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Against Music’s Reductive Obsession With Newness: A Defense of Savages

Cometh the hype, cometh the backlash. Like a lot of the music press, Flavorwire has been enthusing over London four-piece Savages ever since they emerged last year. Out this week, their debut album, Silence Yourself, delivers on the promise of their first singles and killer live show. But with the release of that album, a counter-narrative is emerging, especially in their native UK. It stems largely from the sort of contrarians who haunt Internet comment sections (and celebrity Twitter feeds), but also appears in the occasional (semi-)professional review: Savages are derivative and dull, goes the argument, a rip-off of post-punk/goth luminaries like Siouxsie and the Banshees and Joy Division. They’re not doing anything new.

This review for TheVine by (excellent) Australia-based critic Doug Wallen, for instance, exemplifies this line of argument: “Savages are an eerily accurate reflection of decades past, from firm touchstones of goth to firm touchstones of post-punk… This debut album is less invention than exhumation; a devoted act of grave-robbing.” Wallen puts his argument better than most of the people in comment sections saying things like, “Savages are the post-punk Creed,” but they’re ultimately coming from the same place: the viewpoint that Savages are recycling the past rather than creating the future.

To an extent, you have to concede that they’ve got a point: Savages do “play like a prototype of a moody young post-punk band,” in Wallen’s words, right down to their perma-downcast demeanor and black-on-black wardrobe. But is this necessarily a bad thing?

The music industry’s simultaneous embrace of retromania and neophilia is one of its most fascinating dichotomies. Part of rock ‘n’ roll’s cultural identity is its mythology of destroying the old to start anew. Equally, though, it’s easy to trace the way that the music repeats itself in 20- to 25-year cycles, constantly looking to its past and recycling those influences through the perspective of new generations.

This means that demanding that any sound be completely new is a fool’s game — pretty much any piece of contemporary music can be deconstructed until all you’re left with is a pile of its influences, none of which are going to be more than 50 years old. But it’s this very fact that dictates that reductive criticism — the sort that views a record as nothing more than the sum of its influences and then decries it for being unoriginal — is neither particular perceptive nor particularly productive. Luke Turner of The Quietus alluded to this in the opening line of his excellent review of Silence Yourself: “Inspiration, not innovation,” he wrote, “is what I look for in Savages.”

And, indeed, this is the key point. All music has influences, unless its creators grew up in a cave (or a crazy family in New Hampshire) — it’s what you do with those influences that matters. “Originality,” wrote Antoni Gaudí, “consists in returning to the origin” — and that’s exactly what Savages do on Silence Yourself. They return to their stylistic origin: the bands who plenty of people have already taken pleasure in identifying as their influences. But from there, they use the origin as a jumping-off point for new ideas, not as some sort of holy of holies to be venerated and recreated ad infinitum as a homage to the past.

As Turner said to me recently, “Savages might be retro, but they’re using the music as a weapon, a vehicle for ideas.” In this respect they remind me of the early Manic Street Preachers, who were famously denounced as “looking like The Clash in a school play.” And, well, they did — but focusing on that, rather than the fact that they were using those stylings to advance a whole avalanche of lyrical ideas, was a great way of completely and utterly missing the point.

You can make the same argument about any number of artists, and all that exercise does is prove its irrelevance. You could easily contend that John Maus, say, is just recreating the sound of 1980s synthpop, which he is, but as a vehicle for ideas that are far more interesting and modern than anything from the era from which his sound evolved.

This is the key difference between bands who look to the future and those who simply recreate the past — between Savages and, say, the loathsome Foxygen (beyond the obvious fact that the former look to the post-punk era for inspiration and the latter are all about mortgaging the present to the myth of Haight-Ashbury). Both are bands whose style is strongly influenced by that of a bygone era, but comparing and contrasting the two demonstrates that there’s a difference between seeking to simply imitate the sounds of the past and taking inspiration from those sounds to create something new.

Savages, for all their stylistic similarity to the bands who’ve gone before them, ultimately do the latter, for the simple reason that while their aesthetic is based on the past, their art remains forward-thinking. You get the impression that Foxygen wish more than anything that they could have magically been born into the generation who lived through adolescence in the 1960s; Savages, by contrast, feel utterly contemporary.

Because let’s not miss the important fact: for all its retro appeal, Silence Yourself is a record for the modern age. Its cover art sets out the sort of Internet-age manifesto that could only be a product of the 21st century: “The world used to be silent. Now there are too many voices, and the noise is a constant distraction.” (There’s an echo here, curiously enough, of the aforementioned John Maus’s idea that “we must become the pitiless censors of ourselves.”) The band’s choice of churning, rhythmic post-punk as a vehicle for these ideas feels like a significant one — the dark, dystopic nature of the music seems like a reflection of its subject matter.

It’s this that ultimately forms the boundary between pastiche and art. Savages’ work is grounded in post-punk and goth stylings, and they’d no doubt be the first to admit it. But limiting your understanding of their work to this fact is ultimately missing the point, because Silence Yourself is also as full of dynamism and ideas and energy as any record you’ll hear this year. That’s the important thing — all the rest is noise. As the band themselves say on their album cover: “Having deconstructed everything, we should be thinking about putting everything back together. Silence yourself.”

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