Words by Peter Tanski
Peter Tanski grew up in the small but thriving Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area, fronting several bands and founding the music and literary fanzine, Exmortus. After a brief stint living in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and writing for Legends Magazine, he returned to Pennsylvania where he began to work with web based music site NEPA Rocks. He currently fronts the melodic hardcore/punk band, Heart Out and hosts The Book of Very Very Bad Things PodZine.
2022 – The Year of the Palindrome [Pal-in-drome/ noun. A word, phrase, or sequence that reads the same backwards as forward. Ex. Racecar.]
When I’d initially endeavored to pen this month’s column, I had resigned myself to a “Year in Review”, covering some of my favorites from the previous 365 odd days. Upon careful consideration and rigorous contemplation, the patterns I’d ever been cognizant of in cultural movements snapped sharply into focus. The underground of the 2020’s (and my place in it as a 46 year old man) has uncannily mirrored popular music in the 1980’s (and how I’d been affected by it as an adolescent). Of course there is NOTHING new under the sun, but what was old has become the new What’s Happening.
When considering cultural movements, one must, first, take into account whether or not said movement is relevant to the zeitgeist of youth culture. The staff by which all depths must be measured, within the waters of fashions and entertainment, is the voracity with which the 15-25 year old market consumes a thing. In the mid to late 1980’s it was a variable potpourri of vibrancy in color, opulence in hairstyles, and gaudy American metal that thought it was emulating T Rex, yet sounded more akin to a less fun Kiss.
Sitting astride the glammy Metal of the time was a more serious cousin, what came to be known as NWOBHM (see Iron Maiden). The Punk informed Thrash Metal groups, Hardcore, first wave Hip Hop, Electro, and a subset of (mostly) British groups that dealt in morbid depression and heartbreak. This was something that a hangover period Rolling Stones hadn’t the tools to mend.
In that era, as I navigated the mullet headed nimrods that peppered the landscape and the painfully colorful Skidz parachute pants and Jams shorts worn by the preppy drips that served as pinpoints of foul, dayglow accents, I found solace in the pop music of the time period. It began to become amorphous. This form that was dominating the airwaves.
One need only turn to MTV or whichever John Hughes film had materialized to hear the clarion call of this iteration of bleak Pop. Turn on the radio, tune to any Top 40 station, and wait a moment. It was danceable, at times either joyful and bright or maudlin and sinister. It was awash in synths and effects laden guitar work, and heavily produced. The disc jockeys were calling it New Wave, and it was every-damn-where.
This new designation was, of course, an umbrella. Under the parasol of the newly minted moniker, Synth Pop, Post Punk, Gothic Rock, New Romantics, Dark/Cold Wave, and Neo-cabaret singers had not only found a larger niche to be associated with (often begrudgingly), but a clear path to recognition via the film soundtrack, the airwaves, and cathode rays that polluted homes and automobiles the world over. A silly name with major implications. While a majority of the older adolescents and younger teens in my area of the country were most certainly sporting Motley Crue tees and denim jackets with Enuff Z’nuff patches ironed on to their pocket flaps, a small subset of younger people were silently swaying to Modern English and Soft Cell, The Cure, and The Smiths. Even bands closer to the Top 40 benefitted from the tag, as Oingo Boingo and Big Country (still a personal favorite) shared space with Michael Jackson and Whitesnake in the upper reaches of the music charts.
Now, I am sure that, to the lay-person, this all sounds like it is far afield of the current sounds of a popular music culture that shares neither time/space nor nomenclature, and said person(s) would be half right. BUT, while considering the current state of the underground, one can plainly read echos of that often maligned decade in which I’d spent my youth. The Chameleons, Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine, and Swervedriver have all had aspects of their sounds and structures repurposed and shown tribute to by the current luminaries of independent music. New demigods of the underground market like TV Priest (Sub Pop), Grave Babies (Hardly Art), Fontaines D.C. (Partisan Records), Soft Kill (Cercle Social Records), Interpol (Matador), and many others have refined and retooled the Post Punk of yore to great artistic ends. The lesser known yet extant sounds of Space Rock, Goth, and Industrial all found footing in the 1980s, and this generation has given impetus to wildly original contemporary artists as standard bearers in Nothing (Relapse Records), Lebanon Hanover (Fabrika Records) , and Health+ (Loma Vista). Amazingly, and most interestingly, the Hip Hop of this generation has even been deeply effected by New Order and Echo and the Bunnymen. Danny Brown’s (Warp) 2016 master stroke was named for Joy Division’s “Atrocity Exhibition”, Tyler the Creator (Columbia) also worships at the Ian Curtis altar, Vince Staples (Blacksmith Records/Motown) dabbles in the dark arts, Aesop Rock (Rhymesayers) pays tribute to Ministry and Alien Sex Fiend in the song “Blood Sandwich”, and it all meshes so well.
Pop music, emphasis on POPular, is also in on the Ourboros of it all, with iconic talents such as Lady Gaga celebrating Bauhaus and The Sisters of Mercy. The Killers owe most of their first decade to the era in question (and Ian Curtis, again), and even Halsey (with NIN) mines the melody and soundscapes of yore. The serpent is absolutely eating it’s tail, and in doing so, bringing to light a massive swath of sounds that were destined to be recalled.
How does it all, truly, come full circle? How do these disparate contemporary acts benefit the progenitors of the sound? With groups like Tears For Fears (“The Tipping Point” / Concord), The Cult (“Under the Midnight Sun” / Black Hill Records), Placebo (“Never Let Me Go” / Rise Records) and Diamanda Galas (“Broken Gargoyles” / Intravenal Sound Operations) releasing new records to great acclaim in 2022. With giants like Robert Smith’s final curtain call in the forthcoming final recordings of The Cure, and legends like Lycia (“Simpler Times” / Avant Garde Music) still releasing epic EPs and singles, that which once was still IS. Depeche Mode and Duran Duran still pack arenas. You see, bemoaning the echos of past loves finding footing in newer hearts is common and lazy. If you’d loved it in a time that you’d needed it most, how is it cheapened when it is serving that very same function for another spirit? What is good for Siouxsie Sioux is good for Zola Jesus (Sacred Bones).
In summation, there isn’t anything new under any star. Call and response existed in field chants and ancient military cadence, in Soul, R&B, Gospel, Rock, Punk, and Hardcore. Dark souls playing morose music has always existed. Violinists Niccolo Paganini to Giuseppe Tartini, Blues guitarist and singer Robert (and Tommy) Johnson, Jimmy Page, and countless others have reputedly sold their immortal souls to the Old Scratch in order to become famous. Ghastly appearances have endured since the Opera, with names from David Bowie to Klaus Nomi donning ghoulish facades, all in the name of musical identity. This will reverberate, resonate, and carry on into forms as of yet unheard. Celebrate with me, because these sounds will ring through eternity, well beyond entropy. The only perfect, infallible body is a body of notes arranged in uncanny sequences, lilting in harmony. That is an increasing return. Repeat the sounding joy.
Ultimately, we see and hear what we wish to. The universal mind is one of blind discernment, and begs for entertainment. That set of sound filled structures that has come before us befuddles the less emboldened, and confounds the inept. For these, there is only confusion. For us? The future remains unwritten. Let us un-write it together, in unison.