To hear retrospectives tell it, the ’80s were an endless parade of Day-Glo, rap breaks, and excesses on the parts of stockbrokers and the people responsible for Michael Jackson’s video budgets. But this narrative conveniently forgets how utterly obsessed with the late ’50s and early ’60s it was. Back to the Future; Peggy Sue Got Married; the soundtracks to The Big Chill and Dirty Dancing; the collected work of Billy Joel, both audio and visual—looking back through a pair of rose-colored wire frames was par for the course for much of popular culture.
Who wants to look back at an era and realize that the people alive during it were themselves casting their glances toward the more idyllic era receding in the rearview mirror? Talk about your depressing panoptics. Better instead to focus on the relatively new phenomena that sprung up, even if doing so only tells a majority of the story.
I wonder how I Love 2012 will play out when it’s streamed into the frontal lobes of VH1 Classic subscribers come 2025. Sure, there will be a lot of ground to cover—the political sideshows alone will probably merit their own spin-off special or two. But what to make of our current obsessions with the past, with the once-buried bands announcing reunions on the daily and the vestiges of long-ago pop-cultural trifles occasionally reaching Bieber levels of online obsession? Will people of my generation cop to getting almost as annoying about The Way Things Were Back Then as our forebears were all those years ago?
The past week served as something of a boiling point for the ’90s nostalgia that has been bubbling for a good couple of years now, its flames fueled by old bands getting back on the horse as much as they have been by new artists borrowing liberally from the sounds of their 15-to-20-year forebears. On Friday, a different kind of resuscitation occurred when Courtney Love hopped on stage with the three people who backed her up in Hole during the mid ’90s—they were celebrating the 18th anniversary of that band’s commercial leap, Live Through This. In addition to that, the British masters of grandiosity Pulp played a two-night run at Radio City Music Hall (then jetted off to Coachella), and the ’90s fanzine Chickfactor honored its 20th anniversary with a three-night stint at the Bell House where the lineup was studded with college-radio mainstays from that decade—the melancholy, delicate duo the Softies, the fiery rock outfit Versus, the feel-good twee act Small Factory.
Elsewhere around town, Kim Gordon’s Sonic Youth side project Free Kitten played a set that was itself a tribute to the German electro pioneers Kraftwerk, who began an eight-night run of shows at the Museum of Modern Art on Tuesday.
I should note that I reveled in a lot of the aforementioned events; I swayed dreamily to the Softies’ sweetly heartbroken sighs and threw my arms in the air triumphantly as Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker tore through his band’s class-tourism anthem “Common People.” But the news of the holographic performance by the 16-years-dead Tupac Shakur at Coachella on Sunday—which opened with him greeting the fest, despite it being born some three years after he was fatally shot in Las Vegas—gave me pause. In large part, this was because of an event I attended earlier this month: Cirque du Soleil’s tribute to Michael Jackson. That night, Madison Square Garden was packed with fans of the late hit master—some of whom were even dressed in costume—ready to sing along with his indelible hits as images from the old Jackson 5 cartoon beamed down from the screens and a giant white sequined glove danced. The fact that Jackson’s corporeal self was far from the action was at most an inconvenience; the songs were still there and still ready to thrill.
The show made me wonder if it represented the future of pop spectacle; it actually reminded me of seeing Britney Spears at Nassau Coliseum last year, when the dancers and rafters-shaking bass almost blotted out the gamely dancing void at the center of the stage. In both instances, the name on the marquee served more as a brand identity for the evening than a signal letting attendees know who was performing; it implicitly told people, “You will hear ‘Thriller’ and ‘I Want You Back’ at this show,” or, “You will hear ‘. . . Baby One More Time’ and ‘Toxic’ tonight.”
If the point of going to a concert isn’t to see the artist in question, but instead to feel a rush that can only be experienced when many other people are feeling the exact same way, is there anything wrong with having holograms or dancers or past projections of a performer serve as the headlining act? (Cover bands and karaoke DJs probably have their own answers to this question, but the scale involved with putting on a pop production makes the question loom larger as well.) This, of course, also brings up the economics—namely, will people be more likely to pay for, say, a revue honoring the best songs by Madonna where the Material Girl is only present in spectral form or as a dancing BOY TOY belt, than they will for a set by a bunch of flesh-and-blood musicians wailing away on their instruments? (And which outing will be more expensive?)
Shakur’s posthumous appearance at Coachella caused my West Coast colleague Adam Lovinus to quote Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Over the coming years, as pop mainstays enter the realm of no longer being able to make money on the road and the massive business structures held up by them trying to figure out how to stay solvent, many more scientists will likely fiddle with this equation.