It’s not nostalgic it’s delusional

With summer fast approaching so too are those summer tunes. And unless a new wave of musical sentiment overtakes 2012 the past half-decade’s sunshine-and-Ray Ban rock should again dominate airwaves: Summer 2012’s playlist will sound wistful. It’ll feel nostalgic. It’ll be Urban Outfitters-approved clad in a tank top and something vaguely Aztec. And it’ll be heavy on the reverb low on substance. (Here’s looking at you Beach House.)

Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with such musical descriptors — mostly they describe atmospheric musical qualities over thematic ones. It’s music that recalls eras that never existed possibilities that’ll never arrive and serotonin rushes that could only be artificially induced. And undeniably many of the chilled-out yacht pack which cover a genre expanse from lo-fi garage to soft rock to chillwave are exceptionally talented. (And here’s to you Smith Westerns. Or from a local perspective Feel Alright.)

Thing is such musical tropes don’t feel like a cultural phenomenon — even if many of these bands have earned a place in the western musical canon. Popular? Sure. Good? Perhaps. But relevant to or reflective of the esprit du temps? Hardly.

Rather 2012’s reverb-infused relaxo-indie feels like denial rock music that wilfully ignores the material conditions of the generation producing it. For bands of Beach House’s age the music industry is collapsing — it’s long on free distribution methods like Bandcamp or Soundcloud but short on monetization. Elsewhere precarious labour (or the disturbing trend towards temp and contract work) has stripped workers of the benefits security and pensions previous generations enjoyed. Education costs are rising yet Generation Y increasingly views school as a competitive advantage or a right — and if the student riots in Quebec the province with the lowest nationwide tuition rates serves as a precedent other provinces could follow suit.

In short for the young life sucks. So why do Real Estate or Cousins or Cults choose denial? Are such bands purely an exercise in escapism?

The answer: Likely. To wit last week Toronto weekly magazine The Grid published a story called “Got champagne tastes on a milk-money budget? Why young people are too comfortable with debt.” In it writer Carley Fortune describes a phenomenon she calls “premature affluence” — despite crushing debt rising education costs and the spectre of global economic collapse she writes Gen-Y still has the “expectation that their incomes will catch up to them.”

Here’s what The Grid was getting at: We’re living in a credit bubble with the expectation of a rosier future — one that’ll never come. (Fortune for her part backs it up with the staggering stat that Canadians possess $150.60 of debt for every $100 earned.) And here’s what I’m getting at: 2012’s pop-music tastes exist in a similar bubble and the ongoing popularity of these breezy groups is proof. For all their whimsical nostalgic qualities bands like Beach House hardly represent the day-to-day lives of their listeners (a fact evident even in their band name). It’s aspirational perhaps but more likely it’s delusional.

So what do such bands represent? Nothing aside from perhaps well-executed fantasy fiction. And such denial might be a pure artistic exercise sure but it’s largely lacking in cultural value. When future archeologists find M83’s Hurry Up We’re Dreaming they’ll have a tough time discerning anything about life in 2012. But hey it’s a heckuva record.

Denial rock’s bubble as all bubbles will burst. And that’s not because Neon Indian is a terrible band either; and it’s not because political music will eventually prevail. Hard times don’t always produce fiery socio-political fare — 1980s Brit-punk for example had bands built around apathy the crushing result of a future devoid of optimism. Early American hardcore on the other hand had no central political intent; it was centrally defined by its fury. Great Depression-era blues was in many cases strictly observational. (As are some current bands erroneously painted with political strokes such as Toronto country band One Hundred Dollars. When I spoke to their singer Simone Fornow earlier this year she added that “I don’t believe in the song as a tactic. A lot of art makes people reflect on their conditions and their context but that isn’t activism. It isn’t going to change anything.” She’s right: music that’s contextually telling needn’t be political. It needn’t be didactic.)

What we’re talking about then is honesty: early punk and hardcore Depression-era country and heck even Hall and Oates’ ’80s soft-dick opulence were reflective of an era a class a culture. Beach House’s Bloom sadly isn’t. Because in 2012 we’re all fucked but that’s hardly news. We just need our art to acknowledge the fact.