, at the same time as the decline of X Factor has opened up a space for more disparate, challenging sounds to penetrate the charts.

True, there have been no truly stellar leaps forward in the fabric and design of mainstream pop. Yet, if the litmus test for development is the likely response of a 1995 listener to the music of the present, I think that a large portion of contemporary music from Drake to DJ Rashad would indeed seem unfamiliar and strange – if not, perhaps, outright shocking – to a mid-90s ear. Even a relatively pedestrian single like Taylor Swift's 'I Knew You Were Trouble', with its sudden lurch into jerky, saturated synth textures in its chorus, would surely force some sort of rethink if beamed back to the year of Livin' Joy's 'Dreamer' and TLC's 'Creep' (to say nothing of 1995's more conservative chart trends).

In a brilliant essay published on the Quietus back in 2011, Dan Barrow looked on the vogue for exaggeratedly synthetic choruses (of which 'I Knew You Were Trouble' is a more recent example), labelling this trope the Soar ("that surge from a dynamically static mid-tempo 4/4 verse to a ramped-up major-key chorus, topped, in the case of female singers, with fountaining melisma; the moment the producer deploys the riff, the synth-gush, the shouted vocal-hook for which the whole of the rest of the song is a mere appendage"). Again, this was an accurate diagnosis at the time, but I think that what we are seeing now is something like the sublimation of the Soar. Piling layers of artificial sonic squall on top of a track began as a way of achieving commercial hyperbole, a classic case of steroid-injection to allow a chorus-hook to soar above its airwave rivals. Of course, industry pop is still motivated by this instinct, but now The Soar also seems to be giving expression to more genuinely populist sentiments, from the anthemic breakbeat surges of producers like Naughty Boy and Chase and Status, to the vogue for rousing 'lost generation' choruses I outlined above.

This gradual return to newness, effusiveness, and generational confidence, of course, reflects a wider social context. It seems fairly undeniable that a wave of affect is gathering in countries right across the world at the moment, as the old order of neoliberalism begins to crumble, even as its social structures are undergoing a final phase of neurotic entrenchment. Contemporary pop music – always the avant-garde of the people – is beginning to give expression to a kind of inchoate, utopian longing for a new world. Right now this impulse exists only as a vague desire for a kind of radical precarious hedonism – a yearning to party all night, both because there's nothing worth working for, and because the elevated existence of the 1% aristocracy seems utterly unattainable (for this, see in particular Lorde's magisterial 'Royals').

The big question mark looming over the forthcoming decade, now it has finally acquired a degree of self-awareness, is: will this cultural mood actually amount to anything, or will it remain a mere affective sigh? For a real leap forward in pop to occur, for expressions of rebellious collectivism to develop into a sustained cultural movement, significant structural reform of society is required. Young musicians need social security as well as imaginative precarity – they need a base of societal support that will provide the time and money necessary for producing art that will move the culture forward. At the moment, social stability barely exists, so we have anger without application, a building sense of collective identity without a clue where to take it. Karl Marx might have called this a pre-revolutionary situation. Whatever it is, it's clear that we're finally beginning to surge together again after years of dwindling into backward-looking inertia. Welcome to the new age indeed, at last.