You would be forgiven if at some point this past summer you forgot what year it was. The season’s sleeper-film hit, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, uses Sidney Bechet’s 1952 “Si Tu Vois Ma Mère” as the soundtrack to contemporary Paris while its protagonist time-travels back to the 1920s on the wings of Cole Porter 78s. Beyoncé’s 4, one of the summer’s biggest CDs, revels in the silky ’80s R&B synth and horn arrangements that once made Whitney Houston an MTV fixture. Then there was indie folk favorite Bon Iver, who made early ’90s Bonnie Raitt hip again and whose self-titled second album finishes with a song that starts off sounding like ’80s hit-maker Howard Jones and ends up as the theme song to Beverly Hills, 90210.
Yet it was Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne, touted all August (mostly by Jay-Z and Kanye West) as hip-hop’s new bar-setter of “black excellence,” that turned out to be the summer’s most musically backward-looking album. The royal couple don’t just sample Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, and Otis Redding songs—a hook here, a beat there—they airlift entire verses and choruses. Watch the Throne’s first single, “Otis,” is cleverly built on the bones of Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness,” which plays uninterrupted for a full 30 seconds of the song’s three minutes. No wonder it’s billed as “featuring Otis Redding” even when he’s been dead since 1967.
To sample William Faulkner, pop’s past is never dead. It’s not even past. In fact, in the age of the Internet, the past is more present than ever, and it’s not just music. We share old movie clips on Facebook, digitize 19th-century journals, and keep Tumblr sites full of vintage stereo ads. We turn T.S. Eliot into an iPad poster boy. The past has always been there to be used, but now that it’s so accessible, the question of what it’s used for has never been as important. Just because you can sample Otis Redding doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.
This was precisely the point that Public Enemy’s Chuck D made the same week that “Otis” was released. He took to YouTube to critique the song’s celebration of opulent consumption (“new watch alert” is an actual Jay-Z lyric) when black unemployment and imprisonment numbers continue to rise. He did it with a quickly produced Redding song of his own, “Notice-Know This,” which he builds around a different sample, Redding’s cover of Sam Cooke’s hit about black convict labor, “Chain Gang.” You can hear Redding repeatedly shout “working” while Chuck D reminds his Hermes-flaunting and Maybach-driving (or as we see in the “Otis” video, Maybach-destroying) rap colleagues that there’s a “depression, inside a recession” going on, so maybe now would be a good time to stop bragging about inventing swagger and at least nod to educational inequalities and the ever-growing black body count of the “prison industrial complex” (a phrase Chuck D drops in a verse, his counter to “new watch alert”).
Chuck D’s strategic use of “Chain Gang” makes West and Jay-Z’s use of “Try a Little Tenderness” seem at best, arbitrary and at worst, narcissistic. The former samples Redding because he needs him to make an economic point, a tool for dissecting the financially gutted present; the latter sample Redding because they can, a licensing trophy that can go on the mantel next to their Warhols and Hirsts.
Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, the latest book from pop music critic and journalist Simon Reynolds. While Reynolds is best known for his writing on U.K. and U.S. musical subcultures, with Retromania he casts his net wider to take on pop’s obsession with the rearview mirror. Surveying everything from reunion tours and museum exhibitions to YouTube’s infinite and instant archive of everything, Reynolds finds us overly enamored with the “re-” of it all. We love to recycle and reunite, renovate and recombine, reissue and reprint. “This is the way that pop ends,” he writes, “not with a BANG but with a box set whose fourth disc you never get around to playing.”
It’s hard to disagree with him when the “new releases” section of your favorite store looks increasingly like a globalized museum gift shop. In the past few months alone, both Patti Smith and Iranian pop legend Googoosh have been anthologized (Googoosh for the first time, Smith for the second), Count Basie’s two collaborations with Frank Sinatra have been reissued, and there have been compilations of everything from 1960s and 1970s Spanish women pop singers to the catalog of the 1950s Los Angeles record label Doré that helped launch the careers of Herb Alpert and Jan & Dean.
The growing passion for re-releasing music is, in part, the result of how the Internet has changed the way we listen. Anything ever recorded seems to be available somewhere, thanks to all those thousands of bloggers who share their rare stash of soul 45s or their grandparents’ collection of Tin Pan Alley 78s, and to all the music-streaming services—Spotify, Mog, Pandora—that let us beam our way into the past. In the age of the music cloud when “old” Phil Spector classics stream right alongside the “new” Best Coast songs that mimic them, the past isn’t the present’s ancestor—the past and the present are neighbors who live shoulder to shoulder on playlists that follow us wherever we go. In this new era of horizontality, Reynolds says, we don’t move backward and forward, we move sideways.
What has Reynolds worried is that the Web has become an infinite, open music library full of discographic wormholes and promiscuous borrowing privileges. The archive, he writes, loses its meaning when it has no limits or no end:
The archive degenerates into the anarchive; a barely navigable disorder of data-debris and memory-trash. For the archive to maintain any kind of integrity, it must sift and reject, consign some memories to oblivion. History must have a dustbin, or History will be a dustbin, a gigantic, sprawling garbage heap.
Hip-hop has long been a dustbin-conscious genre that makes “sifting” and “rejecting” a centerpiece of its sound. DJs and producers—those near-mythic crate diggers who flip through thrift-store boxes or scan the compressed MP3 stacks of hard drives in search of data gold—act as managers of black pop history, choosing what records get sampled and reanimated. They search for old songs in order to tell new stories.
Although Reynolds is generally cynical about the crash business of retro—the reunion tour after the reunion tour—he holds out some hope for a recent crop of specialty labels dedicated to preserving lost histories. Plenty still operate by what he calls “your standard niche-market-milking (and bilking) salvage operation,” but artful, niche operations like Atlanta’s Dust to Digital offer “a grand sonic-reclamation project that blends aspects of archaeology and anthropology.” The label has focused on everything from early 20th-century baptisms and 1920s and ’30s string bass music to a vinyl-only pressing of French inventor Edouard-Léon Scott singing “Claire de Lune” in 1860, now believed to be the first recording of a human voice.
The release that made Dust to Digital famous, 2004’s Goodbye Babylon, was a box set celebrating pre–WWII sacred music. Its meticulous and voluminous six-CD mixture of black and white church songs (organized according to biblical themes) felt like a radical re-imagining of American spiritual history. This was no reissue. With its 200-page book and artful packaging (a cedar box stuffed with cotton), this was a cultural event, a portrait of faith, a dissertation in song that forever changed the way American gospel is talked about.
The label’s latest release, ... i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces, from the acclaimed Southern California sound artist Steve Roden, similarly defies conventional categorization. After finding an old flea-market photograph of a coyote howling between musicians playing a mandolin and clarinet, Roden set off on an eight-year quest to scavenge for abandoned black-and-white photographs of musicians and abandoned 78-rpm recordings. Presented in a beautiful hardbound book with two CDs of music and sounds (pre–WWII blues, birdsong, country yodels, wind, cowboy prayers, night noises, gospel sermons), ... i listen is a haunted house of lost souls and disappeared voices.
It is the project of an artist, not a historian. Roden doesn’t compile the past or even try to make sense of it. The subjects in the photographs are left unnamed; the recordings come with the bare minimum of information. The book is a pastiche of meditations on passing time from the likes of Rainer Maria Rilke, Herman Melville, and James Agee, who add an extra chorus of echoes to the sounds on the CDs. The individual objects Roden has collected—a disc of ’20s radio star Chubby Parker singing “Bib-a-lollie-boo,” an image of a young woman strumming a guitar in an empty field—are less important on their own than they are when taken together, artifacts rearranged into a collage of new worlds.
So it would miss the point to diagnose Roden with retromania. ... i listen doesn’t longingly or lazily look back into the past. It conjures the past out of the shadows of memory, only to find that it was there all along, waiting for us to hear it in new ways and ultimately, as Chuck D did with Otis Redding’s “Chain Gang,” see ourselves in its ghostly mirror.