In late 1998, the band Refused released an album that arguably changed the punk rock and hardcore scene forever. The aptly titled The Shape of Punk to Come: A Chimerical Bombation in 12 Bursts, the album was unlike anything we had ever heard and was quickly hailed as a masterpiece—one of the most influential records of the decade. Refused was poised to become the biggest hardcore band on the planet, only that never happened because before the album even reached the shelves, they broke up.
Fastforward 15 years and the unthinkable happened: Refused reunited. They started playing shows around the globe and those of us that fell in love with The Shape of Punk to Come all those years ago would finally have a chance to seem them live. Shows sold out, festivals were headlined. The band was on fire and performing as if they had never missed a day, let alone a decade and a half. They even announced that they were working on new material. Two years later, June 29th 2015, Freedom was released. Refused was back as a full time touring and recording band.
Of course, the complaints started almost immediately. Freedom was not The Shape of Punk to Come—not even close. It’s a fine album, with some solid tracks, but it certainly will not reshape the hardcore landscape and change the way folks think about punk rock music. It probably won’t connect with a younger generation of hard-rockin’ kids. If you do a quick search online, you’ll find plenty of “this sucks” and “I waited forever for this garbage?!” The truth is, Freedom’s only real crime is not being The Shape of Punk to Come, but why the hell should it be?
To expect that Refused would some how replicate the insane level of success that their previous album had is beyond unfair. Freedom is a perfectly good record, and it shows some interesting growth for the band. More importantly, it’s a record that exists because we demanded it. We put the band up on a pedestal, we spoke of them as demi-gods, and when they reunited we flocked to their shows. Hell, I personally flew across two states to catch one of their gigs. We, as listeners and fans, told them to make a new album. We voted with our dollars, our support, and endless admiration. We kept the torch burning all those years.
The same could be said for things like the return of Twin Peaks or DC’s new Dark Knight series. Undoubtedly, these works will be compared–probably unfavorably–to the classics from which they were spawned. There’s a slight, slight possibility they surpass the originals and be something exciting, new, and unique (we’ll call this the Fury Road Factor), but chances are they won’t reach the heights of their predecessors and we’ll hate them for it.
Here’s the rub, even if Freedom was life-changingly good, the new Dark Knight is better than The Dark Knight Returns, and the return of Twin Peaks reshapes television forever, we’ll still blame them for not being the original. What we are chasing isn’t a new experience; it’s nostalgia—and nostalgia is a hell of a drug. We want that feeling we had at that time and that place when we discovered something that we loved, something that changed us. We don’t want another The Dark Knight Returns, we want the feeling we had when we first read it, we want to be the person we were.
If we recognize that, recognize our obsession with nostalgia, we can realize that we play a role in the art we consume. Music, pictures, movies, and books, they trigger something inside of us that can’t be repeated. You can read The Great Gatsby once a year (I do) or keep Jane Doe constantly spinning (I do that, too), but you only get one first time. If we let that feeling consume us, we put artist and creators in an impossible situation. We want them to give us more of the stuff we love and then we hate them for it when it’s not exactly what we want, when inevitably, it’ll never live up to that high-water mark—and it shouldn’t.
The argument could be made that artists, musicians, filmmakers, writers, and the like, simply shouldn’t go back to the well. You could say that Frank Miller should just stay away from The Dark Knight franchise or that Refused should have never released another album. The thing is, you can hardly blame them. Sure, there’s always that hope of capturing lightning in a bottle twice, but most of the time it’s because we, the audience, the consumer, demand it. We hashtag, flock to film adaptations, create Best of Lists, and we buy new editions, reprints, and rare signed copies. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns has been reprinted countless times, made into two animated movies, and is being turned into a massive Hollywood blockbuster. If you’re Frank Miller, you are thinking, “boy, people love this stuff. Give the people what they want.” Although he’d of course say it in a more overblown noir tone, of course.
Reinvention is the key. We, as the audience, instantly become suspicious of any sort of change to our nostalgic craving. An all-female Ghostbusters? Well that won’t make me feel the way I felt when I watched the all-male Ghostbusters! Too often, we hear the battle cry of “ruining my childhood.” Fans are obsessing over that nostalgia to a breaking point—begging for somebody to transport them back to certain place and time. But in reality, if they opened themselves up to something new—if they allowed creators and artist to do what they do best (create art)—then they just might discover a new feeling and a new love. Chasing your childhood is a fool’s errand.
The solution, if there is one, is twofold. One, we have to admit that we are active participants in the art we consume. You know when you see a movie that you weren’t expecting much from and then it turns out to be pretty good and you are blown away? Think of that, but on a larger scale. We each bring something of ourselves to an experience, and we have to recognize that we are chasing a nostalgic feeling when we demand so much of the things we love. A feeling that, chances are, won’t be replicated. Second, we have to be open to something new. If we endlessly obsess about the works of twenty years ago, we are going to get more of those works, for better or worse. If we support something new, we are encouraging more invention, more creativity. More new stuff. More chances for those new feelings.
All this is not to say that loving the stuff you grew up with is bad. It’s not. I have a deep, rich, true love of Godzilla that started when I was in grade school. I get excited every time a new Godzilla project gets announced and I instantly consume it. That said, the thing that scratched that kaiju itch for me most recently was Pacific Rim: something new that tapped into my love for giant monsters, but without the baggage of my Godzilla obsession. Love what you want to love, folks. Just be careful what you demand from it. If you are searching for a feeling you had two decades ago, chances are you’ll only find disappointment.
So, when it comes to Refused, the new album is okay. I enjoy it. It’s not exactly what I’m looking for these days, and that’s fine because that is my problem, not the band’s. What this new album can’t change is that feeling I had sitting in my friends room listening to The Shape of Punk to Come for the first time. It can’t take away that experience and it won’t change the fact that as soon as that album ended its first spin 18 years ago I immediately said to my friend, “play it again.”