Friday, September 05, 2014

The Drops Away Syndrome

Quick addendum to the Kate Bush once upon a time decidedly uncool post -  and a longer broader follow-up.

Quick bit:  one Hal In London points out that Bush did not once figure in the NME critics end-of-year lists - until 1985 when she rockets out of nowhere and enters high in both the LP and singles charts, with Hounds (#10) and "Running" (#3).  Hal further notes that she makes not a single appearance in the equivalent lists at The Face ("surely the definition of cool in the 80s?").  The NME readership is difficult to gauge, in so far as the polls tend only to mention the winners. And here, interestingly, Bush does make one appearance, in 1979, as Female Singer of the year. But the next year she was displaced by Siouxsie Sioux, who held that title for several years running until ousted by Elizabeth Fraser in 1984. Generally-speaking the NME readership lagged a couple of years behind the writership in terms of taste and ideology, so the one-off triumph of Bush in '79 might be down to persistence of Old Wave mentality. There also wasn't much competition around (although Debbie Harry won it the year before).  

More generally.... very interested in this whole business of the fluctuating standing of artists over time.... the way that what is considered central and crucial at one point can become peripheral and inessential later....  

My nickname for this is The Drops Away Syndrome. 

The Drops Away Syndrome has a vice versa  - the Rises Up Syndrome - but it's less common. Most traffic tends to be downwards, a sort of aesthetic-critical gravity force tends to prevail, bending towards irrelevance and obscurity. 

A few examples - Graham Parker, considered a colossal figure, especially by American rock critics.... Rod Stewart, regarded by many in the early Seventies as one of the great songwriters and singers of his day, indeed by certain US critics revered as a story-teller who damn near singlehandedly redeemed rock at a time when it had gotten remote and heartless and inhumanly bombastic...    Eric Clapton....  . on a much smaller level, Randy Newman,  Mink Deville

In my own lifetime as a fan and writer, there are a number of reversals and wanings that are quite disorienting to contemplate -- the towering godhead of The Birthday Party and Nick Cave,  who enjoyed a  prominence and eminence in my mental life of the Eighties that's hard to reconstruct now, feels vaguely inexplicable...  Elvis Costello, similarly....  Ooh, and please don't mention The Young Gods.

Think how central Animal Collective seemed in the mid-to-late 2000s, that period between Here Comes The Indian and Merriweather, boosted by side-solo things like Person Pitch.... and how that's not the case now. 

But it happens also to genres and eras .... postpunk came back in a big way in the 2000s and is still very much on the table, as something that neophyte listeners need to acquaint themselves with, as something that bands might still draw on... But the reason it came back was precisely because it went away in the Nineties, was hardly ever referenced or reverenced. Too recent, perhaps, or too different from the vibes then prevalent.

In the Nineties, the place postpunk might have occupied was taken by other stuff .... Like Neil Young, who seemed like a totemic ancestor, a godfather figure to a lot of the rock action of the decade, the grungy and slackery end of things. The idea of, say, Talking Heads, or PiL, being an influence, a model, would then have seemed pretty daft. But now it's the other way around.  

The man when it comes to all things canon-related is of course Harold Bloom, and he argues that what goes into the canon of Western Literature and what gets left out is something determined by later poets and writers and dramatists.    They choose their influences and precursors. (Not always consciously choose - but through processes of attraction that seem to operate outside the realm of volition, to have more in common with visitation and possession). 

Go long enough without being an influence, without any visible descendants,though,  and you will begin to slip out of the canon.  Literary history is full of figures like Graham Parker or Eric Clapton, once considered Immense, colossi bestriding their eras - George Bernard Shaw,  Tagore. 

Kate Bush's rise in stock, the way she seems a more central figure in pop music history than she did during her actual historical prime is caused in part, then, by the large number of artists who emerged (ac)claiming her as an influence, a role model, an inspiration --  Bjork, Bat For Lashes, St Vincent, Tori Amos, Grimes, FKA Twigs.

But you could scour the current landscape of audio production and travel a long way before you found instances of  young, emerging artists influenced by Clapton, Costello, Rod Stewart, Graham Parker... people that critics would  once have figured for enduring forces in music, germinal figures, but actually turned out to be the last of a family line leading up to them but sputtering out with them.   

Non-seminal, you might fairly call them, twisting the rockcrit cliche. 

Of course, there has been something of an industry of excavating obscure figures or forgotten/maligned genres...  an attempt to harness them to the fashion machine. 

But I'm more interested in the way these fluctuations more often seem to occur through anonymous collective processes... 


The slightly chilling takeaway thought from all this is, of course, that what seems central and crucial to us right now could -- in many cases, will -- seem peripheral and inessential  to us at some later date.

I suppose it's not unlike the old girlfriend /  boyfriend  syndrome, "what on earth did I see in her / him?"

In some cases, you can see still, very clearly - perhaps painfully, certainly wistfully - what you saw in them. It'll never leave you. 

But in other cases... 

Likewise certain artists and genres abide with you to the end of your days. And others don't, Which doesn't mean they weren't fine in their moment, for whatever you got out of them or wherever they took you, the thoughts they spurred, the feelings they stirred.