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Music | Opinion

What does music's current obsession with the past mean for the future?

At this present moment, it seems as if the world of music is obsessed with the past. Whether it be the latest post-punk rehash, the way that pop-punk has made a comeback off the back of artists such as Machine Gun Kelly and Olivia Rodrigo, or the fact that in hardcore, the use of nu-metal-esque industrial textures is now popular; everywhere we look, in music, and broader culture, we see ghosts of the past coming back to the fore. 

The situation has led many people to wonder why we are fascinated with the past, as it’s well-known that society loves the cyclical nature of existence, even though many things lose the cultural relevance they once had when revisited in the years following. The underlying factor is that it’s all hauntological, as Jacques Derrida and Mark Fisher once labelled it. 

It’s a defining paradox inherent to postmodernity that culture consistently recycles retro aesthetics and cannot escape old social forms. For example, this accounts for why post-punk has had at least three notable revivals. We’re always looking backwards. Our musical and cultural outlook is concerned with the material weight of the past, and so, it gets stuck in the present, losing any sight of the future. 

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We as a society love nostalgia, and this pining for a time that was different from the present gives the cultural past this sempiternal essence. It lingers like the ghost of Jacob Marley, beckoning us to come back. 

There are many parts of the past that were wonderful, but the tunnel vision inherent to nostalgia stops us from taking in the bigger picture, that maybe some of the features of the past that we champion now might have actually sucked at the time. For instance, Green Day and Blink-182 were great at their zenith, but all the other pop-punk bands that rode the coattails of success, were, to put it simply, terrible, and their music is even worse now, given just how much culture has changed. On a much more accessible scale is the return of the mullet, which says it all.

It’s deeply ironic, then, that some of the artists who draw heavily on the past are hailed as ‘pioneers’, given that it wholly negates the meaning of the word. Whilst, in many ways, some of these artists might be regarded as much ‘cooler’ through our 2022 lens than those who first did it, it makes their significance even more diminutive as the concentration on what is ‘cool’ forgets what it is really about: the quality of the art. 

As I alluded to earlier, ghosts of the past are ubiquitous in society. Be it the renewed interest by politicians in Thatcherism or in Communism, the ascendance of post-punk, pop-punk, new metal and late 1990s dance is just a minor indicator of a considerably larger trend. 

It is perhaps most apparent in pop music. Acts such as Machine Gun Kelly, Yungblud and Olivia Rodrigo have their creations firmly rooted in the past with grunge and emo, expressive of how far spread this cultural action is, as it’s not just on the peripheries where it exists but in the mainstream too.  

So, it begs the question: what does our obsession with the past mean for the future?

Post-punk, pop-punk, garage, nu-metal and the like were fresh when they first broke onto the scene, nothing had been done like them before, and this is why they managed to become so popular. The artists pushing their own genres were looking firmly into the future, wanting to create something refreshing and different, and it is this that has allowed some of this material to retain the freshness that has been so influential. 

It means that we’re still waiting for a genuinely new and refreshing mode. As everyone is looking backwards, we’re losing sight of the future, meaning that we’re starving ourselves of any real ingenuity, for the most part. If you look at a lot of what is going on in dance and electronica, you’ll hear sound design and textures that are incredibly progressive. Duly, I think it’s from this space that we’ll start drawing on when we eventually decide to look forward again. Also, don’t be surprised that whenever life gets better, that music and culture stop looking backwards. 

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