The Year That Never Was

The Year That Never Was
The year 2002 didn't really happen. Honest. Looking back on 12 months dominated by retro-minded musicians, it seems more like a photocopy of previous periods than a year in its own right. Gazing into his crystal ball ten years ago, the French postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard predicted that "the year 2000 will not take place," because we're all so enthralled by the revival of past moods. Turns out he was off by two years.

Ever since the 1970s, when the first "oldies" radio stations took to the air, pop culture fanatics have been obsessed with the past. Like mice on a treadmill, we can't help but retrace our steps, comfortable with anything old-school, suspicious of what's new. Some of today's most talented artists, like DJ Shadow, put an expert's spin on our nostalgic obsession, recasting old sounds in vibrant new light, proving that not all hybrid forms need be regressive. But for all of Shadow's recombinant charm, it's retro bands like the Walkmen and Fischerspooner that truly made 2002 a thing of the past — in more ways than one.

Still, if Manchester's Anthony Wilson is to be believed, 2002 should have been a breakout year for legitimately new musical styles. As the story goes, the former head of Factory Records and owner of infamous Manchester night club the Hacienda, was sitting in his kitchen one night in 1989 when he devised an ingenious cyclical culture theory. 1963 had spawned the Beatles. 1976 had birthed punk, disco and hip-hop, and 1989, Wilson figured, would bring us the next big thing. It did. That year, Nirvana released its first album, and the (Second) Summer of Love ushered in rave's glorious decade-long run.

According to Wilson's 13-year theory, something special should have happened in 2002, but it didn't. Truth be told, last year might have been the most regressive 12 months in music history, even for supposedly underground artists. In hip-hop, the Cold Crush revivalists in Jurassic 5 kept insisting that the ‘90s never happened, casting a sentimental spell over an ever-widening fan base. The dance scene, meanwhile, fell under the sway of the form-over-substance genre known as electroclash, a sanitised amalgam of ‘80s-era new wave and EBM. Rock, while re-energised in hotspots like Brooklyn and Sweden, continued down a wistful, well-trodden path, churning out a steady stream of clones: Interpol and Hot Hot Heat, Stripes, Strokes, Hives and Vines.

What links these revivalist acts is an underlying sense of conservative aesthetic values. Content to follow the call of the mild, these artists (and we fans) prefer to relive the past rather than strike out in bold new directions. Way back in 1983, British cultural theorist Raymond Williams deftly deconstructed our society's cyclical tendencies. "Some people find reassurance in this long past in which so much has been achieved, in so many different forms, and so many dangers and limitations have been surmounted," wrote the author of Towards 2000. "Others, in effect, escape into it, spinning time backwards from what they see as a hopeless present and a short and disastrous future."

Indeed, as Dubya Bush stokes the fires of global unrest, and as the billionaires behind last year's accounting scams skulk back to their estates, unpunished, it's hard to feel optimistic about the future of Western civilisation. Still, there's no use pining for the good old days — such days never existed.

More than anything else, what music fans need right now is a new-fashioned moral panic, artists who will shock us much as we were shocked in '63, '76 and '89. In retrospect, the Beatles may seem like harmless and huggable mop-tops, but in their day, the Fab Four stirred up a shit-load of trouble, stoking the libidos of the baby-boom generation. And it goes without saying that punk, disco, hip-hop and their late ‘80s progeny were all subversive subcultures, each with distinctive modes of dress, each with a specific set of chemical accoutrements (legal or otherwise), and each the embodiment of a truly new musical form.
Sadly, last year's fascination with the good old days took wistful escapism to new levels of absurdity. For the time being, everything new seems old again. Here's hoping that Wilson's 13-year theory simply skipped 2002 altogether, and that 2003 brings us back to the future, not forward to the past.