The other day my esteemed colleague Mike McGonigal got so sick of the band reunion fad that he called for a boycott, citing "necrotic nostalgia." That phrase might sound like a good name for a death metal oldies band, but I hear Mike loud and clear. So can former Teardrop Explodes frontman Julian Cope. On the FAQ of his site, he once posted the following:
Q: Would you ever do another Teardrop Explodes gig?There have been some excellent reunions lately: I can personally attest to the quality of the reconstituted Mission of Burma, the Stooges, the Vaselines and Dinosaur Jr. Other people have raved about reunions of the Jesus Lizard, Versus and My Bloody Valentine, and I'm inclined to believe them.
A: Would you ever return to having your mother wipe your asshole?
It's great if bands decide to play music together again. But it only works artistically when the original line-up has some kind of ineffable chemistry, the way the individual tones and rhythms of those particular musicians line up in ways so inexplicably powerful that people routinely refer to it as "magic." In theory, the magic prevails even if the band members are doing it for the money, or even if they can't stand each other offstage.
This is a good thing on the supply side — in other words, if the band's magic is still there, it can compel them to reunite. But more often there's a demand side — i.e., from the audience — and that's a different story.
Maybe the demand for reunions is a reaction to being inundated with vastly more music choices than ever before. It's just easier to buy tickets to a sure thing, like going to see Spiderman III instead of the new Pedro Almodovar movie. But I think there's more to it than that.
The iTunes Age has brought even the most casual music fan a few mouse clicks away from heaps of obscure but legendary music that they missed the first time around. Now, those bands have vastly bigger audiences — like, orders of magnitude bigger — years and sometimes even decades after they broke up. Consumers from this large on-demand culture not only want but expect to see the bands they missed, to rewrite their own personal musical history so that yes, check, they have seen the seminal rock band the Pixies. Goaded by an endless stream of reissues (and OK, some really fantastic books), they holler and stamp their virtual feet for these bands to return to the stage.
It's a collector mentality, closely related to the vinyl fad — like buying the 180-gram vinyl version of Tonight's the Night in a vain attempt to connect with the original context of 35-year-old music. Maybe there's a yearning for a second chance to possess something you missed out on, nostalgia for something you didn't experience, and it fuels a potent variety of music consumerism.
And often, bands heed the call. Festivals like All Tomorrow's Parties and Pitchfork will pay them good money to reunite and play that seminal debut album in order. The band members are probably middle aged, realize this might be the last time they can physically (although perhaps not emotionally) recreate this music, much less go on tour. They want the artistic and commercial vindication that they didn't get the first time around. Maybe they need to top off their kids' college fund. Maybe they just want to take a break from their normal lives and hit the road with the guys. So they go.
It's one thing if the band is making new music, but if they're just playing an entire album in order or just playing the "hits" without even bothering to reinterpret them because the audience expects faithful versions, then they're just a human jukebox, a tribute band to themselves. At that point it's about being a museum exhibit, fulfilling expectations instead of challenging them. And that's no better than the Who or Eric Clapton or Pink Floyd trotting out the warhorses for paunchy, affluent boomers eager to relive past glories and erase, if only temporarily, their boring, past-it present.
Bob Dylan has found a way around this problem by reinventing even his most iconic songs every time he tours; challenging both himself and the audience, he finds new depths in his own material. Do you think Pavement will be that adventurous?
Right now, the hounds are baying for Galaxie 500 and Hüsker Dü to reunite. "We are asked constantly about a reunion," said former Galaxie 500 bassist Naomi Yang in McGonigal's outstanding recent Pitchfork oral history of the band. "It is either the first or last question of every interview." But, as former Galaxie drummer Damon Krukowski put it, "No reunion." It's extremely doubtful that Hüsker Dü will ever reunite either; in fact, it's far more likely that Dick Cheney will move to Baghdad and volunteer at a soup kitchen for war orphans. Still, people will clamor for Galaxie 500 and Hüsker Dü reunions anyway, and perhaps some day the money will become irresistible. But that doesn't necessarily mean it'll be a good idea.