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Over the Wall – #8

July 15, 2009

So, what did this chap have to do with romanticism, anyway? Continuing on from goth last time, we’re looking at the new romantics this week.

Edition #8 – To Cut a Long Story Short: The New Romanticism.

Picking up from the last edition, we’re looking a bit closer at the emergence of the artistic spirit of romanticism in the post-punk period. As we saw last time, new romanticism and goth emerged around the same time in England, inspired by the same sentiments, but developed in different directions. These two subcultures reflected a taste for glamour and theatricality, as well as aspects of their artistic namesakes, which, in the post-punk climate, found new expression and relevance. The purpose of this edition is to delineate as best as possible what the new romantic scene was, and then look at what, if anything, it had to do with romanticism proper, and just what that had to do with the post-punk period.

Looking at the early goth scene last time, we saw how it arose as a reaction to the increasingly hard-line nature of English punk in the early eighties, as well as the austerity and anti-mystique of some post-punk pathways. New romanticism came out of the same reaction, and looked toward similar sources for its inspiration. Even though it quickly became much more flamboyant than goth, and was ultimately based on different sensibilities, the two were close, perhaps essentially the same thing, for a brief period of time. The goths used old glamour to turn away from the climate and sensibilities of their time and the new romantics used a similar backward-looking glamour to do the same, but instead of taking flight into gloomy old European aesthetics, they expressed flashier, more modern, even futuristic, sensibilities. Both subcultures came out of nightclub fashion in the London underground, but the new romanticism was firmly placed on the dancefloor. It was party music (disco, essentially), rooted in dance club sensibility and utilising the latest sounds of the time, which were found in the then-still-new realm of synthesizers. The new romantic groups were altogether pop, as it could be after punk. They didn’t have much in the way of agendas or statements, nor much cohesion or unity, as it was a certain vaguely-defined aesthetic sensibility that, more than anything else, characterised and signified the whole happening. Spandau Ballet, Adam and the Ants, Duran Duran, Visage, Japan, et al., had only little in common musically or visually, and what similarities there were were present mostly early on. After a time, the groups that were bunched together under the new romantic moniker had little in common besides the moniker, really, which was most active between 1981 (when we find its announcement in Duran Duran’s “Planet Earth“) until 1984 or 85, when it had pretty much evaporated into pop at large. And looking back at all the groups that were included in the new romantic roster at some point, we can see many who quickly shed the association, including Depeche Mode, ABC, Culture Club, Human League, Simple Minds, and others, who, along with many of the definitive new romantic groups, became classified simply as new wave, or new pop. Indeed a number of very popular groups in the early eighties had some involvement with this scene, but nobody really stayed with it or carried it on, and it never developed into a distinct subculture in the same way goth did. Why was that? Mainly, there were no overall aesthetics or any particular aim to new romanticism, and thus little to keep it from diffusing. As for the term itself: its origins and what it actually meant to those who were around while it was going on are both pretty much lost to time. It remains a very timely thing, actually, a mood that was around for a few years in the early eighties, now remembered (for mainly the visual element alone) with amusement and nostalgia.

Being that romanticism is one of the most widely misunderstood and debated artistic movements in history, it may come as no surprise that its eighties namesake can be confusing as well. Did it really have anything to do with romanticism? Well, without getting into any detail (see Isaiah Berlin’s The Roots of Romanticism if you’re interested in that), it must be said that romanticism meant many things in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, what it comes down to (to paraphrase Berlin) is reaction. Reaction to times of great change (The French Revolution, for example), reaction to the rigidity of the eighteenth century and Enlightenment values that no longer sufficed. Ultimately, there exists only a faint connection between the new romantics and the actual (in particular, literary) romantics two hundred years before them, but with the post-punk period itself, a larger connection can be claimed. The new romantics were but one facet of a larger new romanticism, in that sense. Pop music discourse changed after punk, giving way to a period of great divergence, multiple reactions to significant change. Does that mean there was much in the way of actual romantic sentiment to what the new romantics were doing, though? Not really. Insofar as they sought to disrupt the stale early eighties pop world (many of them soon contributing to the stale mid-eighties pop world), they fit the bill in one sense, but romanticism was largely caught up in striving for the intangible qualities in art that went beyond comprehension and explanation. The new romantic scene was, in the end, just young people in ridiculous clothes out for a good time.

At the time when the new romantics were gaining a worldwide audience though, there was another set of groups who came much closer to the mark of actual romanticism. The sentiments found in the so-called “big music” groups, The Waterboys, Big Country, U2, The Icicle Works, Simple Minds (after their brief new romantic association), even Modern English and Echo and the Bunnymen, et al., could not have been much closer to the spirit of romanticism that emerged in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some of these groups will receive further attention here in the future, but suffice it for now to say that with their decidedly big, beautiful melodies, and exaltation of life and the world and being in it, they came far closer to the celebration of existence and experience that the original romantics sought than did the boys in the new romantic groups. All in all, the whole thing lasted until the mid-eighties, when all the new romantic groups and fashions had either disappeared or been absorbed into new pop/new wave, and all the big music groups had gone or changed their sound as well.

So what’s in a name? Sometimes, as the case of the new romantics shows, very little. With goth, we see a connection and a kinship with its artistic namesake, but new romanticism is a bit more complicated. Romanticism itself is such a vast concept, of course, and is notoriously difficult to pin down, but it was based upon some distinct ideas, which, in a pop music context, did find strong expression in the post-punk era. Just not in the most obvious spot.

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