Bemused, Insular Meta-Worship

Northern soul is a strange beast of a genre. By definition, it's non-productive. It actively pursues and treasures the least successful music it can find. And at the same time, as Simon Frith has pointed out, there are few subcultures that are more centred around actual knowledge of music - what would be considered expertise in any other genre barely scratches Northern soul's surface.

But actually, there's one related genre that's even stranger: Northern soul revival. I spent Saturday night dancing to it, invited by my ex, Sabina, for a weekender in Gothenburg. The night in question was about a third modern soul, which is rather more to my taste even though it's definition is also a bit unusual. (It's defined by the fact that you can dance to it the way you do to northern soul. Yet another beat-defined genre then, like surf, disco or beach.) But for most of the evening they played what I'm fairly confident is the ultimate meta-genre.

Genres that are conciously defining themselves in terms of other music are fairly common in, especially, rock music. The chain of ska revivals or the ludicrous derivativeness of various garage rocks jumping back and forth across the Atlantic, for instance. But the revival of nothern soul is unusual in that what it's reviving is not the music itself (which already exists) but the attitudes around the music. They're not copying soul singers but English soul fans, and they do everything they can to dress, dance, discuss like they were working class kids from the north of england in the mid-seventies. The music is at once at the extreme centre and just another identity attribute.

And at the centre of the worship stand, bemused, the original worshippers. At every party of note like this there's a clique of straddling middle-aged englishmen who travel around the world to all-nighters and weekenders still. And just as they once brought back old soul stars to perform for them, now they're the ones being brought back in return. The stars of the revival are the DJs, sure, but even the fans get their share of adulation - they were there, although not actually there, you understand, but when they first revived this music in the seventies...

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