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Pranav Trewn finds peace in his vinyl record collection.


For some reason other than good judgment, I willingly chose to watch the Mean Girls remake. MaybeI was hoping that Tina Fey would subversively adapt the fable to speak to the last two decades of idol worship, conformity, and gendered double standards. Instead, it felt like a line-by-line remake of the original’s greatest hits, with nary a single novel idea to claim its own. Rather than stand apart, the film exists solely to remind people of a better movie they’ve already seen. Desperate for a safe hit, Hollywood has become too risk averse to even riff on their treasured IP. Instead, they have settled for simply copying and pasting their past successes whole.

The music industry isn’t far behind in this race to the bottom. We know that it’s harder than ever to make it as an emerging independent artist, because listeners do not seek out new music the way they might have in the past. To break through the noise, it pays to have access to recognizable associations. That’s why you’re hearing pop artists old and new interpolating the most obvious once-commercially dominant hits they can find: “Glamorous”, ”Super Freak”, “Genius of Love”/”Fantasy” (which dovetails with the influx of private equity money buying up and pushing out back catalogs). Blame the writers and producers, but don’t spare ourselves; someone is eating up these blatant attempts to hack our subconscious, all the way to the top of the charts.

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Our lack of interest in unfamiliar melodies is inherently a challenge to the longevity of artists. Beyond just writing an enjoyable and well constructed song, nowadays you need to sell a narrative to score a hit. Which famous flame is the influencer-class of pop stars flaming? Which rapper are they sneak dissing? Rather than take on the downside risk of a celebrity controversy or clearing an expensive sample, it’s often cheaper to simply mine your past successes for their residual value. Why continue to labor over making your new art commercially successful, when your old art already has a proven track record?

Enter the “Anniversary Tour.” What do Air, Chance The Rapper, the Violent Femmes, Wilco, Nothing, The Killers, Earl Sweatshirt, the Flaming Lips, Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, Weezer – inhale – Deafheaven, Run The Jewels, Pedro the Lion, U2, Lauryn Hill, My Morning Jacket, Switchfoot, Green Day and so, so many other working artists all have in common? Each of them has found the light in embracing the past as present, launching tours and shows in celebration of a pinnacle album and recreating a chapter of their careers they have already moved on from, for the benefit of their fans who can’t move on themselves.

Artists aren’t alone in recognizing the easy money that lies in pretending it’s still 2004; corporate enterprises like the When We Were Young festival have decided to drop the pretenses that you might even be interested in The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus’ new music, and paid them to just do their famous debut album from two decades ago instead. Even if other epoch-specific festivals like Best Friends Forever and Just Like Heaven don’t specifically book album plays, it’s implicitly understood the artists were chosen more to leverage their past glories than their current work or potential.

Perhaps I am being cynical about a phenomenon that is clearly bringing people a lot of joy. But I am speaking as a reformed proponent, having previously succumbed to the marketing ploy as hard as anyone. Last year, I was one of many millennials racing to sell out the Death Cab for Cutie and Postal Service “20th Anniversary Tour”. I had a good time too, enjoying my experience hearing beloved album tracks like “Brand New Colony” and “Clark Gable” that I burned onto mix CDs for my high school crushes. But I also left the show feeling slightly hollow, without having achieved the fulfillment I was anticipating from revisiting that crucial moment in my personal music history.

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Let’s put aside the fact that any band reuniting without new music, especially when they only have one album, doesn’t even need to use the “anniversary tour” marketing. What else were you expecting on the setlist? Instead, let’s start with the reality that a front to back album play doesn’t really make much sense for most of the records currently making their rounds on the nostalgia circuit. Knowing in advance that the order of the set kills the electric current of spontaneity and surprise that comes from seeing a band with a vast catalog, who would otherwise intentionally curate the flow of their shows.

And a lot of what makes a good tracklist for an album doesn’t resonate the same for a concert. During their show, the Postal Service blew through their biggest hits in the first 10 minutes because that’s how albums were sequenced in the CD era. They then dutifully proceeded to halt the momentum with their sleepiest cuts for a middle section that had me calculating how long I had to wait before “Clark Gable”, when I might have otherwise enjoyed those songs more thoughtfully deployed later in the night.

It was easy to map out the arc of the set in advance, since in the week prior to the show I had been listening to the album on repeat. Usually before a concert I get to dive into a band’s whole discography, creating connections between moments in their history (or “eras”, as is in vogue) and building excitement for their many sides I will get to experience live. That didn’t make sense to do with the Death Cab/Postal Service tour, or similarly when I caught the Foxing/Hotelier anniversary shows, because any of the band’s other songs I love weren’t likely to make it onto the setlist (Death Cab did nothing outside of Transatlanticism, Foxing and the Hotelier each eked out a few additional tracks in a crammed medley). The result was that the joyful prep that usually precedes concerts felt far less satisfying, and the actual show experiences fell flatter, coming across like two-dimensional slices of three-dimensional bands.

Much like I felt watching Tina Fey redeliver her classic lines as Ms. Norbury in the new Mean Girls, these anniversary shows at their worst will inevitably remind you that the band you once loved is intractably different from the band that now is. Ben Gibbard was warm and gracious and sprightly, looking great for 47, but he wasn’t the same exhausted and isolated twenty-something who wrote his most beloved albums while recovering from a romantic break-up and narrowly avoiding a professional one. In returning to Transatlanticism and Give Up, the bands were no longer channeling the resonant emotions in real time, but pantomiming the performances they were already known for. They can’t help but accentuate their distance from that time trying on ill-fitting vintage outfits.

Often as a band ages, they adapt their old music into the styles they are currently exploring. Mitski does this phenomenally on her current tour, transforming still relatively young songs like “Happy” and “I Don’t Smoke” into swinging Americana joints that befit the seven-piece band now standing behind her. It felt rewarding to see her carry those songs authentically into her present sound, rather than try and recreate the conditions that made them so resonant in their own time. Had she tried to replicate the Tiny Desk scream that so transfixed the early adopters of her confessional indie rock, it would have read less as capturing the same depth of her desperation, but rather as simply desperate.

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For many artists, that’s what the initial announcement of these shows gives away. If not for Win Butler’s sexual misconduct, would Arcade Fire have felt the need to retreat to their own Funeral? If The Big Day didn’t tank Chance’s career trajectory, would he have thrown those Acid Rap concerts last summer? Lupe Fiasco can use Food & Liquor to raise money when his newer albums don’t pay the bills. Weezer can rely on the Blue Album when they feel like playing arenas again, Interpol can keep pretending (as their fans do) that their new albums don’t exist while toggling between Antics and Turn on the Bright Lights shows.

At this point it feels like any legacy artist struggling to maintain an upward or even steady trajectory in their career will have to turn to an anniversary tour to break even. If that’s the case, how will career musicians justify continuing to make new music? I expect we’ll see fewer and fewer doing so. Freddie Gibbs has been hitting new milestones continuously for the last decade, and even he is turning back to his breakthrough album. Is that his prerogative, or what we’ve pushed him into?

Ultimately, these shows are always going to be more about me and you as fans than they are genuinely meaningful for the band. I didn’t need to see Ben Gibbard singing “Title & Registration” and “A Lack of Color” to remember what made Death Cab so renowned a band at the time. I simply wanted to remember what those songs felt like earlier in my life, back when Gibbard’s music had its tightest and purest grip on my emotions. More broadly, what I was chasing in buying a ticket was the feeling of first discovering new music as a teenager, when any then-unknown song was waiting in the wings with the power to shift my entire attitude and worldview.

Professionalism, cynicism, ironic detachment – plenty of habits I’ve aged into make the vulnerability required to feel genuinely affected by new music harder to access. Being a music journalist, I practice more intentionally than most keeping up and staying engaged with the times. But even I can find the habit perfunctory more often than not. It just gets harder as you get older; the arc of your life has already accumulated so many touchstones, there’s less room for you to hold onto more.

But it being difficult to stay connected doesn’t make it any less valuable to do so. If your music taste has gotten stuck in 2014, so too might your worldview. Listen to the kids, if not always because you like their music with the same fervor, then because it’s useful to understand why they feel so strongly about it. It makes us more empathetic and human to be in communication with the culture, rather than blocking it out after a certain age. So the next time you see an artist announce an anniversary show, decide whether you are genuinely excited to hear the music, or are simply reaching for comfort within a wider world you feel less willing to embrace.


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