Retro Music and Creativity- A Query

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“The universe is not made, but is being made continuously”- Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution


In a recent Rolling Stone review of the new Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings record, the reviewer asked if the new album was “a record or a museum exhibit”. Jones and the Dap Kings make retro soul music in which “the details are picture-perfect: Every guitar scratch and brass blast sounds like it was teleported straight from 1965 to 1972”. In the end the sharon jones and the dap kingsreviewer concludes- “Sharon Jones sings with force and feeling, but there’s only so much you can do to breathe life into music so in thrall to the past. Call the Dap-Kings a band if you want- they’re really connoisseurs” (1). 

When I was growing up retro was part of the landscape, such as people dressing up for 70s themed parties and the like, so I figured it had just always been a part of human culture. Perhaps Persians in the 1540s copied the ways of Persians in the 1420s, who knows, I didn’t really think about it. So I was startled to learn that ‘retro’ is in fact a very recent development in the evolution of human culture. And it’s distinctly postmodern.

Why this came to be is not fully clear to me at this point. According to the Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, retro was part of the postmodern “campaign against modernity and [its] cult of the new” (2). There were a few things decidedly on the outs for the postmodern mind- the modern belief in progress, any grand story or ‘metanarrative’ back eddyclaiming to know the workings of history, and hierarchies of all kinds (class, status, value) (3). This all seemed to end up in a sort of nowhere soup, an evolutionary back eddy where ‘progress’ and ‘the new’ were somehow seen as no longer really possible or even desirable. Umberto Eco characterized the postmodern attitude as being one in which “we can no longer embrace our cherished hopes and beliefs with unqualified or wholehearted adherence” (4). The certainties of modern progressive cheerleading were out, and a skeptical tentativeness was in. Everything was now up for grabs, and tradition and the past were open to be freely played with.


The Routledge Companion states- “Such reappropriation and recontextualization of older forms and styles, often referred to as retro, has become a hallmark of the postmodern aesthetic and features prominently in areas such as art, music and fashion. In keeping withretro music the postmodern ethos, retro often involves an ironic attitude towards the earlier style, and is not a simple act of mere homage or mere imitation” (5).

Whatever its exact origins, retro is very much still with us today. Given the Sharon Jones review above, it strikes me that it's time to take stock of where retro sits in relation to music today, and what effects it might be having on the musical creativity of our time. My instincts tell me that the retro ethos is in some way having an overall negative effect at the current moment. This is particularly the case in a certain hipsterism, where irony and the interest in previous forms combine in a particularly strong way. But it seems like there are current problems- which I’ll outline in this article- that go even deeper and run more broadly than just the extreme hipster case.

There has been a plethora of retro sounds in the (western, English) music of the past fifteen The Darknessyears, particularly in indie music. Bands like Wolfmother have copped the riffage of Zeppelin and Sabbath, while The Darkness have donned the operatic vocal stylings of Bruce Dickenson (Iron Maiden) and Rob Halford (Judas Priest). The Strokes paid homage to the Velvet Underground and, along with a whole movement of bands, to the garage rock of old. The Hold Steady, The Gaslight Anthem, The Killers and many others have been inspired by the work of Bruce Springsteen. The Killers  and many other bands have revived the sounds of early eighties New Wave. The Fleet Foxes, Blitzen Trapper and other bearded bands have returned to the harmonies of CSNY and the Beach Boys. The Band of Horses are not alone today in their absorption of The Allman Brothers, Neil Young and Crazy Horse and The Band. Devendra Banhart, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and others loosely related to the ‘freak folk’ movement have revived sixties hippie sounds and psychedelia. I often hear interviews with indie rockers these days where they tell of which unearthing from the musical past is currently inspiring them (6).

There has been much good music coming out of the work of the young bands above, and I personally own many of their albums. But all this brings up some important questions for me about creativity and creation. What does it mean to create? I would argue that creativity is by definition the bringing into form of the new. It’s by its nature an emergent process, where the novel is channeled forth into time. Now, all artists are derivative to some extent, this is an inevitable and normal part of artistic creation and the evolution of artistic forms. A vast network of lineage can be traced back through all the bands mentioned above, young through old and beyond.

But the history of music has seen countless moments of emergent originality as well, suchray charles as in the music of Ray Charles, where several musical streams got funneled in and came out through Charles’ music in forms never before heard. Or take Stevie Ray Vaughn, for instance. He was deeply inspired by three key guitarists- Albert King, Freddie King, and Jimi Hendrix- but the end result coming out of Stevie Ray’s guitar is something deeply original and unmistakably his own.

Are the young bands above creating in this way?

There is certainly some great music being made, but something seems to me to always be missing. The young bands who are inspired by older artists never seem to quite match the force, power and depth of authenticity of the original acts they admire. Something is getting lost in translation. Could it be that the general ironic, aloof, and detached character of the postmodern ethos is (consciously or unconsciously) blocking a more fully earnest and committed take on these former sounds?

The retro riffs of Wolfmother are good fun, but they’re faint rumblings compared to the power and sonic monstrosity that was Led Zeppelin. But if you are going to do Zeppelin, why not actually DO Zeppelin? By which I mean, why not go all the way. Don’t just play dress-up; why not create a song that makes Whole Lotta Love sound like a quaint memory in the history of rock. I truly love the Band of Horses, and at times they come gloriously close in live performance to capturing the colossal might of bands like Crazy Horse and the iggy pop 400px wAllman Brothers, but still not quite yet. Despite all the proper love for Bruce Springsteen in indie music in the past decade, no young act I’ve seen comes close to matching Springsteen’s Herculean live performances. Iggy Pop and the Stooges inspire many young punk bands today, but few seem able to capture their legendary raw power. What has changed in the social-historical context of the intervening decades that seems to have weakened the strength of our sonic commitments? And what stone in the evolutionary dam needs to be removed to allow those deeper rivers of becoming to flow once again?


Perhaps a short inquiry into creativity might shine some light on the current situation. We can turn to a series of psychologists, scientists and philosophers as guides in this query. Beginning on the psychological front, Carl Jung writes- “In this lies the social significance of art: [that] it labors without cease to educate the spirit of the age, bringing to birth those dragon slayerforms in which the age is most lacking” (7). Jung’s fellow depth psychologist Erich Neumann writes, “The true hero [artist] is one who brings the new and shatters the fabric of old values, namely the father-dragon which, backed by the whole weight of tradition and the power of the collective, ever strives to obstruct the birth of the new…Every creative work or deed is something new that was not there before” (8).

These are powerful psychological themes, the breaking of outdated social forms and values and the creation of new ones that are needed in ones current context. Which leads me to ask- of what value is the retro soul of someone like a Sharon Jones? Sure it sounds good, and it’s enjoyable enough to listen to, but those soul sounds came out of a particular social context, one that included civil rights, the Vietnam War, race riots and a whole host of other co-ordinates. The soul sound that danced in the hot streets of the late sixties and early seventies sprung from a particular context, and it still sounds fabulous to be sure. But is it mia_bonnaroowhat’s most needed now? Might other, as yet undiscovered, sounds, vibes and sonic embodiments be more useful for our current (increasingly global) age? In this respect, are not soul-infused musicians like M.I.A. , K’naan and Michael Franti more relevant and useful artists for our own context, giving both voice and sound to the needs and hopes of our current world moment? All three are artists that are politically aware, globally conscious, socially motivated and musically creative- not to mention inspiring to millions for these very reasons.

We can also ask who else today is slaying the father-dragon of received tradition? Aside from the three just mentioned, one of the artists that’s still breaking new territory today is Bob Dylan, the same man who once wrote the words, “A man not busy being born is busy dying”(9). Dylan has done this continuously throughout his career and is currently in the middle of one of his most creative periods ever, with a string of four albums that many critics consider masterpieces. He even claims to have invented a new musical form (10). There’s always the exemplary creativity of a Radiohead or Tom Waits, and there are a few young acts I would put in the general pioneering category too, such as MGMT, Santagold, Vampire Weekend, Kayne West and pretty much anything Jack White touches. But are these artists the rule today or the exception? Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane said that one of the most exciting things about the potent music scene of the mid to late sixties-early seventies, was that so many bands were striving to be original (11). Or to put it another way, the thing to do was to be original, to have both a style and a sound that were new. Can we re-create a culture that embraces such vital originality? Is the postmodern stance against modernity’s ‘cult of the new’ partially blocking our way? Is retro?

From the psychologists we can turn to scientists on the question of creativity, particularly systems scientists. For systems science evolution is characterized by symmetry breaks, which basically means that when systems evolve (humans are ‘opensjimi_hendrix_biography systems far from equilibrium’. See footnote*) they reorganize at new levels of complexity that are not just new rearrangements of the same existing stuff, but include novel emergent properties that cannot be reduced to the pre-existing parts out of which the new system arose. As Ervin Lazlo puts it- “There is significant evidence accumulated in many fields of empirical science that dynamic systems do not evolve smoothly and continuously over time, but do so in comparatively sudden leaps and bursts” (12). Jimi Hendrix was such a symmetry break.

Pete Townshend, after seeing Hendrix live, called up Eric Clapton and said they needed to have a secret meeting. Townshend worriedly told Clapton that he’d just seen someone play who was going to put the two of them out of business (13). The lead singer of the Herman’s Hermits went and saw Hendrix play, and was so distraught by the greatness of what he witnessed that he decided to quit music on the spot! The truly great artists, it seems to me, burst forth into nirvanatime as glowing living heralds of the new and until now unimaginable. Hearing Chuck Berry’s guitar was a startling experience for many. Rolling Stone wrote that Nirvana’s 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' “hurled away everything else on rock radio and MTV like a cranky baby’s plate” (14). From Nina Simone’s hauntingly unforgettable voice, to Hank Williams otherworldly yodel, to Elvis’s swinging hips, the great artists are game changers. They are symmetry breaks, revealers of radically new human possibilities.

But this brings us to an important problem and possible objection at this point. What do we say about a band like AC/DC, whose been reproducing more or less the same great sound for thirty-five years? Or what about whole genres like the Blues, am I suggesting that artists should never go back and play these old forms again. When it comes to reproducing old forms, the key as I see it lies in the levels of passion, commitment and authenticity with which the form is performed. I recently saw a Johnny Lang/Buddy Guy double bill. Johnny Lang was painfully pallid, ostensibly playing the blues but sounding like a pale imitation of the genres greatest achievements. Buddy Guy was a buddy-guy-hatwhole different story, he crackled and snapped with electricity and was a living vessel of the blues’ most vital powers. If an artist is able to use old forms to conjure up and tap into deep living sources of energy and spirit, then there is no objection from me to this repetition. Although from an evolutionary perspective emergent forms arguably play an overall more important role as contexts shift and new psycho-cultural adaptations are needed, old forms done right can still access lasting vital energies. AC/DC’s big sound, for instance, will always have a place in continuing to enliven some our most enduring Dionysian and warrior spirits.

But I must ask once again, why does it always seem to be the older artists that can still channel the deepest fires of inspiration. Two other recent double bills- Death Cab For Cutie/Neil Young and Joel Plasket/Steve Earle- left me with the same impression, with the veteran performer conjuring up far greater depths of profundity and emotion. Might it have something to do with the ironic disposition at the heart of postmodernity? “Irony is always connected ironic hipsterwith a requirement not to take things (including ourselves) too seriously, or at least not to take things at face value. Nothing is so characteristic of the current postmodern ‘mood’ as its ironic, detached, self-consciousness” (15).  Is it that these older artists came of age in a more earnest and sincere era? Have we postmoderns become temporarily incapable of a full-throated commitment? Maybe it’s not retro per se that’s the problem, but a certain subtle distance from the old forms that’s currently being maintained.

Lastly we can turn to the philosophers on the question of creativity, particularly the cosmically oriented ones. For Alfred North Whitehead, creativity is the basic fundamental principle of the universe (16). Commenting on this, Ken Wilber writes- “This is why “emergence” as used in science doesn’t really explain anything, it only describes what in fact happens. The explanation has to lie in something like Whitehead’s ultimate category of creativity, a feature of reality itself that accounts for emergence and cannot itself be accounted for” (17). According to this school, the “creative advance into novelty” is the very engine, the very possibility of the universe’s own self-unfolding.

This is true for both Hegel and Nietzsche as well, although they were focused on different levels of that process (18). Hegel is the grand cosmic philosopher par excellence, his dynamic dialectical philosophy was meant to show how reality is a unified-multiplicity that is forever unfolding anew out of itself. Hegel’s philosophy “represents an anatomy of creativity. The Creation, however, is not accomplished and complete at any instant” (19). For Hegel, humans found their true state of happiness when they realized that they were vehicles for, and co-creators of, this on-going cosmic process.

Nietzsche, on the other hand, was more concerned with the life and fate of the individual, but his philosophy was no less cosmic in scope. For Nietzsche, “the will to power is essentially a creative force. The powerful man is the creative man; but the creator is not likely to abide by previously established laws. A genuinely creative act contains its own norms, and every creation is a creation of new norms” (20). For Nietzsche there was a force burning at the core of reality, which he called the will to power.  It was the job and goal of the strong individual to master him or herself, so they could be a living locus of this self-transcending creative power that’s at the heart of it all.

The author Elizabeth Gilbert recently gave a TED talk on subject of nurturing creativity. It relates to these philosophers and can also shed some important light on our overall inquiry. Gilbert argues that in the modern period we’ve lost the notion of the muse, or of the creative spark coming from outside and into the vessel of the creative artist. The Inspiration of St. Matthewsecular individualism of the modern period re-located creativity in the artist only; creativity was now seen as strictly a product of the individual. For Gilbert, this has created some critical problems, such as “warped egos and unmanageable expectations” that often leads artists down a road of self-ruin. I would add that the postmodern period has exacerbated this overall problem. The rejection of meta-narratives acts to block the reception of more cosmic visions like the ones outlined above. And what spirituality there has been in the postmodern period has often been about self-improvement or piece of mind, rather than being a living vehicle for an evolutionary process.  Perhaps we can relieve our young artists of this immense personal pressure, and open them up once again to the broader powers and energies within which we’re all embedded. I would bet that what comes out won’t sound very retro at all.


Three years ago Rolling Stone magazine had a special insert called “40 Songs That Changed the World” (21). The two categories/criteria they used were ‘Why the World Needed It’, and ‘Why it Matters’. In closing, here are some sample passages from that issue:

Ray Charles’ song I Got a Woman “pretty much invented soul music”. Chuck Berry’s Maybellene “is neither black music nor white music- it’s just a rock landmark by a guitar hero”. The Beatles were “musically years ahead of their contemporaries”. The Rollingpage_plant Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction “cleared a space for scathing fury and raw craving in rock music”. Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone “has got a visceral shock of newness when you first encounter it”. Jimi Hendrix gave the guitar “a Picasso of its own”. Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love “pumped with limitless ambition, juggernaut sexual urgency, and the slash and crash of a Herculean riff”. James Brown’s Sex Machine “was the hardest funk that had ever been recorded, and pretty much still is”.

Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On “was a step towards the new soul style that would evolve into disco in the next few years”. Aretha Franklin’s Respect “was, in the context of the times, a call for civil rights, equality for women and even sexual satisfaction”. John Lennon’s Imagine “gave a generation of thinkers who thought of themselves as a new breed an anthem for a possible future world”. David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust “heralded glam rock: pop as a theatrical spectacle full of Bob Marleysubversive mystique”. Before Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff, “reggae was novelty music in the USA; afterward, it was the soundtrack for Third World freedom fighters and the rock fans who admired them”. Joni Mitchell provided “a lasting influence with her confessional mode of songwriting”.

Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run is “one massive, tireless, hyperverbose, rocket-powered anthem of escape”. Everybody who saw the Sex Pistols on July 20th, 1976 “didn’t just start bands,Black Flag they started great bands”. “Every hip-hop record of the last quarter-century can trace its lineage to the unstoppable jam” of The Sugerhill Gang’s Rappers Delight. Black Flag’s “D.I.Y., get-in-the-van ethos spread the hardcore-punk gospel all over the country”. Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean “smashed the walls that had sprung up between R&B and white pop…and revolutionized the sound and mood of dance music”.

With When Doves Cry, Prince “announced that the normal rules simply didn’t apply to him”. U2’s Pride (In the Name of Love) was needed because “rock had lost touch with its political side, not to mention its sense of grandeur”. Walk This Way with Run-DMC and Aerosmith- “hip-hop was peanut butter; rock was chocolate”. The Cure’s Just Like Heaven “taught us how to be sad in the synthesizer Dr Dre and Snoop Doggage”. Guns N’ Roses Sweet Child of Mine “demonstrated that their romantic side was as earnest as their violent streak”. Public Enemy’s Bring the Noise helped “hip-hop to break out of its shell and make a big squawk”. Dr. Dre’s Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang, “spawned a whole new genre of cocky, lush, West Coast hip-hop, built around pimped-out charisma”. The White Stripes Fell In Love With a Girl “catapulted Jack and Meg White to stardom by virtue of its utter simplicity”.


“And the men who hold high places, must be the ones who start, to mould a new reality, closer to the heart. The Blacksmith and the Artist, reflect it in their art, forge their creativity, closer to the heart. Philosophers and the Ploughman, each must know his part, to sow a new mentality, closer to the heart”.  –Rush, Closer to the Heart








(2) Ed. Stuart Sim. The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 2005. p.297.

(3) These points are made throughout this book. Ed. Stuart Sim. The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 2005

(4) Ibid, p.246.

(5) Ibid, p.297.

(6) "Read any Pitchfork interview with an indie band, and their “influences” read like an anthology of ’80s New Wave: Depheche Mode, Sonic Youth, New Order, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Pixies. These bands used feedback and distortion to invent a new sound, which evolved into the techno, house and trance ubiquitous in the club scene today. Synth-pop is New Wave’s danceable subgenre, which filled the void left by disco. Its drum machine beats are sure to make any Yalie in a “Frankie Says Relax” muscle tee get down to dry hump".

Also: "New Wave is back in hot new bands".

(7) Jung quoted in: Neumann, Erich. The Origins and History of Consciousness. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970. p.376.

(8) Ibid, p.377.

(9) Line taken from the song ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’.

(10) Dylan writes about this at length in his autobiography. Dylan, Bob. Chronicles: Volume 1. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.

(11) Slick makes the point in The History of Rock n’Roll documentary series, disc #3.

(12) Laszlo, Ervin. Evolution: The Grand Synthesis. Boston: Shambhala, 1987. p.36.

(13) Townshend retells the story in The History of Rock n’Roll documentary series, disc #3.   

(14) Rolling Stone, May 3-17, 2007. “40 Songs That Changed the World”.

(15) Ed. Stuart Sim. The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 2005. p.246.

(16) Smith, John E. The Spirit of American Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966. Ch. 5.

(17) Wilber, Ken. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston: Shambhala, 2000. p.557.

(18) “Hegel- and Nietzsche, who agreed in this respect- rejected any monism that could not explain diversity any better than could, say, Thales principle of water…Similarly, neither thinker would allow for any “matter” that might be opposed to the one and only absolute principle. Both thinkers postulated a single basic force whose very essence it is to manifest itself in diverse ways and to create multiplicity- not ex nihilio, but out of itself…The metaphysics of the will to power is a dialectical monism in which the basic force is conceived as essentially creative”. Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974. p.239.

(19) Ibid, p.240.

(20) Ibid, p.250.

(21) Rolling Stone, May 3-17, 2007. “40 Songs That Changed the World”.

*Footnote- "There are three kinds of thermodynamic systems: open, partially open, and isolated. Open systems exchange both energy and matter. Partially closed systems exchange energy but do not exchange any significant matter. Isolated systems exchange neither energy nor matter. The Earth [for instance] is a partially closed system; that is, it exchanges energy with the solar system, but, except for an occassional meteorite and cosmic dust, it does not exchange appreciable matter with the outside universe". Rifkin, Jeremy. The Empathic Civilization. USA: Penguin Group, 2009. p.28-29.

"The second type of system is an open system, with energy and matter flowing into and out of it. Such a system can use the energy and matter flowing through it to temporarily fight entropy and create order, structure, and patterns for a time...Closed systems have a predictable end state. Although they might do unpredictable things along the way, they always, eventually, head toward maximum entropy equilibrium. Open systems are much more complicated. Sometimes they can be in a stable, equilibrium-like state, or they can exhibit very complex and unpredictable behavior patterns that are far from equilibrium- patterns such as exponential growth, radical collapse, or oscillations. As long as an open system has free energy, it may be impossible to predict its ultimate end state or whether it will ever reach an end state". Beinhocker, Eric D. The Origins of Wealth. US: McKinsey and Company, 2007. p.68-69.

"The organism is not a static system closed to the outside and always containing the identical components; it is an open system in a (quasi-) steady which material continually enters from, and leaves into, the outside environment". Bertanlanffy, Ludwig Von. General Systems Theory. New York: Braziller, 1968. p.121.


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  • Comment Link Nathan Jensen Saturday, 26 June 2010 16:28 posted by Nathan Jensen

    Woah! Trev, the guitar solo in dreams was heavy! Derek Trucks just made an instant fan of me. That was so powerful through my crappy laptop speakers and screen, to see it live would be life changing. Also great article.

  • Comment Link bruce sanguin Monday, 28 June 2010 02:09 posted by bruce sanguin

    Hey Trevor,

    Let's take those 40 paradigm shifting songs from Rolling Stone, get a killer sound system, and DANCE our egos away!

    Great article.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Wednesday, 30 June 2010 01:19 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Bruce, a heck of an idea! Nathan, glad you enjoyed the Allman Brothers performance. I chose that one because it was a great combination of a bunch of old gnarled dudes who can still lay it in deep, and because Derek Trucks is a younger guitar player who is just so so good, taking up the mantle in a powerful and authentic way. Glad it resonated.

  • Comment Link Bergen Sunday, 11 July 2010 22:15 posted by Bergen

    Another good one Trev. Thought I'd link an article from Reid over at Merge who has some thinking along similar lines...

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