The IASPM-US Interview Series features conversations with popular music scholars of recently published books. In today’s interview, Nick Rubin chats with Theo Cateforis, author of Are We Not New Wave? Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011).
Nick Rubin: What gave you the impetus to focus your inquiry on new wave? Did you feel like you were on a bit of a mission?
Theo Cateforis: My decision to focus on new wave dates back to my grad student days in the mid-90s. I was teaching a course on the history of rock for continuing education students at SUNY Stony Brook, and I scheduled a class on new wave as part of the syllabus. I had never thought too deeply about the music before, and I showed up prepared to talk about the artists that I had always associated with new wave from the late 70s: Elvis Costello, Blondie, Joe Jackson, the Police, the Cars, etc. I was surprised when many of the students explained that new wave to them meant 80s artists like Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, New Order and the Cure (a link that I later learned had been heavily influenced by hearing those groups on Long Island’s new wave/modern rock radio station WDRE). A genre that I thought was relatively straightforward suddenly became much more complicated, and as I read more on new wave I began to realize that there was a great deal of confusion (and disparagement) surrounding the term. Stylistically new wave music appeared to be all over the map, and I began to wonder how something so diverse could hold together as a historical narrative. I guess I did feel as if I was on a mission to write the dissertation, and then book, because it was a story that really had not been told in any sufficiently detailed or critical manner.
As you point out, this is the first scholarly book to specifically focus on new wave. Why do you suppose that is?
That’s a great question. It could have something to do with methodology. New wave never enjoyed the subcultural coherency or cachet that a style like punk did, and thus perhaps didn’t seem like a logical choice for the types of sociological investigations that have been so formative in popular music studies. Also, new wave was not taken to be musically ‘complex’ (one is hard pressed to name any renowned new wave instrumentalists—Stewart Copeland, maybe?) and thus didn’t seem terribly ripe for musical analyses. It could also simply be that it was a topic that seemed too big and unwieldy to tackle. There’s a great deal of uncertainty in piecing together a history like that, though that was also part of the attraction for me in writing the book.
You take the notoriously fraught concept of “new wave” and collect its meanings under the umbrella of the “modern,” itself a multivalent concept. Where did your own take on “modernity” come from?
I must admit that I did not initially set out to connect new wave with the modern, or with modernity. This was something that grew organically from my research for the book. I noticed, as I was poring through old back issues of Trouser Press, Creem, Bomp, New York Rocker and other magazines that new wave was repeatedly referred to as a modern music. On the one hand, this was an obvious way for the rock press and the music industry to distance the music from its contemporary surroundings, and to emphasize that this music was special in some way. But more than that, I was struck by how self-consciously so many of the groups incorporated representations of modernity from the past (Devo’s parodies of the 50s space age, or the rampant pilfering of 60s mod attire) as well as the more futuristic, technological associations with modernity (hello, Gary Numan). As a historian, I couldn’t help but to see modernity through its periodizations, which helped to link it conceptually with new wave’s range of styles.
New wave was often denigrated as a depoliticized, toothless outgrowth of punk. Is this fair, or did new wave eschew confrontation for a more subtle critique? Ultimately, what political work do you think new wave performed?
That’s a tough one. As a new wave advocate, of course I can’t stand by and let it be called depoliticized or toothless! As you suggest, I think that new wave’s critiques were more subtle than punk’s, but at the same time they drew on much of the satire, absurdity and avant-garde inclinations that were already part of punk. In the book, I make the claim that new wave’s strongest critiques may simply have been aimed at such things as the staid normalcy of middle class whiteness, or American consumer culture. There were also plenty of critiques of gender and sexuality—such as the championing of the male nerd or the play with androgyny that exploded with the rise of music videos and MTV. If you’re looking for new wave’s equivalent of “Anarchy in the UK,” you probably won’t find it, but new wave certainly proved to be liberating for many of its fans.
You spend some time ruminating over the demise of new wave after the mid-eighties. Would it be a cop out to simply say that new wave was a product of a specific period in history and could not replicate beyond the circumstances of its creation?
I don’t think it’s a cop out. When I think about new wave, I’m struck by just how embedded it was in its particular time and place. And not just from the perspective that in the U.S. new wave’s first half coincided with the record industry’s search for ‘the next big thing’ and its second half with the spectacular rise of MTV. Listen to the music of new wave itself, and you’ll hear a little bit of nearly every style that was circulating in the late 70s popular music world. There’s bits of disco, reggae, progressive rock, arena rock, funk, pop and on and on floating around in new wave. The circumstances that brought all that together couldn’t be replicated exactly. By the time of the mid-80s, new wave’s innovations had been absorbed into the pop mainstream and there was a new slightly outsider/polyglot musical movement—college rock—that featured many of new wave’s characteristics, but in its own distinct ways.
A path for further inquiry on this topic might be an ethnographic one, incorporating voices from various new wave communities. Are you interested in this path, and if so, what would be your starting points? What do you see as the major challenges?
Though I opted not to pursue this track when writing the book, this is certainly something I thought about quite a lot. I think it would be an interesting avenue for someone to pursue (though I won’t be the one to do it; I’m ready to move on to other non-new wave projects). The major challenge I see is trying to define what constitutes a “new wave community.” That original late 70s/early 80s community is widely dispersed at this point, so you would have to track down various people who had initially been involved with the music in some way. There’s a lot of possibilities there, ranging from musicians, record store employees, label owners and rock disco DJs to people who were simply fans. Then you would have to balance their individual recollections against the collective memory of new wave. An even more interesting ethnographic track might be to do some online work with a fan forum like New Wave Outpost which brings together people from a variety of ages, backgrounds and nationalities. This particular online community routinely debates new wave’s definitions and scope, and occasionally someone will toss out a question like “Did Straight Teenage Boys Like New Wave?,” so I think looking at a community like that could produce an interesting study. Any takers?
As you say in your introduction, many important new wave bands didn’t make it into this book – it’s not an encyclopedia. Given the opportunity here, can you tell us about a couple of the artists who bear a particular significance to new wave and who you would have included, given the space?
There are so many bands I would have included. In particular I would have given more space to some of the British artists like Elvis Costello, Squeeze, the Police, the Jam and also Duran Duran who at different stages in new wave’s development were really crucial to breaking the music in the U.S. And then there’s some personal favorites like Split Enz or the first two Tears for Fears records, or some great overlooked albums like Icehouse’s debut or the Fixx’s Shuttered Room that would have been fun to write about. I also originally had a fairly substantial section on Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, comparing the songs “Enola Gay” and “If You Leave,” that due to issues of space and narrative coherency didn’t make the final cut for the book. And last but not least, I wanted to mention Miley Cyrus’s awesome single “Start All Over” (no joke), which is but one of many new wave-fueled Disney treats of the new millennium.
Theo Cateforis is assistant professor of music history and cultures at Syracuse University. In addition to Are We Not New Wave, he is also author of The Rock History Reader (New York: Routledge, 2006).
Nick Rubin is Visiting Lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Virginia, where he earned his Ph.D in Music. His dissertation and current book-in-progress covers college radio’s emergence as a social, industrial, and cultural phenomenon.