Terrified of tomorrow?
No-one would deny that there’s much we can learn from the past. Our history can teach us more about ourselves than anything else. It can tell us who we are and where we come from. It can help us to avoid endlessly repeating the same mistakes as we head into our future.
As with all good things, though, it’s possible to overindulge. Learning from the past may be a good thing – but becoming obsessed with it is quite another. Just ten years into the new millennium, we have become true fundamentalists – more anally fixated on what we produced and digested yesterday than we are on looking towards tomorrow.
This strange fascination with our own fundament affects almost every area of our culture. Maybe it first reared its head in the arts, as an appetite for sequels, prequels, remakes and reunions began to outstrip an appetite for innovative new work. In the theatre, revivalist rehashes of old pop songs by Abba or Queen, loosely stitched together to simulate a story, have replaced musicals which push the boundaries of the genre.
As leftfield maestro Stephen Sondheim recently pointed out, “The proliferation of jukebox musicals is an example of how storytelling is becoming less important”, sidelined by audiences’ need for nostalgia.
It really doesn’t matter to us any more if the plot of Mamma Mia makes less sense than a second-rate seaside comedy; or if spurious characters (“Killer Queen” in We Will Rock You…) give the performers a flimsy excuse to launch into another hit. Shows like these are all about the feelgood factor: clapping your hands and singing along. These days, even veteran composer/producer Andrew Lloyd Webber can’t break a new idea – his latest was a sequel to The Phantom Of the Opera, Love Never Dies. In straight theatre, too, the groundbreaking original play is an endangered species, relegated to fringe outings while the West End bristles with (mostly musical) revivals.
While technological advances in film have brought us sparkling new tools such as mo-cap and 3D, filmmakers have declined to use them to revolutionise the language of cinema. The dominant format has become the franchise, in which familiar characters and situations are replayed over and over as though we’re slightly dim preschoolers learning our kerb drill. Fans of romantic fantasy watch as film-makers exhaust every single plot device delaying the union of Bella and her vegetarian vampire; horror franchises such as Saw serve up escalating sadistic scenarios to an audience becoming dangerously desensitised to depictions of pain.
Creativity is limited to variations on a theme and once successful, a franchise runs almost indefinitely, carved into as many instalments as possible to maximise revenue. Successful though they might be in terms of entertainment, the only form of innovation allowed in this game is the “reboot” – as in Bond and Batman – in which exactly the same characters and situations are recycled using younger actors and updated production values. Plus ca change.
It’s in music, however, that our attachment to the past has done most damage. Just a few decades ago, music was a powerful agent for social change and evolution. Think The Beatles, The Rolling Stones; think David Bowie. Somewhere along the way, though, we’ve lost our desire for surprise. With a very few exceptions, we no longer welcome artists who shock, challenge or disturb us. We want familiarity, security, a big comforting dose of what we already know.
As traditional marketing mechanisms falter and fail, what remains of the industry puts its faith in the tried-and-tested – and audiences lap it up. Young talent and musical experimentation has all but fallen out of the mainstream, invisible behind the stampede of older artists forced to consolidate in order to survive. This year alone has seen reunion shows, albums and tours by everyone from granny-friendly boy band Take That to grunge grandees Soundgarden, with a parade of lesser-known talents – Suede, Pulp, Garbage – following desperately in their wake.
It’s not always the artists’ fault: as former Japan frontman David Sylvian recently told an interviewer, ” there is a point at which a long-term artist is notified that further experimentation isn’t welcome. That a return to a career’s highlights in terms of style and content would be advisable.” It takes a very strong personality allied to a long career track record to stand up to that kind of pressure: heroic refuseniks such as Peter Gabriel and Robert Plant are notable examples, but for many, independence of what made them famous is usually won at the cost of what Sylvian wryly describes as “a drop in sales and the threat of obscurity or, worse, irrelevance.”
Artists with a strong enough command of irony may seek to use the mechanism of the reunion as a tool to raise the stakes and give them greater freedom of opportunity. As Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell recently remarked, “the mythology of a rock star is larger than ever, at a time when the music industry can’t create them any more.” Thus Soundgarden’s tongue-in-cheek depiction of their iconic 90s image within the “Guitar Hero” videogame successfully raised their profile with a whole new generation of young X-boxers. Nevertheless, even master-producer Timbaland’s musicbiz clout couldn’t save Cornell’s beautifully deranged pop masterpiece Scream from being kicked to death by critics who objected to his attempt to flout the repressive rules of the game.
But these are exceptions that help to prove the rule. More often, sadly, it becomes obvious that resistance is futile – and the future is assimilated Borg-style into a mechanical version of the past. Deprived of the space to evolve, the artist descends into self-parody, afraid to step outside their comfort zone or simply suffocated by the weight of their own brand. This trend seems particularly severe within the rock genre, where bands which have survived long term have become victims of public perception, punished by their own fans for any deviation from their unique selling point. In this context, Aerosmith’s recent announcement that their new album will be “an old-school Aerosmith record,” made “the old way” should surprise no-one.
In the wider world, too, fear and retrenchment are gaining ground. In a world which has been shrinking for decades as affluence and access to transport increases, we are increasingly suspicious of foreign travel. Instead of reaching out into the world and exploring it, we defend ourselves behind layers of prejudice. We allow ourselves to believe anyone of Asian appearance is a potential terrorist, we permit our paranoid governments to subject us to more and more expensive, intrusive and ineffective security checks “for our own protection”. In our towns and villages, we are convinced that a paedophile or a maniac lurks on every corner to abduct our children, while we ourselves are the ones guilty of denying them a frank and fearless future. Instead, we assuage our parental guilt by buying them trinkets, gaming machines, TVs and DVD players so that they can better absorb the world by proxy.
And over the Atlantic in the so-called “home of the brave”, first-ever black President Barack Obama is nursing a metaphorical bloody nose while housewife superstar Sarah Palin and her mad hatter’s Tea Party tell voters they should abandon (or maybe refudiate?) such modern nonsense and “get back to time-tested truths”. So much for the American Dream. Adieu Captain Kirk: no more boldly going where no man has gone before.
But it’s not all bad news. In one area alone, innovation and discovery still capture people’s imaginations and draw them on towards new discoveries. Science is currently enjoying a new golden age – due at least in part to brilliant popular communicators like Professors Brian Cox and (against all odds) Stephen Hawking. In a complete reversal of the trend within the arts, science has reawoken people’s curiosity and hunger to explore. We have become fascinated by the weird paradoxes of quantum physics, bewitched by the remote magnificence of the imagery beamed back to us from Hubble and Cassini. Even those doommongers terrified that CERN’s Large Hadron Collider would tear the fabric of space-time and suck us all into a black hole were distinctly fascinated by the possibility, seduced by the frisson of danger and uncertainty which always accompanies genuine experimentation. Amazingly, the LHC research even made the pages of ultra-reactionary tabloids like the Daily Mail !
Meanwhile, TV programmes like Cox’s Wonders Of the Solar System and the BBC’s Horizon series bravely fly the flag for curiosity, for imagination, for the possibility that everything we know about the world is wrong. As one British newspaper reporter put it, “particle physics is the unbelievable in pursuit of the unimaginable”. As CERN’s huge particle accelerator fired up to full power for the first time, television coverage showed its learned scientific team as bright eyed as small boys on Christmas morning at the thought that those tiny sub-atomic collisions might smash out new realities – that they might be about to discover something entirely new, something which would throw all their hard-won theories up in the air and make them think again.
That’s because these scientists actually like to think. Imagining the impossible is what they’re all about. As mathematician Sir Roger Penrose put it in a recent Horizon documentary, “a change of mind is not something unpleasant – it’s something exhilarating.” Physicist Lee Smolin went further, neatly linking history and future together in a way which might teach us all something about navigating our way through a life less compromised by fear. Talking about the origins of the universe in the far distant past, he mused: “I think the only way to keep going [is] to go under the assumption that tomorrow’s idea will be the best one so far.”
Or to put it a little more piratically, courtesy of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow before franchise fever robbed him of his spark……
“Bring me that horizon!”