Mark Fisher, the late British political and cultural critic (he committed suicide in 2017), writes that ever since the early 2000s, there has been little or no “progress” in popular music. The Beatles in the 1960s were genuinely new. Punk in the 1970s was genuinely new. But even the best music in the 21st Century is basically a rehash of what went down in the 20th Century.
Second example. I first heard Amy Winehouse’s version of ‘Valerie’ while walking through a shopping mall, perhaps the perfect venue for consuming it. Up until then, I had believed that ‘Valerie’ was first recorded by indie plodders the Zutons. But, for a moment, the record’s antiqued 1960s soul sound and the vocal (which on a casual listen I didn’t at first recognize as Winehouse) made me temporarily revise this belief: surely the Zutons’ version of the track was a cover of this apparently ‘older’ track, which I had not heard until now? Naturally, it didn’t take me long to realise that the ‘sixties soul sound’ was actually a simulation; this was indeed a cover of the Zutons’ track, done in the souped-up retro style in which the record’s producer, Mark Ronson, has specialised.
He’s right. I’m about the same age as Fisher, and when I read the passage last night, part of me couldn’t believe the song hadn’t been previously recorded in the 1960s. I must have spent 15 minutes Googling for what I thought were memories from my childhood, from some 1960s or 1970s Motown or Soul group singing the original. But Valerie didn’t exist until the early 2000s.
Fisher is mainly writing about the “cancellation of the future” and he comes up with as good an explanation as any about, for example, why the Star Wars franchise simply won’t die. But I also think his observation about “Valerie” points to the hallucinatory quality of memory itself. We project back onto the past what we think in the present. My memories of my childhood aren’t my childhood. Can we even remember, let alone recover the past, and if we can’t, why is our current mass culture so obsessed with reboots, retreads, and sequels.
The renowned modernist architect Victor Lundy, for example, designed a building for IBM not far from my parents’ house in Cranford, New Jersey.
It was demolished in the 1990s when I was in my early 20s, and replaced with a generic office building. IBM was so obsessed with outsourcing its work force it was destroying its own historically significant architecture. Sadly that office park is now mostly vacant. The boom in the construction of new office space in the 1990s happened just before the Internet made it irrelevant.
In any event, the IBM Building in Cranford existed into my adult life. It was also located just off the Garden State Parkway, so it wasn’t in an obscure place. The problem is I just don’t have any memories of it from childhood. I don’t remember seeing it from my parents car on the Garden State Parkway. I don’t remember riding my bike past it. I don’t remember running past it. My mind draws a blank. That’s the way suburbia works under neoliberal capitalism. The past is demolished so quickly for the generic present you can barely remember what must have been right under your nose.
Other than one or two pictures and the fact that it was somewhere in Cranford, there’s very little about about Lundy’s IBM building on the Internet. Most of the photos are tightly focused on the building itself and don’t provide enough context to figure out its location, even for someone like me who knows the state of New Jersey so well that I can pick out locations from the scantiest of visual evidence. Last Summer I became obsessed with the building’s location. Mentally I narrowed it down to one particular office park on the south side of but until I discovered Historical aerial maps (which let me see aerial photos of the area in the 1980s and 1990s), I couldn’t figure out the exact address.
Nevertheless, for a brief moment last Summer, finding the old location of Lundy’s architecture, digging up even one sliver of a childhood memory involving the IBM Building in Cranford became my holy grail. Even one childhood memory, I thought, would have been a bit like giving me back some of the purity of my youth. But alas, I couldn’t. Even though I now know the old address of the IBM Building in Cranford (and it was exactly where it should have been) that building and my childhood are gone forever.