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Is 'golden age thinking' destroying our ability to enjoy music?


Even if you’ve never heard of ‘golden age thinking’, you’ll almost certainly have seen it in action. Consider the last time someone you know, perhaps a parent, elderly relative, or friend, said something along the lines of: “do you ever get the sense that things aren’t as good as they used to be?”. Off-hand comments such as these, my friend, are examples of golden age thinking.

This kind of nostalgia isn’t inherently a bad thing. Nostalgia has the power to be very progressive – offering a way for artists and thinkers to push their work forward, as was the case during the Renaissance. But, in its worst form, golden age thinking can stall progress entirely, forcing culture into a regressive quagmire, where it remains, unable to comprehend the path ahead. Part of me wonders if this quagmire is where music is headed.

Golden age thinking isn’t anything new. For as long as we’ve had history books, we’ve had the concept of the golden eras, a period of history where social, cultural and political factors all accumulated to create a happy and usually quite progressive society. It was perhaps Periclean Athens or Augustinian Rome for Enlightenment thinkers, both of which were followed by ages of hardship. Indeed, the whole concept of the ‘Golden Age’ depends on periods of cultural and political stagnation. How, for example, could we perceive The Enlightenment without the Dark Ages? In the same way, would people such as me, who were born at the tail end of the 1990s, feel such waves of nostalgia for that final decade of the 20th century if it weren’t for the financial crisis of 2007/2008, which prompted the age of austerity that we are currently living through?

But what does all this have to do with music? Well, golden age thinking is perhaps most evident in popular culture, with music being the most obvious example. Just consider the dizzying number of collectors of rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia in the world. There’s also The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, which adds more and more names to its pantheon of immortal rockets every year. That’s to say nothing of the endless stream of reunions, museums and rock documentaries – all of which seem committed to ensuring that the sun never sets on the golden age of rock.

As Simon Reynolds writes in his book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction To Its Own Past: “A component of nostalgia can actually be a hankering for a time before time: the perpetual present of childhood.” This would certainly appear to be the case in a musical context, especially when we consider that what is generally considered to be the golden age of music (the 1950s and ’60s) is also the period during which modern pop music was born. These decades were pop music’s childhood. Is it possible that by continually deifying the figureheads of this era, we are forcing music into a perpetual state of infancy, never truly allowing it to outgrow its baby clothes? One can see why this would be tempting. According to Reynolds: “In that peculiar nostalgia you can feel for the glory days of ‘living in the now’ that you didn’t … actually .. live through. Punk and the rock ‘n’ roll ’50s both stir feelings of this kind, but the swinging sixties beats all corners when it comes to triggering vicarious nostalgia.”

However, as Reynolds points out, it’s the “absence of revivalism and nostalgia during the sixties itself” that allowed artists of the era to create such novel work. The same could be said of the punk era. Far from wanting to revive the music of the ’60s, groups like The Ramones and The Sex Pistols wanted to actively destroy it, raising the cathedral of rock ‘n’ roll to the ground in the hope that something new and innovative might be built in its place. But punks were only able to succeed in their endeavours because their audiences wanted the same thing. While there are countless artists creating music that sounds astoundingly new, our reverence for the golden age of pop or rock or hip-hop has made us fearful of anything genuinely new. Instead, we cling on to our archetypes, desperately seeking artists who are committed to remodelling them. Bands are often scorned for this kind of revivalism, but they may simply be reacting to a musical conservatism that regards truly new work as unpalatable. If we want to see a new musical revolution, we need to stop looking backwards or forwards and start listening to contemporary artists with new ears.

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