PRINT March 1993


New Wave

THE HELLENISTIC GREEKS INVENTED historical self-consciousness as we know it when, five hundred years after the original efflorescence, they revived the Archaic style for contemporary markets. This ambiguous advance in the history of taste was not without detractors—“Cessavit deinde ars” proclaimed the Elder Pliny of Greek art after Lysippus—and a general disapprobation of revivalism has persisted to this day. For every Renaissance there’s a half-dozen neo-Gothics. But what are you supposed to do when all culture is revivalist?

On the threshold of the millennium, revival culture is the only thing going. The pace of revivalism has accelerated to such an absurd degree that while one revival period might be ascendant at a given moment, there are always several others from which to choose. In the space of a decade, we’ve done ’50s, ’60s, ’70s; an unwritten law of physics compels us to revive the ’80s.

Which is why retro–New Wave makes so much sense now. But there’s more to this incipient trend than the exhaustion of all other models. The difference between New Wave revivalism and the rest is that we New Wavers acknowledged our moment’s revival potential as it was originally happening. If you were punk, you might have worn a “Disco Sucks” T-shirt; if you were New Wave, you had already reevaluated disco and come to love it. For us, late-’70s revivalism was happening as soon as the ’80s began, which gives the current ’70s revival a decidedly recherché feeling.

New Wave revivalism is metarevivalism. The name “New Wave” is itself retro, harking back to the nouvelle vague of ’60s French cinema. This was not an era of discriminating taste. A catch-all movement, blithely unrigorous and quintessentially passive, it encompassed everything from Joy Division to Haircut 100, and mined every postwar decade for stylistic flourishes. The B-52’s looked to the future via the ’50s; Roman Holliday the ’40s. Claire Grogan of Altered Images appeared as a ’50s Audrey Hepburn on one of their album covers. The Jam affected the style of early-’60s Mods. For chrissakes, Tenpole Tudor got themselves up as medieval scouts.

Punk’s hot; New Wave is cool. Punk was going on a submarine mission with Johnny Rotten. New Wave was sitting in Gary Numan’s car. For all its supposed nihilism, punk cared. Otherwise, why be angry? New Wave was about resignation—that’s why much of it was so absurd and meaningless. To quote the deathless Missing Persons, “What are words for, when no one listens anymore?” This is the cultural mood that gave rise to the group Haysi Fantayzee. (What the hell was “Shiny, Shiny” about, anyway?)

New Wave music trafficked in an anything-goes ahistoricity, but it still has historical specificity as the music of our high school and college years. Even though we were too young to take part in the punk movement’s nascence, we knew that probably we never would have anyway. We recognized ourselves as bourgeois. What we always loved about New Wave was that it was sold out from the git-go. Nothing was ever too heavy. In its darkest phases, New Wave recapitulated anomie as spiritual decor: misery with a dance beat.

It’s no wonder that people our age would want to revive the mood and music of our first youth. So many of us have done stints as grown-ups with real jobs, but then we got laid off or decided we couldn’t stomach it. (The Specials: “I don’t work; there’s no work to do.”) When we had those real jobs, it felt like play-acting anyway. Pop music is about leisure time, and slackers have all the leisure time in the world. Mentally, we’re right back where we were ten years ago, only now we’ve caught up with the disillusionment we once donned as the dernier cri of adolescent chic.

A year ago, it was the occasional theme party. Now it’s our favorite weekly club, 1984. At Crowbar, an East Village queer establishment, youngsters who were barely old enough the first time around can be seen pogoing while exclaiming, “Oh my god, the last time I heard this was in fifth grade!” Even the insufferable New York Times “Style” section has caught wind of the burgeoning trend.

Are we really happy, or maybe just pretending? I can’t tell the difference. Twist & crawl. Twist & crawl. Twist & crawl.

David Rimanelli and Tina Lyons are writers living in New York.