Even though Nothing Has Been Done Before centers on music made since 2000, it is, at times, intensely historical, tracing stories and ideas that reach back to more than a century ago. Author Robert Loss explores some of the defining moments in pop music history on that extended timeline.
1859—Let’s start in the year that minstrel-show innovator Dan Emmett debuts “I Wish I Was in the Land of Dixie,” a song he likely stole from Ellen Snowden, the matriarch of a Black American family of musicians who were his neighbors in Mount Vernon, Ohio. One hundred and fifty-one years later, the Carolina Chocolate Drops reclaim another song possibly pilfered from the Snowdens by Emmett, putting his title in parentheses: “Snowdens’ Jig (Genuine Negro Jig).” In doing so, the group reclaims a history of innovation and the right to build a new tradition that has constantly been siphoned away from Black Americans, musicians and non-musicians alike.
1909—F.T. Marinetti drives his car into a ditch and invents Futurism: “Art…can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice.” You might hear strains of this ideology—without the fascism—in synthwave/outrun of the 2000s, e.g. Lazerhawk’s Redline (2010). In his manifesto, Marinetti also anticipates the paranoid line from LCD Soundsystem’s 2002 debut single “Losing My Edge,” “The kids are coming up from behind,” except James Murphy plays a man intimidated by the youngsters’ coolness, while Marinetti seems prepared to die a glorious death at their hands for the sake of art.
1965—Bob Dylan “goes electric” at the Newport Folk Festival. You may have heard about this one. I argue that this is an example of what the philosopher Alain Badiou means by an “event”: the emergence of a radical new that changes what’s possible for a historical situation. Here, that newness is total freedom that, in theory, anyone can enjoy. On record, Dylan carries this burden until “Love and Theft” in 2001.
1973—Another event: rap is born in the Bronx. At once a declaration of Black American ingenuity and a reclamation of that community’s history of radical innovation—the same actions as Carolina Chocolate Drops on a much larger scale—rap and hip-hop culture will imagine nothing less than real democracy: an event to come, a future revolution. Forty-two years later, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly struggles with what it means to live in the interval between those two events.
1983—Prince debuts most of Purple Rain at the Minneapolis club First Avenue, a ground-zero evental site that launches his own project of total freedom and real democracy, one that’s more inclusive and more queer than either Dylan or rap. Like Dylan, he’ll have to negotiate with the cultural weight of his own newness. In the 2000s, he shrugs this off most often in live performance, though songs like “Black Sweat” and the album Art Official Age come close.
2001—The year of the aftermath of all that pre-millennium excitement and dread about a newness that never came to pass. While some albums clearly update a past style, like the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells, others are more ambiguous about the past in the present: Gillian Welch’s Time (the Revelator), Dylan’s “Love and Theft,“ and Drive-By Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera. Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, released like Dylan’s album on September 11, shifts the sound of hip hop back toward dense musical arrangements and more samples. Napster shuts down. The iPod is introduced. Nas’ Stillmatic, released in December 2001, contains one of the first protests against the Afghanistan War in “Rule,” which segues into “My Country” with the rapper saying, “So what this war just shows me is, like, whatever you want out of life, whatever you feel is rightfully yours, go out and take it, even if that means blood and death. That’s what I was raised up on. That’s what this country’s about. This is what my country is. My country’s a motherfucker.”
See also: The Strokes’ Is This It; Blu Cantrell’s So Blu, featuring “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” which is covered by the Carolina Chocolate Drops in 2010; and Missy Elliott’s Miss E…So Addictive. A good year for music.
2002-2005: Two Forms of Protest—Covered mainly in the chapter “On the Good Side,” these years test our belief in what power music has to change, if not the world, then at least the outcome of a presidential election. While the Dixie Chicks were being ostracized by the country music establishment, artists like Anti-Flag, NOFX, System of a Down, Eminem, Public Enemy and more were releasing furious music aimed at dismantling the establishment. A quieter form of dissent could be heard in the freak-folk movement epitomized by Devendra Banhart’s early records, Iron & Wine, Joanna Newsom, Vetiver, Akron/Family, and to a lesser extent, Sufjan Stevens. It’s the dissent of rejection, withdrawal, and a restoration of man’s once-new relationship with nature and God.
2007—If anyone doubts or forgets Prince’s live prowess, his performance during a torrential rain at the Super Bowl Halftime Show fixes that in a hurry. It’s fitting that this redemptive moment happens on the most spectacular of stages at one of those moments when everyone is watching. Unlike other radically innovative artists, Prince experimented on us at the highest level of popularity: the American Wow, the hyper-reality of American prestige, entertainment, and consumerism. In 2015, Katy Perry will also dominate this stage and this moment, but she does nothing to change it. Prince reminds us what we’re missing.
2009—Writing in Pitchfork’s decade retrospective, Eric Harvey notes that “it’s possible the past 10 years could become the first decade of pop music to be remembered by history for its musical technology rather than the actual music itself.” Harvey’s words end up in Simon Reynolds’ 2011 book Retromania, a usefully pessimistic polemic about our “addiction” to our “past.” This concern will only continue into the 2010s with musicians like Adele, Alabama Shakes, any number of indie post-punk outfits, and, of course, Taylor Swift’s 1989, released in 2014, by which point music streaming platforms have become so ubiquitous that we may not think of them as technology at all.
2010/2013—Meanwhile, Kanye West releases My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus, respectively, two albums that feel utterly new despite their intense mashups and callbacks to older music. West is another Futurist. In these same years, Janelle Monáe releases The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, Afrofuturist masterpieces that further complicate any jeremiads about the dominance of retro.
2016—Prince dies in a Paisley Park elevator, and since newness always feels vulnerable, it seems quite possible to me that he takes newness with him.
For more about the book, including events and a complete discography, visit: www.nothinghasbeendonebefore.com
To purchase the book, visit www.bloomsbury.com.