Retrofuturism:

Nostalgia in Music

by Christian Jones

Nostalgia has the power to warp memory and identity, accentuating positive associations and blurring away negative ones. It can reduce significant emotions to aberrations at the edge of our retrospective vision, and bring previously unnoticed elements to the forefront. Just witness the way that the crackle of vinyl can pull even the modern listener back to a mythic and often unexperienced musical heyday situated vaguely in ‘the past’. Nostalgia has always been discussed and every generation has looked fondly back upon its precursors, but has increasingly transcended this familiar position in our cultural understanding, and instead become an aesthetic choice.

 

In April of last year I witnessed the heady fusion of technology and musicianship that is Carl Craig’s synthesizer ensemble. Whilst I relished hearing his goldmine of a back catalogue played live, what struck me most about the performance as a whole was the contrast it posed alongside the opening act. The warm up was played by Paper Dollhouse, a duo who flourished from an uncertain start (opening for one of the 'godfathers' of electronic music) to provide a tightly executed prelude of fuzzing, ambient soundscapes. The performance was tied together by an A/V setup of archive footage digitally collaged and spliced, flickering along with the music as countryside devolved into nuclear wasteland. The visuals aided a duo alone on stage except for a small table covered with barebones electronics, and it’s in the realisation that such expansive live performances could be produced by such barebones equipment and a copy of Ableton that the contrast with Craig’s music became so apparent.

Where Craig delighted the heads in the audience with the dizzying array of prophets, moogs, and other analogue gear Paper Dollhouse used a single midi controller, keyboard, and a laptop. Where the Detroit native accompanied his performance with stunning aerial shots of his hometown, Paper Dollhouse were backed by film artifacts and ‘vintage’ visuals. Cellulose burned and distorted like a prototype Aphex Twin video realized by Georges Mélies, via some archive footage of Soviet-era nuclear tests. Whilst Craig was reaching forward from the 80s, envisaging a soundtrack to cult favourite Blade Runner, Paper Dollhouse were instead looking retrospectively from a contemporary context. In experiencing these two artists separated by decades one after the other, their performances realised the dichotomy that our current fetishization of nostalgia presents.

Whilst dance music is as obsessed with its forebears as any other art form, no subgenre has embodied such a crystallisation of nostalgia as a deliberate aesthetic choice more than the Lo-Fi scene. Characterised by an embrace of imperfection, with an emphasis on the rough sounds of ancient and unrefined production equipment and mixing, Lo-Fi music is instantly recognisable. Spearheaded by a host of ironically named producers and DJs such as Mall Grab, Ross from Friends, DJ Boring and DJ Seinfeld, Lo-Fi has garnered so much popularity that it was included in Resident Advisor’s 2017 summary. In gaining massive popularity with the important youth demographic, questions have been asked as to why this is, and nostalgia is key to the answer. The deliberately hazy tunes these producers (along with the hosts of smaller names online) put out call back to halcyon days just on the edge of collective cultural memory.

For those brought up in the late 90s and early 2000s, this means a pre-internet age on a rave comedown like no other, with newfound freedoms supporting a blossoming music culture. If youtube comments can’t convince you that the 80s and 90s really were when dance music were best, then nothing will, a concept brought to the forefront in Bicep’s video for hit ‘Glue’ off their self-titled album. Nostalgic comments accompany sites of old raves-cum industrial estates and fields, and the video articulates excellently the bittersweet collective cultural mourning of a freedom thought to be lost forever. That younger listeners are increasingly choosing to submerge themselves in retrospective soundscapes is perhaps a consequence of the uncertain and possibly bleak future facing our generation. Ours is the first generation in recent history to have to cope with lower living standards than the generation before it. Global warming, political radicalism, and international conflict are major presences in our global viewpoint and can be a more visible presence than ever before due to the internet. The pressure of the present pushes our gaze backwards, and to help us entertain the possibility of hope this gaze settles upon a past that is as much invention as reality, cobbled together within the whirring minds of ravers still buzzing from the night before.

As with the large-scale collation that made possible the video for ‘Glue’, the internet has helped to foster communities supporting such strong nostalgia. Echo chambers aren’t always insidious. Facebook groups like ‘Strictly Lo-Fi’ sprung up and acted almost in the manner of artistic schools, shaping the aesthetic direction of Lo-Fi through discussion and positive reinforcement. It is in the social media space that the success of Lo-Fi is most pronounced. Indeed, its international success with young people is due in large part to the fact that it exists almost exclusively on the internet. The disconnect between on- and offline space is so strong that DJ Boring went from playing 4 shows in 2016 to 69 in 2017. Such a pronounced aesthetic on an international scale was not possible to achieve in the very era so glorified by the movement. This a nostalgic movement, but one that has adopted its aesthetic qualities in order to build an original personality.

The production techniques used by Lo-Fi producers are consciously anachronistic: their tracks are full of distortion and imbalanced mixdowns. Though the technology used musical production is the most accessible and cheapest it has ever been, Lo-Fi groups deliberately shun this in an attempt to reject the perfectly dull song construction that epitomises the perceived problems with the present. The youth of so many Lo-Fi producers reflects the need for a distinctive yet accessible style to differentiate themselves from the ‘mainstream’ and carve out their own niche. Lo-Fi production’s distinctive sound fits this need perfectly.

 

This is unusual in that the music being produced is intrinsically bound to the past through the act of sampling. While artists are supposed to follow copyright and fair use laws, the use of older samples can help to obscure the original source, particularly when using vocals. By virtue of putting a span of many years between the source and the producer’s studio, it is less likely that they will be pursued for copyright, particularly if the song was less prominent. The result is that songs based heavily on samples, as swathes of dance music are, sit more comfortably within an aesthetic that could easily be labelled as nostalgic. In order to produce in the modern age of automated takedowns and content ID, these young producers need to delve even further into the past to find unique samples

In the form of Moodyman, Theo Parrish, Carl Craig, Derrick May and countless others, sampling revolutionised the way (dance) music was created and in essence allowed it to blossom. Yet these producers are not themselves identified as part of the Lo-Fi, in spite of the fact that in many ways they share both a technique and sonic palette. This in itself grounds Lo-Fi in the recent present, and presents its sound as a development of said forebears. It is typified that the more niche sound that has developed is an exaggeration of earlier work, a means by which a unique ‘brand’ has been formed. By taking older ideas and themes and supercharging them into the present, twisting and rearranging them, the nostalgia that they evoke is removed from its original context. Development over time inevitably brings new ideas and interpretations, but over the past decade the construction of nostalgia as part of a larger recognisable branded sound is new. Increasingly versatile and accessible production allows producers to bridge the uncanny valley between the present and unexperienced past. Art forms are predicated on communication and emotion, and appealing to nostalgia to heighten the connection to a song is simply a furthering of this idea. Where this differs is the emotive connection is now synthetic, crafted by another instead of the self. In the creation of Lo-Fi music then, the method is as much of a paradox as the feeling it evokes.

Words by Christian Jones

Originally published on the Isis magazine website, and available online under alternative title here

More Literature: