Eternal Cover Band
Chasing our tail
Hey! Do you remember “Africa” by Toto? Do you remember “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds? How about when Ronnie Spector sang on “Take Me Home Tonight” by Eddie Money? Did you like that?
Then you’re going to love “Last Train Home” by John Mayer. It’s got the keyboard sound and the shuffle beat and everything. Its—
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Hey! Do you remember that jacket Bryan Adams wore on the cover of Reckless? Remember when Michael Jackson first did the moonwalk at the Motown 25th Anniversary concert in 1983? Remember cell phones the size of bricks? Remember shoulder pads?
Hey! Do you remember call waiting?
Then you’re going to love—
Hey! Do you like hardcore punk from the 70s and 80s? Then you’ll love Amyl and the Sniffers’s new album Comfort to Me. According to Pitchfork.com (“The Most Trusted Voice in Music”!):
Anyone who has worn a Wipers pin will recognize a good many of these riffs, or at least detect their essences: “Laughing” reeks of the jagged staccato leads of D.C. punks the Monorchid and its sassier offspring Skull Kontrol. The band squats in X and Gun Club territory on the punk-blues breakup song “No More Tears.” Guitarist Dec Martens’ deft post-chorus line on “Security” is played by a man who I’d wager has heard Magazine’s “Shot by Both Sides.” Their music presents a canon of rock riffs like a succession of waves crashing on the same beach. Amyl and the Sniffers are, as ever, shamelessly chugging coldies by the surf.
They’re the Most Trusted Voice in Music (they said so themselves), so you can trust them.
Hey! Remember mullets?
When I was a kid in the late 80s, we had a Subaru hatchback with a seat you could put in the trunk so more people could fit in the car. My family called it the “Wayback Seat,” and my brother, sister, and I loved to sit back there. Not only did it obviate the need to sit squeezed in the back with my poor sister stuck in the middle, but it was also a fun place to sit with friends on the way to the movies. We had that car and cars like it for a while, so I remember going to see Jurassic Park and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and other movies that are still being released to this day sitting in the Wayback Seat.
Of course, the Wayback Seat was only available on short excursions around town. For longer trips, well, that’s where the luggage went, so we were out of luck.
The Wayback Seat was also cool because the sensation of traveling forward at a high rate of speed while looking backward never got old. Like most things, it seemed more exciting than it really was because I was a young boy, and the novelty of the experience was fun and I hadn’t been jaded by the later detached ennui that would come to define my generation.
That, and the pathetic nostalgia.
But anyway, the point is: who knew I would grow up to live in a time when everyone got a Wayback Seat of their own?
I have a theory.
Things weren’t necessarily better when I was a kid. But from a cultural standpoint, at least things changed. Every five years of fashion might have been from a different country. The aesthetics did not break cleanly upon the turn of the decade—everybody did not wake up on January 1, 1981 suddenly sporting a hot pink Body Glove unitard with Patrick Nagel prints covering the walls of their house. Yet they did change.
In music, too. A band that existed in 1978 was sounding and looking quite different by 1985. Rush went from kimono-sporting, long-haired prog-rock musicians playing twenty-minute suites about battles between Ancient Greek gods in the former year (Hemispheres) to recording music videos dressed in Don Johnson-approved blazers over t-shirts with trendy haircuts, playing synth-soaked arena rock in the latter (Power Windows).
Both periods are awesome. Both unique. And by 1993, the band would have undergone yet another musical and visual transformation. All of which would make you scratch your head and say, “Is this the same band?”
Yes. The answer is yes. The fact that you had to ask was the point.
Things change. Until they don’t.
One of my favorite modern bands is Coheed and Cambria. Probably because they remind me of Rush. High-pitched vocals, frenetic, up-tempo riff-driven rock played with an unusually high level of complexity and competence for popular music. Dorky, conceptual, lyrics and song-stories inspired by science-fiction.
They’ve been remarkably consistent since their 2002 debut, The Second Stage Turbine Blade. So consistent, in fact, that there’s no mistaking the Coheed and Cambria of The Second Stage Turbine Blade for anyone else, up past the Coheed and Cambria of 2018’s Vaxis – Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures and the Coheed and Cambria of their most recent single, 2021’s “Shoulders.”
It’s the same band. The same good band. Catchy. Fun. Visceral. But for close to twenty years, the Coheed and Cambria sound has been the Coheed and Cambria sound.
English pop-prog trio Muse caught a lot of criticism for incorporating elements of dubstep or brostep into the songs on their 2011 album The 2nd Law, but at least they were trying something different.
So they leaned in to their hard rock and metal instincts on 2015’s Drones, and in 2018’s Simulation Theory—their most critically well-received album since, arguably, 2004’s Absolution—the band was praised for mimicking the best parts of 1980s rock and pop songwriting, instrumentation, and production techniques.
The cover of Simulation Theory was painted by Stranger Things artist Kyle Lambert.
Back to my theory:
Things stopped changing because we have the means to see exactly what everything was like in the past down to every last angstrom.
Forget just from popular media: someone born post-2000 has a disgustingly large treasure-trove of imagery, audio, and video, all of good to great quality, chronicling in minute detail what life was like when his parents were young kids, or teenagers, or in their twenties.
I had to rely on stories my grandparents told, old movies, and books, to understand what life was like in their day. My pappou’s stories of Depression-era New York were enough to give me a mental image of what it was like, but I had to use my imagination to put myself back there, filling in the gaps as best I could. It still evoked a sympathetic feeling, but it was a far cry from him whipping out a smartphone and showing me video of what it was like walking to the Jewish-owned deli six blocks from his apartment in the Bronx.
Extrapolate this to people younger than me. If you were born, say, in the 1950s, you turned 18 anytime between 1968 and 1978 (remember—the decade ended in 1960, not 1959). And so, if you wanted to create your culture, your own aesthetic, your own vibe, slang, patois, way of doing things that was focused on youth and vigor and beauty, you were on your own.
There were things created for you by older people; one cannot forget that most of what we call “Boomer music” was made by Silents for Boomers’ enjoyment. However, like all generations, Boomers still took what was around them and ran with it into the future.
They could at least imagine a future. And even though there was an upsurge in 1950s nostalgia when the Boomers realized the horrors they had wrought to the society they had grown up in—you know, the one that worked—on the whole it was different than the future imagined by their parents and grandparents. It was even different than the future imagined by their older siblings.
For the post-millennium young, there are too many cultural artifacts of the past for them to even have to create anything different. When the stuff created for them by the older generations is so awful, why wouldn’t they retreat into 80s and 90s nostalgia?
Aren’t, for example, some of the best video games being released done in the pixelated styles of gaming’s console golden age, with similar gameplay?
The closest thing I can see to a new culture is the Zoomer’s meme-heavy blend of black comedy and nihilism mixed with a streak of wholesomeness, or at least a longing for it. They know that everything sucks and that it’s unlikely to get better in their lifetimes, but at least they can enjoy themselves making fun of it. Comedic despair.
What’s our excuse, though? The ones creating music and art and books and movies for the post-millennium cohort? Why do we cling to nostalgia so hard that the thought of abandoning Big Name Franchise X fills us with a nameless dread, even though everything its corporate handlers have produced for the past twenty years seems custom-tailored to insult us and desecrate everything we once loved as a child?
Why can we not put away these things?
Hey! Remember The Empire Strikes Back, when the AT-AT Walkers were marching across the plains of Hoth?
That entire post you just read is a cover! It’s a post from my old blog I published way back in the olden days of 2021. I sure fooled you! Talk about meta!
Everything is recursive, even ideas. I remain both pleased and disheartened by the continuing popularity of retro-revivalism. While I enjoy the spirit of reclaiming past works and utilizing what came before to create something new, it’s the “create something new” part that is the problem.
It doesn’t always happen.
Christmas just came and went, and with it Christmas music. The classics and the other stuff.1 One stalwart of Christmas radio is Michael Bublé and his takes on the Christmas standards in the bel canto style of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and some other great Italians. This year, I realized why it bothered me:
It’s too clean. Too pat. Too facile a replica.
It’s too try-hard. It’s already been done. And even back in the “good old days,” all that good stuff wasn’t imitating the past. There was a clear sense of progression. Things weren’t looping around a cup-de-sac.
Retro-revivalism is like that to me in general. It’s too much. New video games made in an 8- or 16-bit style with chiptune music. Classic rock wannabes like Greta Van Fleet. R.E. Howard pastiches. 70s and 80s-inspired fashion looks like how people who weren’t there think people dressed back then. And Michael Bublé, like late-90s swing revivalism before him, possess a hard-to-quantify nails-on-the-chalkboard quality to them I have difficulty explaining.
It’s too try-hard. It’s already been done. And even back in the “good old days,”2 all that good stuff wasn’t imitating the past. There was a clear sense of progression. Things weren’t looping around a cup-de-sac.
It like listening to a modern-day recording of old blues songs played with flawless technique and crystal-clear digital production. Yeah, the notes are there, but it’s not the same. If one wants to emulate something, I’d rather hear music totally divorced from the blues but with that same shitty recording quality that gives old music its charm.
Or maybe a new spin on the blues and blues tropes. That’s what a lot of the rock bands of the 60s did with the blues. And what a lot of the alternative bands of the 90s did with classic rock, when you boil it down.
As talented as John Mayer, that song “Last Train Home” irks me. It’s a memberberry. I’m pretty much sick of memberberries at this point; even the word “memberberry” bothers me. It’s too TV Tropes, too Reddit. Too focused on the past as a stopping point. Referencing things that came before isn’t the same as creating. It’s pulling donuts in your high school’s parking lot until the heat death of the universe.
Back to the cul-de-sac analogy: maybe we’ve progressed to the end and this is it. Maybe there’s nowhere to go but backwards. I don’t think so, but I could be wrong.
What is the answer? I don’t have the answer, but an answer is to deliberately not try to create your own version of X, Y, and Z. Influence and inspiration is one thing (“Africa” by Toto made me want to write this song!), aping is another (Here’s my version of “Africa” by Toto!). I mean, if you’re even using the same keyboard sounds . . .
“Last Christmas” is not a Christmas song just because it takes place during Christmas and has the word “Christmas” in the title.
Which the 90s weren’t, and only seem so by comparison.