May 29, 2009
In Praise of Post-
Music critic Simon Reynolds praises music’s moments of in-between:
It rankles a bit that the late ’80s are now treated as a mere prequel to grunge. The recently aired Seven Ages of Rock on VH1 Classic was a marked improvement on earlier TV histories of rock, which tended to jump straight from Sex Pistols to Nirvana. But its episode on U.S. alternative rock nonetheless presented groups like the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., and Sonic Youth as preparing the ground for Nirvana. That’s not how it felt at the time: Sonic Youth and the rest seemed fully formed significances in their own right, creative forces of monstrous power, time-defining in their own way (albeit through their refusal of the mainstream). My Melody Maker comrade David Stubbs wrote an end-of-year oration proclaiming 1988—annum of Surfer Rosa, Daydream Nation, My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything—to be the greatest year for rock music. Ever!
We actually believed this, and our fervor was infectious, striking an inspirational, Obama-like chord with young readers heartily sick of the idea that rock’s capacity for renewal had been exhausted in the ’60s or the punk mid-’70s. Yet that period will never truly be written into conventional history (despite efforts like Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life) because it doesn’t have a name. It’s too diverse, and it’s not easily characterized. For instance, the groups were “underground,” except that by 1988 most of them—Husker Du, Throwing Muses, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers—had already signed, or soon were to sign, to majors. Finally, it’ll never get fairly written into history because, damn it, grunge did happen.
As I’ve gotten older, I like 80s alternative music better than the stuff I grew up with in the 90s, although now (with almost two decades’ distance), the 90s looks better, and just plain different, from the radio I remember. (I didn’t listen to Belle and Sebastian, Neutral Milk Hotel, or Smog in the 90s. I do now.)
The weird thing is that to be a precursor is a recipe for big sales but also diminished significance in your own right. The 80s are full of bands that influenced Nirvana who don’t really sound like Nirvana, who don’t sound ANYTHING like the rest of what passed for grunge, who actually don’t make a lot of sense in that context.
But to be post- is a kind of liberation — one has a sense of being reflective, developing, moving beyond something else, a continuation with that history but also a break. So the coolest thing to be is post-punk. It’s so cool that the first half of this decade saw dozens of bands who were post-post-punk.
So Reynolds identifies two strains of in-between music to go along with 80s post-punk: post-disco and post-psychedelic. I’m convinced that these typologies totally work; I might be more invested in the post-psychedelia bands he lists than the post-disco ones, but it all sounds interesting. And in this case, naming is claiming: giving these bands and their sound a name actually gives you a context to talk about them, one that might be misleading (in which case, time to toss it out) but which might be a way to call more attention to things that would otherwise go unnoticed.
He also includes this nice postscript (har har) on post-rock and post-metal:
There are some other “post-” genres out there, but to my mind, they describe something quite different from the above. Take post-rock, a term that mysteriously emerged in the early ’90s to describe experimental guitar bands that increasingly abandoned guitars altogether. (Oh, OK, it was me who came up with that one.)