Nothing is more eyerollingly contemptible than someone else’s nostalgia, for the very obvious reason that—d’uh—there were better things to be nostalgic about when I was young.
The above, for the avoidance of doubt, is meant to be read as deeply ironic, but there’s also an element of truth to it. This has become very apparent over the last week or so, with the tidal surge of the ‘indie sleaze’ concept gurgling up through the cultural sewer system.
I’m going to assume you already know what I’m talking about, here, because I’m a writer and theorist with a blog and not a news site; if you’re not aware of the ‘indie sleaze’ memeplex, then the article at tQ I’m about to cite heavily will probably explain it sufficiently for you to get what I’m on about. But I hazard that if you’re not yet aware of it, you’ll likely not care much for having been made aware of it, at least in the specifics; you might find the abstract points I make below to be of interest, but then again, you might not. Caveat emptor, innit.)
(ETA: have just noticed that the URL for that tQ piece includes the phrase “Mandela effect“, but the article doesn’t mention it by name at all; I wonder what, if anything, got left on the cutting-room floor?)
So, yes—Daniel Dylan Wray comes in early in his piece with an observation that’s older than either of us:
Nostalgia and the 20-year cycle are common in music. It’s no big surprise that a bunch of people pushing 40 start getting a bit warm and mushy remembering when they were 23 and full of pills and Red Stripe while listening to Soulwax. It’s human nature. It’s nice to remember good times with old friends.
(It’s a mark of my being that little bit older still than Wray that the mention of Soulwax makes me feel less warm-and-mushy and more decline-and-fall… because I recall Soulwax as a vaguely interesting band who threw it all away by spearheading that immensely tedious yet undeniably popular mash-ups phenomenon. And so it goes.)
But anyway, to put it in a capsule, ‘indie sleaze’ is a label suddenly being used to gather and package curated images and vibes (but, crucially, very little actual music) associated with the Noughties indie boom. According to Wray,
… there appears to be little else going on other than some people wallowing in the past while trying to convince themselves that it, or maybe even them, possesses some sort of contemporary relevance. As though if one keeps saying that something is happening enough times then it will eventually become true. It feels like the signs of a creeping millennial midlife crisis. Some of the stuff being posted under the indie sleaze hashtag already indicates a seemingly inevitable generational shift into ‘it was better back in my day’ territory. The next generation of Weller haircut mods or acid house dads are now seemingly upon us.
Well, quite. “Same as it ever was,” to quote a band from the generation before mine, that said generation quoted at me relentlessly; this is not a new thing. Wray consults an academic specialist in nostalgia to get some insight, or at least some side-sight, on this thing.
“There’s two ways of looking at it,” Routledge tells me. “The cynical way is that these are totally distorted memories. The more positive side is that as humans it’s really important to have a story arc, a narrative. It is kind of like filmmaking and the reality of the past is like the raw footage. Well, that doesn’t make for a good movie. What makes a good movie is when you go in there and you find the pieces that you think tell the story you want to tell. So I don’t think it’s total fiction, that footage is there right? But where it becomes more creative, and more imaginative, is how we make editing decisions.”
My bold, there, to highlight what is probably a fairly obvious point, in order that I can deliberately overstate it in a way I’ve done before: all narrative is curation. Yes, literally all narrative, making no distinction by media, or even between fiction and non-fiction: telling a story is about reducing the huge volume of stuff and events in the world (imagined or real) to a coherent and curated selection that thereby imposes meaning on a a volume too vast for our meaning-making capacity to handle.
It is thus very much in that spirit that I will note that Bill Gibson concretised Routledge’s metaphor in the maguffin of the very pertinently-titled Pattern Recognition… which, just to compound the synchronicity, is a cultural phenomenon roughly contemporaneous with the raw material from which the ‘indie sleaze’ aesthetic is being lashed together. Which brings us neatly to:
The whole thing just feels like such a weird, tenuous, desperate grasp for something that isn’t there. A bit of a front. One that people are using to mask the reality that the music they like, or make, has been deeply out of fashion for some time and are jumping on an opportunity to convince themselves its back.
What’s really odd about it is just how immediately people have swallowed it up and digested it without question. “It’s fascinating,” says Routledge of it all. “I wonder if it becomes like a self fulfilling prophecy? Like the buzz just makes it come back? Like a viral marketing campaign.”
The claim of the upper paragraph there is, I think, a bit of generational sour grapes on Wray’s part—and I say that without meaning to judge him harshly for it, because my identifying it as such is totally a function of remembering a number of times when I’ve felt exactly the same about some cultural thing-of-the-moment. Nonetheless, I think that assumptions of bad faith of this type are best not left unquestioned… and Routledge’s response starts getting to the meat of what I think this is really about. He continues:
Why has it taken such hold? (At the time of writing fresh articles are still appearing daily from major titles.) And why now? “I’ve looked at this in the context of music, film and fashion,” says Routledge. “And it’s around this age, late 30s and early 40s, that this generation gets the reins of power over culture. What I mean by that is: who’s calling the shots at the film studio, who is the editor of the magazine? That’s when these people are in charge. Obviously they’re not in charge of the bottom up organic cultural movement but they’re in charge of the discussion of it. So I think that’s part of the cycle – who gets to decide what gets the green light.”
Routledge is half-right here, I would argue, in that yes, the age cohort he’s describing is dominating the discourse on the topic, but not because they’re “in charge” of anything. Rather, it’s because the algorithmic systems have surfaced a connection between that cohort’s perfectly natural nostalgia, the “raw footage” of the era in question, and—crucially—an audience which might be formed into a viable (if momentary) market. A market for what, though—new music? Fashion? Hot-take articles? All of these, and none of them; a market for attention, first and foremost. This is an emergent phenomenon in which no one—not even those who have programmed the algorithms that underpin (what remains of) the web and social media—is truly in control of. Those algos identify and amplify tiny seismic quivers of attention, just like an amplifier amplifies the tiny signal from a guitar pick-up… and that guitar pick-up then catches a bit of the amplified signal and sends it back round again, and then, well, you all know where this metaphor goes (particularly if you’ve ever had the misfortune to hear me play guitar).
The question of the temporality—the twenty-year cycle—is interesting, but that predates the internet by a long distance, so I think we can ascribe that to the nostalgia circuit that Routledge is talking about, something that existed in earlier, less gain-y iterations of the cultural amplification system. (Sorry, but I’m doubling down on the guitar feedback metaphor, partly because it’s apropos to the particularities of the story, but mostly because it’s the illustration of runaway positive feedback that’s most easily identifiable to the largest number of people without having to get into Systems Theory 101.) What’s unusual here, if anything is unusual, is the rapidity of the response (so, the gain of the amplifier) and the shallowness of the source material (so, the low level of the signal, which correlates to the sensitivity of the pick-up).
Wray gets this, or almost gets it, I think, but then pivots away from the deeper implications:
Obviously this whole thing is ridiculous and seems to be little more than an exercise in SEO. Which is fine as fashion and trends are supposed to be ridiculous from time-to-time, and the era of so-called indie sleaze certainly was. Whatever happens in the fashion world with indie sleaze (and I’m sure it will continue to be a thing while the right people are claiming it is a thing) remains separate to the discussion in question here because you can’t consciously replicate a youth culture movement, even if you want to. They are, in essence, born from the very pure and potent power of naivety.
Yes, it is exactly an exercise in SEO, but the point is that there’s no real causal chain, no one who can really be said to have started the exercise—not even the person who started the ‘indie sleaze’ aesthetic curation process. There are dozens, maybe even hundreds of such aesthetics being curated all over the place right at this very moment; it’s only when the attentional pick-up passes over one particular string, vibrating away in the seething quantum void of culture, that the sound gets heard, and the sympathetic resonances start up.
Now, sure, the movement of the pick-up—or rather pick-ups, because there are many agents doing this sort of work, some for money, some for pleasure, some for a mix of both—is directed to some extent. And also, sure, the question of whether the resulting note is sweet enough (or fuzzy enough, or whatever) to appeal to enough attentional agents that the pick-up is held in place for long enough for the note to ring out, that’s a function of cohort nostalgia, as Routledge notes above… but I think it may also be a function of the neophilia of another, younger cohort. Because while there’s some money to be made out of selling people’s youth back to them all over again, there’s not enough to really sustain that note over time; for that sustain, you need to use the nostalgia circuit as the pre-amp, and then shove that boosted signal through the power-amp that can drive the speaker cabinet. And the power-amp is, and always has been (since the 1950s, at a guess, though possibly before) the hunger among young people for some alternative to what’s already on offer in the culture surrounding them. That’s what the Noughties indie boom was at the time; it’s what the various things-called-indie around the end of the 80s and the start of the 90s were (which is to say, the sounds of the 60s rehashed for a generation who had only heard the banal and bowdlerised stuff successfully recuperated by capital in the intervening years).
It is, in short, what friend-of-the-show Jay Springett calls cultural fracking… and much like its namesake, it is driven by a deep imperative of extraction in a system which, for all its uncritical worship of the notion of “innovation”, struggles to actually do anything new at all. All it can do is amplify a signal it stumbles upon. But because the gain of the resulting amplification has become so high, and the sensitivity of the pick-ups so refined, and the number of people trying to make a buck by waving the pick-up around in hope of finding the Next Big Thing has become so vast, there’s hardly any space for a new and genuinely novel signal to develop. So it’s new bottles for old wine, over and over again.
(This, incidentally, is one part of my enduring beef with the notion of “innovation niches” in transition studies; the observation that novelty emerges from niches is almost tautological in its obviousness, but the assumption that novelty might therefore be “fostered” by seeking out niches and “managing” them is business ontology at its very finest, and also serves to ensure that no niche is left alone long enough for any substantive novelty to develop.)
Ugh… I felt sure when I started this post I had a more substantive point to make, but it seems my argument is basically “OMG u guiz this is capitalism plus infrastructure!!!1”. Which is at least consistent, I guess? So regular readers (those who haven’t long since clicked away elsewhere) may like to think of this as a case-study, which will perhaps be referred to (and made better use of) at some later juncture.
(Alternatively, you may prefer to put it down to procrastinatory displacement activity while working from home on a day of astonishingly foul weather. These two interpretations are not mutually exclusive.)