I love transitional periods in pop music history. The Last Big Thing is dead or dying and The Next Big Thing hasn’t taken shape yet. In the absence of their hegemonic shadows, a host of niche ecologies emerge in a mad scrum for the public’s attention.
Media conglomerates and self-appointed tastemakers thrash about in search of new narratives to plug the gap, elevating small regional scenes or obscure subgenres into global prominence. Everything sounds like a novelty track yet carries the (likely unfulfilled) promise of a Future That’s Coming.
Singles become the everything, released in wide-spread salvos where the hits will determine the contours of entire careers. The catchy outlier reluctantly added as throwaway album filler breaks the Top 40 and thus fixes the brand for all eternity, justly or otherwise. Meanwhile, the surviving remnants of the ancien eégime attempt to surf the zeitgeist in hopes of retaining some shred of relevance.
It’s the reason I keep getting drawn back towards the 1979-1983 era, a catch-as-catch can moment where any bit of flash had a chance to join the conga line over disco’s unquiet corpse. German rap and synthesized Northern soul, robotic rock operas and weird western noir, countrypolitan crossovers and Celtic soul brothers — the wheel didn’t stop spinning until a clear winner was picked, the novelty wore thin, or both.
It also happened to coincide with my early adolescence, those furtive first stabs at defining identity by laying claim to some compelling patch of ephemera. The Beast with Phosphor Dot Eyes was backlit my a mushroom cloud and I will never fully extricate its hooks from my flesh.
That lingering itch is what drew me to the whole retro thing in the first place, seeking a trace of the old scent from long emptied bottles. The closest I’ve ever gotten to it was in the 1996-1998 transition period, when grunge’s deathgrip on the market receded and the “alternative” scene went wide and shallow. It’s easy to mock stuff like the swing revival or third wave ska or deseperate crossover branding of the “electronica” tag, but it was far more exciting than what preceded it.
I didn’t read too much into it because I was older and wiser and knew none of it was built to last. It was a passing breeze, and best appreciated in the moment.
(images from the January 1998 “Year in Music” issue of SPIN)