IN THE SERIES FINALE for the latest incarnation of Doctor Who, time stops entirely. Each historical era coexists, so you have Charles Dickens pimping his Christmas special on a cheesy talk show, London coppers riding round on Roman chariots, and flying dinosaurs spooking contemporary-looking children at a picnic spot. There are those who fear that pop music has already arrived at such a state: There is no future left, but the past is completely alive and surrounding us. In this cultural end-of-days, nothing is new and everything is permitted to be recycled. All we are left with are the oneiric, self-reflexive impulses of nu-rave, grunge revival, and karaoke singing competitions. Revivals of revivals of revivals, until music has all the appeal of pre-distressed, acid-washed jeans. Today, as Simon Reynolds succinctly states in his new book Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past, "[e]ven bands no one gave a shit about are re-forming."
Is this really where we've arrived, culturally? Have the Xeroxes for band flyers been copied so many times that we can't even make out what they say anymore, let alone if they're supposed to be "enjoyed ironically," or not? "Isn't there something profoundly wrong," Reynolds asks,
about the fact that so much of the greatest music made during the last decade sounds like it could have been made twenty, thirty, even forty years earlier? ... Where are the major new genres and sub-cultures of the twenty-first century?
(Seriously, where? We need to know so that we can start to schedule their revival a few months after they die.)
Whatever your own particular take on this classically postmodern conundrum, you're liable to come away from Retromania with even more questions than you had going in. This is an engrossing, meandering and often brilliant attempt to parse the pop musical landscape of the last quarter-century. In doing so, it also looks at the gadgets that have influenced our ability to immerse ourselves in the music of the past, with detours into recent examples of retro-ism in art history, fashion ("whose recycling of old ideas ... seemed to reach a frenzied state of rotation this last decade"), television, cinema ("the Hollywood mania for remaking blockbuster movies from a couple of decades earlier"), theme parks, pornography ("websites with scores of specialist categories such as 'retro face-sitting'"), and architecture.
In many ways, British-born Los Angeles resident Reynolds is the perfect person to write on this subject. Reynolds came into prominence in the mid-1980s as a writer for the music weekly Melody Maker, mostly focused on underground rock music, and writing "with a mix of scholarly scrupulousness and fan-boy enthusiasm," as the Guardian put it. In the early 1990s, he became immersed in electronic music and rave culture and began to write on this and a wide variety of music for dozens of newspapers and publications. Today Reynolds maintains a lively blog, Blissblog, and writes for the New York Times, Artforum and other publications — including the just-launched website MTVHive. He has always been keen to see the larger trends in smaller...