- 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 songreflected in some cases by extreme modifications to
her vocal timbrewhich 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.
- 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 songwith
For so bare is my heart, I cant
And so where does my heart belong
Now that Ive found you
And seen behind those eyes
How can I carry on.
- 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 Floyds "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.
- 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 Jamesons 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 Jamesons 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. Becks 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 musicians "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:
Shes got a cigarette army
Shes got the lily white cavity crazes
Shes got a carburetor tied to the moon
Pink eyes looking to the fruit of the ages.9
- 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 boomers 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 Jamesons category of nostalgia filmswhich
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 Lucass complex representation
of the future in Star Wars through the stylistic lens of the
past, as with the design of Luke Skywalkers landspeeder, which
resonates with the classic 1950s car in American Graffiti ("Postmodernism
and Consumer Society" 116). Cameron Crowes 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.