Foxygen and the Diminishing Returns of ’60s Revivalism

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We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic. And if the title alone isn’t enough to irk you, then by god, you should hear the music. We’re speaking of the new album by Jagjaguwar-signed retromaniacs Foxygen, a band that’s following a time-honored route to commercial success: mining the contents of their parents’ record collection and doing their best to reproduce the contents thereof pretty much verbatim. Foxygen certainly do that well enough — so much so, in fact, that when we heard their song “Waitin 4 U” last year, we genuinely thought it was an Exile on Main Street outtake. The question remains, though: Why oh why is anyone making music like this in 2013?

In fairness, maybe we shouldn’t be picking on Foxygen alone, although any band whose press release starts with a sentence as loathsome as, “[the band] are the raw, de-Wes Andersonization of The Rolling Stones, Kinks, Velvets, Bowie, etc. that a whole mess of young people desperately need,” make themselves fair game for pretty much anything. But really, if you honestly think that what young people desperately need is another repackaging of baby boomer culture, you’re living in a very different universe to the one that this writer inhabits.

The generally accepted cliché is that music moves in 20- to 25-year cycles, with every generation discovering music that’s new to them because it was made before they were born. So in recent years we’ve seen the ’80s synthpop revival, the late-’80s rave revival, and the early-’90s grunge revival, all of which are kinda terrifying when you were there the first time around. But the constant narrative thread throughout the history of popular music for the last 30 years or so has been the repackaging of the one decade to rule them all: the peace-and-love 1960s, wheeled out again and again in an orgy of continuous autophagic awfulness, generation after generation standing on Hunter S. Thompson’s Las Vegas hill and looking at what was allegedly the high watermark of culture, wishing they’d been around for this mythical golden age when the love was free and the acid was good and the world was prime for ruining for everyone who came after.

For the love of god, enough is enough. Clearly, no work of art is ever going to be without precedent — culture is a constantly evolving thing, taking influences from the past and reworking them into new forms for the future. The very existence of rock ‘n’ roll is evidence of this: It evolved from the Delta blues and mutated into a myriad of divergent genres, and everything from ear-bleeding metal to winsome indie songsmithery can trace their origins back to a common source.

But this constant repackaging of ’60s mythology has nothing to do with evolution — it’s ultimately conservative, an embodiment of a view that all we can do is try to recreate past achievements rather than surpassing them. It’s the musical equivalent of listening to the sort of balding windbags who constantly bang on about Woodstock, conveniently ignoring the fact that it was their insistence on unconstrained individualism that ultimately gave birth to the Reagan ‘n’ Thatcher years, the legacy of which we’re still dealing with. But, hey, it’s hard to write songs about that.

The worst bit is that what bands like Foxygen make isn’t even a facsimile of ’60s culture — it’s a facsimile of a facsimile of a facsimile, a journey into a weird sort of revivalist Groundhog Day where pop really does eat itself again and again. The thing is, though, just like Xeroxing a Xerox, something gets lost every time, and that something is feeling. For all that “Waitin 4 U” sounds exactly like Exile on Main Street, for instance, it has none of that album’s ragged glory — it sounds too polished, too studied, too perfect, too sterile. You may or may not embrace the mythology of the ’60s (as you may have guessed, we regard it with the same suspicion we generally reserve for spiders, lizards, and menacing heavyset men on the subway), but at least the Rolling Stones really did do a metric fuckton of drugs in a French mansion while making their record, instead of just trying to sound like they did.

As the song’s lyrics say, “This road we found is not the real thing.” If you’re going to listen to music like this, why would you not just put on the original? Or, even better, why not stop embracing the mythology of the ’60s and question the fact that the generation feeding you these myths is the same generation that’s currently presiding over the world being fucked from pillar to post? Stop smoking artisanal joints and wishing that you’d been there to see the wave hit the high watermark, and instead start trying to define that mark for your generation. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the past, but there’s something very wrong with trying to recreate it.