The announcement that 1980s pop trio Bananarama are to reform is the just the latest in a long line of recent comebacks. From Boyzone to Wet Wet Wet, Take That to Jamiroquai, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Stone Roses, The Verve, Sleeper, These Animal Men, Northern Uproar, S Club 7, 5ive and Cast, musicians of old are intent on trying on their faded stardom for size. Even Menswe@r tried it, albeit with only one original member. The news that Elastica were reuniting, however, disappointingly turned out to be premature.
Comebacks seem to be everywhere. They are not limited to a particular genre, but they do often seem to be bound to a particular era. The success levels might vary somewhat, but we seem to be living in a cultural moment that is defined by the comeback. Of course, there have been plenty of comebacks before, but right now they’re close to being ubiquitous.
It’s tricky to know exactly what is happening here. Music cultures have always had one foot in the past. Classic songs, signature sounds, attachments to older formats like vinyl, intertextual reference points, remastered and reissued albums and the like, have long been a central part of how music is made and consumed. But the comeback is a more material and pronounced version of these tendencies. The comeback represents a more obvious and direct impulse to revisit.
Why come back?
Nostalgia undoubtedly plays a part. Inevitably bands who return for a second innings are driven by a desire to revisit particular moments or to experience again music from more youthful times. The myths and memories are likely to mix together a little here.
Some suggest that the prominence of the comeback is further evidence of culture stalling; that we have reached something of a creative dead end and therefore can only look backwards. The point here, mistakenly, would be to think that an absence of creativity has left a void that the comeback fills. A slightly more positive take on this is that we have seen the emergence, over the last ten years or so, of a new kind of retro culture which looks to the past for its resources and which uses pastiche to enliven culture today. Simon Reynolds has called this mythical revisiting of music’s archives “retromania”.
This may play a part, but I’d suggest that we need look beyond explanations bedded in the music industry if we are to understand the rise of the comeback. We can gain a richer understanding of these comebacks by thinking about how music scenes are deeply rooted in our identities – and about the important role that music takes in shaping how we connect with the social world.
A sociological view
Research has shown that music fans continue to have an attachment to the music of their youth as they move into later life. They might listen to other things and change their style of dress, but the music remains embedded in their identities. We have a strong connection with the music that forms a central part of our own biographies.
Elsewhere it has been found that music plays an important role in how we handle our emotional lives. A classic study by the sociologist Tia DeNora found that we use music in our everyday lives to influence and stimulate our emotions and feelings, to negotiate our moods or to help us to recall or revisit memories and times.
This shows that people are likely to seek out opportunities to engage with that musical past both in terms of reaffirming their identities but also because of the emotions and memories that the music embodies for them. So we need not see these comebacks as a sign of cultural failure. This comeback music will have been central to how generations of people have negotiated their lives, so having a chance to experience it in the live arena is likely to be appealing. Music scenes, are, after all, moments when our personal biographies mix with broader social changes and cultural movements.
The comeback is hard to explain because those explanations are likely to be based upon a kind of inbuilt nostalgia. When we compare music’s past with its present we are also comparing different moments in our own lives . It is hard to understand changing music cultures when we are basing this understanding on our own changing biographies.
Bananas about Bananarama
Yet Bananarama’s comeback is undoubtedly part of a cultural movement, a comeback culture that is far greater than before. Like vintage and retro clothing, the resurgence of vinyl, retro arcade video gaming, the trend for revisiting and remaking classic films and TV shows (CHIPS being the most recent), and “Keep calm and carry on” style memorabilia, the comeback trend illustrates how complex relations are between yesterday and today.
The comeback is, above all else, fuelled by a desire to access and experience the cultural moments that defined our lives and identities, not the collapse of cultural creativity. It is rooted in the attachments that people form as they live with music and as they recall those times and experiences.
And so the political and social uncertainty that has defined recent years might well provide the backdrop for the comeback to thrive. It is much more likely that people are seeking assurance and security by turning back to the songs that provide an anchor for their identities or which enable them to negotiate the emotional impact of a seemingly uncertain social world, than that they feel alienated or disappointed by the music of today.
David Beer, Reader in Sociology, University of York.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.