The Nation's Pulse

Old Is the New New

What's happened to American cultural vitality?

By 7.27.12

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The past has after all this time finally moved ahead of the present.

Nielsen's Soundscan reports that albums classified as "catalogue," indicating a release date at least 18 months ago, outsold "recent" albums for the first half of 2012. Back catalog moved 76.6 million units to 73.9 million recent units sold. This marks the first time in Nielsen Soundscan's 21-year history that the past has outperformed the present.

Is not this a metaphor for a better-days-behind-us nation?

Since the Billboard 200 ceased excluding older releases from its rankings in late 2009, the chart has provided a more comprehensive measure of sales. The current Billboard 200 features greatest hits collections by Queen #59, Guns N Roses #65, Journey # 113, Credence Clearwater Revival #120, and Notorious BIG #121, among others, that the chart's old rules would have excluded. Proper albums strangely reappearing on the bestseller list include The Zac Brown Band's "The Foundation" (2008 release) #19, Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" (released 1973) #63, The Beastie Boys' "Licensed to Ill" (1986 release) #130, and Katie Perry's "One of the Boys" (2008 release) #133.

How did old become the new new?

Technology hampers album sales not only by making free what once cost $10, but by the à la carte nature of downloading that elevates the single at the expense of the album, as well. Listeners have gone back-to-the-future by effectively embracing the .45 over the LP, albeit in a digital rather than vinyl form. The album becoming a thing of the past makes it a more popular medium for listeners who possess more of a past.

Promotional mechanisms for new music have dried up. Rolling Stone has become a celebrity magazine. MTV doesn't stand for "Music Television" anymore. And corporate consolidation has ensured that radio stations dedicated to playing cutting-edge music get cut from the dial.

The biggest change fostering the retro cult is that so much new music just isn't very good. Record companies market over-processed music designed to fit in rather than stand out. Auto-Tune, drum machines, synthesizers, and boardroom songwriting-by-committee so thoroughly dehumanize the product that the artists come out sounding devoid of soul. Businessmen don't seem to understand that in art, safe isn't.

When musicians dare deviate from the formula -- the talented fatso Adele and tiny Fairfax Recordings' Gotye come to mind -- they confound the recording industry with their success. The former's "21" has outsold the combined remainder of 2012's top-five albums and the latter's sonically understated "Somebody That I Used to Know" has earned more downloads than any other song thus far this year.

Pop singers are supposed to look like supermodels and pop songs aren't supposed to feature xylophones. The very different Adele and Gotye achieved similar success because they succeeded in conveying a human feeling to the human listeners sick of machine soullessness. They connected.

The retro phenomenon isn't limited to music. Nielson's top-ten television programs include the revival of Hawaii Five-O, the 44-years-young 60 Minutes, and the 24th installment of the Bachelor/Bachelorette series. The top movie at the box office this week features the adventures of a caped crusader introduced in 1939. In the fashion world, the success of Mad Men has inspired a throwback Betty Draper look.

Culture implies growth, vitality. Teaming off the corpse of cultures long past suggests parasitic rot.

And if decay is where our creative community is at it is largely because our creative community resides in America, a nation living on the fumes of past glories as it puts its future further into debt. Borrowing, bailouts, and handouts indicate that people don't want to put in the work. Art imitates life.

Creativity requires creation. Too many artists today take instead of make. So more and more consumers shut their eyes and ears to current and rediscover an old program on Hulu, flip a classic into the DVD player, and download yesteryear on iTunes. Technology isn't the wave of the future but the undertow that drags us back into our past.

Dining on stale bread and generic mush isn't a healthy diet. American moviegoers, television junkies, and music lovers consume what eats away at their humanity. Bad art is bad for you.

Is it any wonder that the public prefers the actual past to the borrowed present?

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About the Author
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, edits Breitbart Sports.