Meme Pop

I am writing this month’s column on my stepdaughter’s thirteenth birthday. One of her gifts this year was a second-hand bass guitar (she’s named it Carol after the legendary ’60s bass player Carol Kaye); if I go into her room later, I’m fairly likely to discover her practising the bass solo from The Chain by Fleetwood Mac (released 33 years before she was born) or the bass line from Smells Like Teen Spirit (which came out a mere nineteen years ago). Band T-shirts for The Runaways and Kiss are among her favourite clothes.

Of course, retro tastes have always been a function of teendom. In the ’80s, The Jam acted as a gateway drug to the sounds of the original Mod wave of the ’60s, and battered copies of Led Zeppelin IV have been passed down the generations like holy relics for decades now. But it’s gone much further since the internet and streaming services led to a collapse in the walls that once separated generations.

To be a music fan now is also to be a time traveller

My favourite band when I was a teenager – Courtney Love’s excoriating four-piece Hole – have easily become my stepdaughter’s too because music exists in what appears to be an endless library, with old tracks and new nestling against each other in playlists. On TikTok, songs that seemed lost to the dustier corners of second-hand record shops suddenly go viral, and return to cultural relevance, because ’ver kids, (as Smash Hits would have put it), just care about hearing things they like, not about when they were recorded.

In the Guardian, TikTok’s head of Label & Artist Partnerships, Darina Connolly, explained the phenomenon in rather bloodless terms: “The community is really age-agnostic and genre-agnostic; it doesn’t care how long an artist has been releasing music. If it’s a genre of music they’ve never listened to before, they’re not going to say, ‘I’m not going to listen to that’. They’re just consuming music all the time. And if a track resonates, for whatever reason, it then tends to do really well.”

That’s putting it in terms that appeal to marketing people and advertisers, but the truth is a little more complex. TikTok users are far from “age-agnostic” – there are often trends where Zoomers (Gen Z) mock the next closest demographic, the Millennials – and “old” songs can become big hits on the social network because of the inherent nostalgia that comes along with them. It’s why the pop-punk songs of the early-00s – when I was a teenager – are now seen by kids my stepdaughter’s age as the equivalent of what ’70s classic rock was to me as a teen. They’re cool because they’re “old”.

There is certainly a commercial advantage to the way songs now float free from context on TikTok and across streaming services like Spotify; Kylie Minogue became the first woman over 50 to be playlisted on Radio 1 with her song Padam Padam because despite stations ignoring it at first, Gen Z listeners – especially from the LBGTQ+ communities – picked it up and ran with it on TikTok; it’s meme pop.

Minogue’s latest success follows the much-discussed revival of Running Up That Hill by Kate Bush as a contemporary pop hit after it featured in Netflix’s ’80s retrofest Stranger Things. Syncs – the practice of putting songs onto the soundtrack of TV shows and films – have long been key to getting hits but music supervisors no longer feel the need to be contemporary. The presence of a Runaways t-shirt in my stepdaughter’s wardrobe is down to the use of their song Cherry Bomb at a key moment in Marvel’s first Guardians of the Galaxy film, while Hole were given a boost when Celebrity Skin, the title track of their 1998 album of the same name, was heard in 2019’s Captain Marvel – 21 years after release.

While I love how context collapse has meant young people’s music tastes are arguably far more heterodox than they have ever been, there is an aspect that rankles me. The Chain, for instance, is a brilliant song but it’s even more brilliant when you experience it as part of the album it springs from: Rumours is a conversation between the feuding members of Fleetwood Mac as relationships crumble and new ones form. Seeing it as just one more cool bass line is fine but there is so much more to be found in exploring the rest of the tracklist and seeing how bands of “old” decided to sequence their records.

As on so many occasions though, my stepdaughter gives me hope. YouTube allowed me to show her interviews with Carol Kaye – now immortalised in her bass – and talk to her about how Kaye, who performed on everything from The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds to the Mission Impossible theme tune, was able to transcend her gender in the far more sexist ’60s to be considered one of the best bass players alive.

In his 1941 short story The Library of Babel – published in English in 1962 – Jorge Luis Borges conceived of a vast library that contained every book ever published. The internet and streaming services are not quite at that point – corporations often remove items to protect their copyrights or “curate” what we can access – but the sheer breadth of things available means that to be a music fan now is also to be a time traveller. I’m slightly envious of my stepdaughter: she has so much wonderful noise still to discover.

Mic Wright is a journalist based in London. He writes about technology, culture and politics

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August / September 2023, Life, Tech Talk

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