Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Nowism and Thenism

This article originally appeared on the peerless (yet now sadly defunct) Gobshout.com. It's owners are now Suburban Tarts, who should be visited post-haste... 

This might sound like something you might not expect to hear coming from me, a man so cynical that Jack Dee occasionally calls to put some perspective on his generally sunny outlook on life, but I think it’s been a pretty good decade. As the inevitable lists of best this and best that mount up, I think it’s probably time to remember one or two things.

This article is inspired (as all the best ones are) by a conversation in a pub. It was, of course, the conversation that we’ve all had recently about the top ten albums of the decade. After an hour or so of busy categorising, we said that he felt that, even though we’d got a good list, he still felt that perhaps the top ten albums of this decade didn’t match up to, say, the top ten of the sixties. Or seventies. I was not too happy about this. So this article explains why.

If you took every serious list of the top ten albums and put them all together and aggregated them (stay with me) I think you’d have a pretty clear-cut top ten. This sort of meta-analysis would show off the great and good of music across the past ten years. It’d probably be a good list. Some people would disagree with it but, hey, that’s what these lists are for. Then you could compare it with similar lists from previous decades. You could. But the point is you shouldn’t. Allow me to introduce you to the twin concepts of “nowism” and “thenism”. Nowism is the sort of thing that leads people to rave about Animal Collective as though they were the saviours of American music just because they happen to be a little different (a word which is not synonymous with “good”). Thenism is the sort of thing that leads people to believe that past eras were in fact better than they actually were.

So, this is my point. Think about the seventies, and all the great music. Now think about the rubbish music. That second one’s harder, yes? And the reason for this is that history is a great filter. The bad stuff doesn’t stay in the collective consciousness of the nation. And this (in a rather roundabout way) is why no one will remember the names of any winners of The X Factor in forty years time. Or any songs by The Kaiser Chiefs for that matter. This is also a reason why the best albums of the [insert decade here] lists are always better judged with the benefit of at least twenty years hindsight.

Moving on. There are of course differences between this decade and previous ones in terms of what makes it into the best albums lists. For example, in the sixties, you had The Beatles who- pretty much- invented pop music. That was never a caveat likely to be ascribed to MGMT, or even to a decent band this decade, now was it? But if you use that yardstick to judge everything, you’re never going to get anywhere. The point is that something through which you didn’t live is always going to have a kind of mystical allure, something that makes you think it was intrinsically better. The point is that you didn’t live through all the less good stuff that history has filtered out (Need proof? Click this link). But this time you did. You had to suffer White Lies' debut. You had to endure countless lukewarm Simon Cowell rehashes of previous excellent records. You had to scream silently and clutch at your gut at the sound of The Klaxons keyboard-laden bucket o’ shite excuse for a record.

So there you have it. History is a great filter, and judging this decade against those that went before is an exercise in futility that will drive you mad and mean that you get things wrong more often than not. Be careful. It’s a jungle out there. But as far as lists go, I think it’s best to get stuck in. Nostalgia is great for morale, and they fill up a million awkward silences in the pub.

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