Six meditations on living in the present 

Page 3 of 3

What is absolutely inexcusable, however, is a lack of self-knowledge. Imitating the popular culture (or counterculture) of the past can be fun. It can be comforting. It can be inspiring. But it cannot retain its context once it is taken out of its time.

So make no mistake: No matter how politically radical your punk rock band considers itself to be, no matter how bad-ass your garage-rock outfit acts as it struts across the stage, no matter how ecologically conscious your hippie jam band strives to be, by virtue of the fact that you have chosen to look backward instead of forward, your band is first and foremost an embodiment of conservative values. Face it, that leather jacket and spiked hair makes you about a dangerous as Laura Bush in a pantsuit.

Iggy Pop, John Lennon and Johnny Rotten were rightfully viewed as daring trailblazers in their time and remain potential sources for inspiration today. But to imitate them is to reduce yourself to caricature and sap them of any power they might still have. And were they still alive, they'd think you looked pretty silly. (Oh, two of them are still alive? Well, whatever.)

Bringing it all home
So why does Atlanta seem to have such a thriving array of Retro subcultures, from the rockabilly scene at the Star Bar to the 513 Club's punk rock gatherings, to roving hordes of swing kids, hippies, mods and garage rockers around town?

Could be it's just my imagination, and Retro isn't really any larger here than in any other U.S. city. Or it could be the newness of most everything in Atlanta, and the rate of the city's change in recent years, that has encouraged some to take shelter in the unchanging past. Or it could be the current cultural dominance in Atlanta of black music -- which co-opts the past freely but rarely fixates on it in a imitative way -- has drawn fans of white-oriented music to revisit periods (rockabilly, disco, punk, whatever) when rock music still had currency and cachet.

Whatever the reason, fortunately Atlanta also enjoys a very healthy strain of artists happy to live and work in Now, and they more than balance any impulse toward regression that Retro might threaten. Acts such as pH Balance, with their hippie vibe and hip-hop style, prove that looking forward doesn't have to -- can't possibly, in fact -- involve disavowing the past. Or Cat Power, whose Chan Marshall freely drew on classic rock for last year's Covers Record, but who created an intensely individual and timeless sound. Or Athens act the Glands, who created one of the most notable classic pop albums of last year without ever donning a Beatles wig. Or the Drive-By Truckers, who steep their work in Southern rock tradition but take the genre miles further than it has ever gone while never reverting to retro cliches.

And that's to say nothing of the many acts -- from Chris Brann's Ananda Project to turtablists Faust and Shortee -- who are too busy inventing the present to have any time at all to deal with the exhausted styles of the past. In fact, some of these relentless modernists -- hip-hop visionaries OutKast and techno-integrationist Richard Devine come to mind -- are determined not only to stretch the bounds of Now, but to shove our complacent asses through the portal into the future.



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