“You get towards the end of life – no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life. You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question: what else have I done wrong?” (Julian Barnes)
While moving house recently, I uncovered a long-forgotten stockpile of mix CDRs and photographs. The photos struck some familiar chords, and were no less pleasant for it: perhaps their enduring physical existence was consoling in itself, enough to suffuse the images of those people with a soppy glow so reassuringly trite it could have been an Instagram filter. Nostalgia is a moreish beast. But the CDRs spoke of something more discomforting.
The heavily dated track listings scrawled in my own hand – there was no mistaking it – today read as a litany of bad judgments by an impressionable twenty-nothing who was still old enough to know better. Music may be an index of identity, but I didn’t want to draw a line between the person who’d compiled the lists and the one uncomfortably reading them now. So where did these objects fit into the story of my life? How did I seamlessly shift from being the person who did that to someone who definitely no longer does?
For all the surprise this discovery of the past conjured, it was at least a private one, and the photos were soon consigned to the box they came from, the CDRs condemned to the bin. This was my recorded biography, but only some of it was worthy of posterity. Photographs have an inherent drama, that of a transient moment given a permanence it may well not warrant. They build a false monument, Sontag’s “memento mori… testify[ing] to time’s relentless melt”. By freezing time, photographs reveal our mutability and vulnerability. Reflecting on the fate of those landfill-bound CDRs that once meant something to me, I can’t help thinking that the same is true of how we express ourselves through music. Identity is elastic and susceptible to the influence of time, and experience is wider than the means through which we record it: the dimensions of a photograph or mixtape; even the seemingly infinite parameters of Facebook, blogs, Twitter or Last.fm. Music catalogues more than our taste – our relationship to it is a document of personal history, a map of change, because unlike a lot of things in life, my taste in music is always better right now than it ever was in the past.
“Once again I was amazed by the human capacity for transforming reality into a likeness of desires and ideals” (Milan Kundera)
What is your earliest memory? What was the first concert you went to? What did you have for dinner on 15 June 2006?
For most of us, some moments are clearer than others. But there are a handful of exceptional people, like LA television producer Bob Petrella and author Jill Price, who can remember everything. Bob and Jill are two of just 33 identified cases of what has been labelled “highly superior autobiographical memory” (HSAM), a condition that allows people to recall every moment of their lives. A unique and no doubt potentially useful skill – but in a world of easy-access cloud computing and ever expanding data reserves, the possibility of total recall raises the question of what it means to be able to forget.
Forgetting things – names, birthdays, directions – is problematic. But what if you could not forget every single mistake or bad decision you ever made? Not forgetting would mean guilt, self-loathing, constantly having to deal with your own failings. Our experience is mostly shaped by the unreliability of memory: to remember everything, the banal alongside the thrilling or traumatic, seems an almost inhuman trait. How can you change and improve if you always remember who you were? Time loses its meaning if the past is always present.
The everything-all-the-time quality of online culture, where every moment is important, storable and accessible, arguably makes taste more vital than ever. We feel we need the savants, the aficionados, the elitists to claim, “This is worthy, that is not”, otherwise where would we even begin? The problem, however, is that while tastes change, the internet still remembers what you liked last summer. Bob and Jill may be unusual, but their gift is now available to us all via the “super-autobiographical memory” of the internet. Experience reshapes us, just as social trends and media have their influence. As embarrassing childhood photos have traditionally attested, that haircut you loved a few years ago is not so great any more. Neither are those shoes, or those trousers. And, of course, the same is true of music. All in all, they’re superficial concerns – but that’s the thing about fashion and taste: it’s not meant to last. Social media have changed how we see our history – Facebook even makes so bold as to label user profiles “timelines”. The internet has become our pride and our shame: in the super-autobiographical memory of the digital graveyard, our various dead selves are reanimated in a perpetual danse macabre. Reinvention becomes difficult, because our past is “stuck” online. Still, if you had to be stuck in any moment, which would it be?
“I was there in 1968. I was there at the first Can show in Cologne… I was there in 1974 at the first Suicide practices in a loft in New York City… I was there in the Paradise Garage DJ booth with Larry Levan. I was there in Jamaica during the great sound clashes.” (LCD Soundsystem)
When we look back on the music history of this century, which moments will we regard as most important? Would you know where to start? Were you even there? The journalistic account of popular music history implies an orderly timeline in which one development succeeds another, yet the conditions of change in music are rarely so easily categorised. Musical styles are often derivative and don’t offer the clean breaks with the past that written history may suggest. New and developing forms of music are shaped by pre-existing conventions, structures and values. This is characteristic not only of the typically postmodern genres, such as hip-hop, which incorporates past forms via the quotation and citation of sampling, but also of retrogressive styles like Britpop, or the “haunted”, textual qualities of chillwave and dubstep, which rely heavily on earlier aesthetics. Music is a form built on residues: its history is always alive in its present (re)incarnation. What that “history” is, however, is a deeply capricious construct.
Just like those mixtapes I rediscovered, what was once valued in music can fall victim to historical revisionism. Take, for example, the current negative perception of a once transcendent hippie culture – San Fran in ’69 looked very different to a punk in London in ’77, just as it did to a holidaymaker in Ibiza in ’89. The history of popular music is a fluid discourse, constantly rewritten, yet as these key dates attest, historical context is crucial to the consecration of particular aesthetics, events, artists and moments. Still, as individuals, we see the world as we experience it: history is not universal, but diffuse and specific. It lives in our camera phones, on our Facebook profiles, and in our mixtapes. And since we live in a time when every moment is documented and can be relived through YouTube’s infinite vortex, the real significance seems to be not where or when, but who.
“My sense of the Sebaldian voyage was of a man who is not quite well, walking through a landscape of coincidences and elective affinities in search of a sepia photograph of a discontinued self” (Iain Sinclair)
Electronic music may best express the living culture of music history, for while the electric guitar has persisted in the same form for decades, the technology used to make dance music is constantly being developed, discarded, then rediscovered. The effect is that a large proportion of music within various dance genres is susceptible to the ravages of time, dating quickly as new technologies and sounds emerge. For certain artists within electronic music, however, it is precisely this awareness of ageing that informs their work.
For self-styled enfant terrible Zomby, the past has always been present. Tellingly, his first full-length contribution was a genre exercise entitled Where Were U In ’92?, made using equipment from the halycon days of early rave. Not one to stand still, he has since refined this predilection for nostalgia, taking in the varied cadences and cyclical trends of dance music history to inflect his music with a sense of mortality. Similarly, Actress, Hype Williams and Andy Stott each suffuse their grain-heavy music with a dissonance so imprecise that it speaks not of the past or future, but of the eternally fleeting present. Indeed, the latter’s Luxury Problems from last year was a tar-pit-thick trudge through the industrial city so decayed that you could almost feel the sonic slide of its decomposition. Stott’s music (arguably more than that of his peers) carries with it a suggestion that the song wouldn’t be the same if you played it again, a kind of aesthetic acknowledgement of how vinyl’s fidelity degrades after repeated plays. Each successive play of a song retains the memory of the last.
It makes sense that these should be the artists who speak so clearly of the present, for dance music is built on repetition, looking backwards and forwards at the same time. It isn’t necessarily pastiche or homage, even when, as with Zomby, it conceptually conjures up another period. Nor is it quite as knowing as is implied by the hauntology theory often used to describe music like Stott’s, with its ghostly echoes and palimpsest-like construction. Rather, most of these producers were children during the golden era of rave and their music reflects the process of remembering, the never-ending project of identity. They are very human half-memories in a world that now never forgets. §