1. To illustrate the emergence of different ways of perceiving old technologies in the quarter century since Wish You Were Here, the Pink Floyd example can be contrasted with a range of more recent pieces that present the combination of old and new technologies in ways that reconfigure or undercut such assurances about the relation of past and present, and that call into question notions of progress, of location, authenticity, and expression. The song "Undenied," by Portishead, from the album Portishead (1997), uses a similar opposition of technologies as in "Wish You Were Here," but reduced down to a single element and to a very different effect. Both the music and lyrics of this band are highly referential and stylized, constructed from a broad range of samples and allusions to outmoded styles, old musical instruments like the Theremin, and old movie sound tracks. Lead singer Beth Gibbons similarly adopts very different personae in each song—reflected in some cases by extreme modifications to her vocal timbre—which has led Simon Frith to describe her as a "torch singer without the anxiety," and "feminine without tears" (277). But in spite of a certain ironic distance in the words and actual musical materials, Portishead can produce a very strong emotional charge. In many cases, I would attribute this directly to the way the band foregrounds recording media and musical technologies to engage tradition and to manipulate memory and time.

  2. A crucial element in the march of progress in recordings was the problem of turntable rumble and surface noise with vinyl LPs. With the marketing of CDs the main emphasis was on the total silence of the background. In "Undenied," the opposition of the sound of a very scratchy record and digital silence become an integral part of the composition. After a short introduction of soft static electric piano chords, a noisy rhythm track suddenly begins, marked by a bright cymbal rhythm embedded in a haze of vinyl noise. These background scratches and pops continue throughout much of the song, providing a tense, highly-charged backdrop that underscores the obsessive nature of the sexual attachment described in the lyrics. But at two key moments this veil of noise abruptly drops out; first just before the voice enters and then at the restrained climax of the song—with the lyrics:

    For so bare is my heart, I can’t hide
    And so where does my heart belong
    Now that I’ve found you
    And seen behind those eyes
    How can I carry on.

  3. These moments when the digital and analog collide are particularly marked because the other musical materials in the piece are intentionally so limited and repetitive. The effect is very different than in Pink Floyd’s "Wish You Were Here," where the flawed sound of the radio was contrasted with the purity and presence of the guitar sound and the careful construction of the sound space of the room. Here when the scratchy noises and cymbal hiss drop out we are confronted with a desperate emptiness. Through the lyrics the vinyl noise becomes the embodiment of the obsession; the thought of absence results in the moment of absolute emptiness represented by the digital silence, now made horrible and empty.

  4. The way "Undenied" invests so much emotional energy into the contrast between the fractures and defects of the old sound while at the same time exposing the hollowness of the framing technology, also points to a suprisingly uneasy fit between such examples and Frederic Jameson’s notion of postmodern pastiche. To be sure, the fashion for old sounds and "retro" technologies repackaged in new eclectic contexts has significant points of contact with Jameson’s formulation of pastiche, in which any sense of pastness or history and thus of innovation is no longer possible: "all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum" ("Postmodernism and Consumer Society" 115). The music of Beck, or Coldcut, for example, could illustrate such a claim with their extreme eclecticism, and mixtures of genre and styles. Beck’s song "The New Pollution" from Odelay (1996) starts with a bizarre collage of electronic bleeps and machine noises that sound as if they were taken from a primitive video game, combined with music that might have come from a television commercial or a game show. This cuts suddenly into a "cool" dance track featuring melodic and timbral allusions to every decade of pop music; later there is a quintessential "cheesy" sixties organ solo. That this solo includes a small mistake might be taken to underscore its function as a generic placeholder for an "organ solo" rather than some musician’s "authentic" musical utterance. The emotionally flat singing style is matched by lyrics that present a sort of surreal linkage of advertising phrases, with disconnected human, natural, and technological images:

    She’s got a cigarette army charm
    She’s got the lily white cavity crazes

    She’s got a carburetor tied to the moon

    Pink eyes looking to the fruit of the ages.9

  5. Yet such explicitly ironic approaches to old sounds are rarer than one might expect, at least in the main stream of popular music where the emphasis is more often than not on generating an emotional response. Far more common are pieces in which old technologies and machines figure in a search for authenticity and wholeness. Such techniques are particularly common in the world of advertising and the mass media where yellowed photographs or grainy home movies with washed-out colors evoke the baby boomer’s lost childhood. A particularly relevant example of such a practice was the ad campaign for the Dean Witter investment house (aired 1998-1999), which recreated 1950s archival footage supposedly presenting Dean Witter himself laying out sound financial policies. Such modes of representation of old technologies can be linked to Jameson’s category of nostalgia films—which significantly includes both American Graffiti and Star Wars. For Jameson, nostalgia films attempt to restore a missing past through old aesthetic artifacts. He describes George Lucas’s complex representation of the future in Star Wars through the stylistic lens of the past, as with the design of Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder, which resonates with the classic 1950s car in American Graffiti ("Postmodernism and Consumer Society" 116). Cameron Crowe’s recently released film, Almost Famous, provides a particularly relevant example of this technique. The title sequence evokes the early seventies rock scene by slowly panning over an assemblage of LP album covers, concert paraphenalia, and eight-track tapes. Notably, the production company that produced Almost Famous is called Vinylfilms.