Cateforis analyzes new wave with a discerning eye

CateforisCover.inddIn his book for the University of Michigan Press, Are We Not New Wave? Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s, author Theo Cateforis created a selection if essays on the various focii of new wave, and what connected the quite diverse genres which fell under its umbrella.

Cateforis makes several points as to what conncted the various, seemingly disparate genres that made up new wave. Synth pop, power pop, post-punk, and even rockabilly revivalists and punk itself all fell under the “new wave” banner at one time or another. So, what connects all of these things? In one case, it’s the beat. Cateforis returns again and again to the beat. be it the double backbeat or “Burundi beat,” rhythmic change was just as important to new wave’s image of “herky-jerky” music as the various visual elements.

The author also focuses on the idea of nervousness, which is the emotional component of that herky-jerky rhythmic sensibility. Are We Not New Wave? certainly connects nervousness to the Talking Heads and Devo, as well as the lyrics of other bands, and that segment of the book works quite well. However, when Cateforis moves to the idea of camp, he focuses pretty much exclusively on the B-52’s. While I understand that narrowing it down to one band sharpens the focus of the author’s analysis, it lacks the punch of his chapter on nervousness. That chapter, “From Neurasthenia to Nervousness: The Whiteness of the New Wave,” bounces comparisons off Devo and the Talking Heads, but it also contrasts the differences between the two.

Sadly, there’s nothing of that in “Camp! Kitsch! Trash! New Wave and the Politics of Irony,” and that’s where Are We Not New Wave? misses a distinct opportunity. Comparing and contrasting the B-52’s with a band like the Cramps would’ve involved the two bands’ shared common grounds of “disposable” music like surf, as well as B-movies and assorted other pop culture ephemera. Cateforis could’ve then shown the distinct takes offered by each group, given their respective light and dark takes on the material.

That being said, Cateforis’ Are We Not New Wave? is not only the first book-length analysis of the new wave movement in pop music, it’s certainly one of the better analyses of post-punk music, and allows for a study of the characteristics of the music. When combined with something like Simon Reynolds’ Rip It Up and Start Again, which looks at an in-depth, well-rounded history of the music, you can put together a complete overview of music after punk rewrote the rules.

You can check out a few musical samples at the University of Michigan Press’s page.