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 places. His heart and intellect (to fall back on that very retro duality) not only keep each other in check but they inform each other. He has always been willing to venture beyond the promo pool — the records that every music writer get sent at about the same time — to dive down subcultural rabbit-holes, winding up on the weirdest message boards and inside the tiniest record shops over back in the basement of other record shops and only open every other Tuesday. For more than twenty years he’s written about phenomena so early in their infancy that he’s had the dubious honor of being able to name at least one of them (“post-rock”). He’s not only in search of a new kick, he wants to know what it means. And, thankfully, if it doesn’t mean too much, this doesn’t always bother him.
Retromania, then, is a very important book that doesn’t read like one, at least not at first. That’s largely due to its discursive nature and lack of a clear-cut narrative. It’s harder to write about the present and near-present, of course, than it is about the past: There’s just so much of it, and it hasn’t stopped wiggling around yet. If part of your subject is cultural entropy, then that effect is then compounded; when the snake is eating its tail, it can be damn hard to tell what’s going on. The book is organized like a cultural travelogue, a series of rambles on more-or-less related aspects of an overarching theme. Reynolds himself calls it an “investigation … of the entire range of contemporary uses and abuses of the pop past,” in an era when “the musical past is accessible to an unprecedentedly inundating degree.” That sounds about right. Retromania is more similar to the wide-ranging 1996 The Sex Revolts (which Reynolds co-wrote with his wife Joy Press) than his better-known, more specifically grounded histories of post-punk music (Rip It Up) and rave culture (Generation Ecstasy). Here Reynolds is concerned not with a particular scene or genre but with the loss of the anxiety of influence for musicians, the rise of collector culture in its many niche forms, and the economic underpinnings of, well, everything: “Retro is a byproduct of what happens when popular creativity is enmeshed with the market,” he notes.
Even with such a big, unwieldy subject in front of him, though, Reynolds takes care to ground his discussion in details (I’m grateful that he isn’t interested in creating overly simplistic and cutesy-pie catchphrases such as Greil Marcus’s infamous and egregious construct of the “Old Weird America”) and never forces the material to fit his ideas. By which I mean he contradicts himself a lot, generally within the zone of personal tastes, which do not always jibe with his vast historical ideas and interests. Vadim Rizov recently pointed out in The Onion that Reynolds “decr[ies] obsessive record-collector digging for potentially banal obscurities while admitting he’s beholden to the same impulse.” He bashes the “mashup” genre in one fell swoop while digging deep into the work of “plunderphonics” musician John Oswald. He writes that “the attachment on the part of young people to genres that have been around for decades mystifies me” and then upholds Ariel Pink, a passable pastiche/recombinant rock musician trading in vaguely arcane underground rock sounds from the 1970s and 1980s, as one of his favorite contemporary musicians. But Reynolds is smart enough to realize that when it comes to retro culture, the subjective is unavoidable; as he puts it, “the intersection between mass culture and personal memory is the zone that spawned retro.” Buried towards the end of the chapter “Turn Back Time,” a mini cultural history of revivals from the past sixty years, we stumble upon the line, “I can remember being five and looking back wistfully to how great things were when I was four.” Autobiographical bits like that are few and far between in Reynolds’s writing, which allow them that much more resonance.
At times, it’s true, Reynolds can sound a little curmudgeonly for a futurist, as when he bemoans YouTube in particular (“more like a jumbled attic than an archive”) and the Internet in general (“the past and the present commingle in a way that makes time itself mushy and spongiform”). Not only have we lost the ability to concentrate on anything for more than one minute at a time, but “our sense of temporality grows ever more brittle and inconstant; restlessly snacking on data bytes, we flit fitfully in search of the next instant sugar rush.” Still, even when Reynolds is a fuddy-duddy, he is an entertaining one who sees most of the ways he self-incriminates, or could be seen to. He celebrates L.A.-based songwriter Ariel Pink, an artist who calls his own music “retrolicious,” and delights in the ironies of his doing so. And his disapproval of YouTube doesn’t keep him from rhapsodizing over how it facilitates certain collage-based artists to engage in a sort of sideways time travel, creating “amazing opportunities for ‘ecstatic regression.'” That phrase belies Reynolds’s great strength as a stylist: the ability to synthesize a vast array of information (including fancy philosophers and academic texts) while walking the line between “academic” writing and more populist discourse. Discussions of “hauntology,” the cultural economy of underground music culture, the fetishization of cassette tapes and other dead media, the relationship between electronic music and the space race, and the “amen” break are all spot-on and fascinating to read even if one fancies oneself an expert.
A lot of Retromania is polemical, sometimes in surprising ways. It’s a bit strange that there’s not more about hip-hop and that the dude dislikes mashups so much (“a barren genre …with the shelflife of a wisecrack”). Elsewhere, Reynolds seems confounded by rock museums’ fetishistic tendency to display items like a lock of Bob Marley’s hair as relics. He’s naturally angered at the museums’ narrow focus, but more so at their lack of context. Here he encounters “music with the battle lines erased, everything wrapped up in a warm blanket of acceptance and appreciation.” The myriad ways that we all have potential access to everything all at once in our digital future-present is a recurring theme. It can lead to a lack of context, but it’s also created a new breed of “amateur archive creation.” This leads to one of my favorite passages, from the chapter “Good Citations”: “The aspirational use of the word ‘curating’ by musicians suggested that the same skill set required to run an art gallery or organize a museum exhibition was being applied to the formation of a band’s sonic identity.” Reynolds takes square aim at the “Don’t Look Back” series of shows at the All Tomorrow’s Parties events (a music festival started in a former holiday camp in the UK) with their strange “fan-pleasing ploy” where groups reunite to play their one good album from start to finish. “ATP’s Barry Hogan describes the concept as a ‘rebellion’ against the culture of iPod shuffle and a defence of the album as an integral artwork,” Reynolds writes. (To this writer, it’s always felt like the height of creepy entitlement and simply antithetical to the joy and spontaneity of any live show.)
Reynolds may have lived in the United States since the mid-1990s, but he retains a very British-ish outlook. All well and good of course, but it can result in arbitrary cultural markers and outright missteps. I found myself throwing the 400-plus page tome on the ground in disagreement perhaps a dozen times. Reynolds cheekily posits that rock and roll effectively started in 1963. You and I know what he means, of course (the Beatles), and yeah, it’s allowed — because he’s British. But for fuck’s sake, mate, throw a qualifier or two in there for the tenacious tenth grader wending her way through the thing, will you?
And again: “Ironically, it’s the absence of revivalism and nostalgia during the sixties itself that partly accounts for why there have been endless sixties revivals ever since,” he writes — about a culture that idolized Victoriana, dressed almost exclusively in thrift shop clothing, and endlessly retread American folk forms from forty years earlier: folk and blues? This is weird to me. It’s not like Reynolds doesn’t “get” folk in other contexts. His clear takedown of the freak-folk movement in three sentences is a wonder. Using contemporary British folk artist Eliza Carthy as a foil, he writes that where Carthy
wants to update folk music and make it appeal to contemporary audiences, the freak-folk outfits want to bring the past into the present, like time travel. Folk is literally in Carthy’s blood, it’s something she grew up with; in contrast, the freak-folk artists’ relationship with their sources is almost entirely mediated through recordings from a much earlier era, and is given further distance by being largely focused on British folk rather than the American counterparts.
In another chapter, when Reynolds casts about to cite the origins of reissue-based record labels he omits dozens of roots concerns, from Storyville and Roots in the United Kingdom to Yazoo and Blues Classics in the United States.
But Reynolds is such a cheeky and entertaining writer that you can’t stay angry at him about these minor inaccuracies and omissions for long. Like in the book’s introduction, when he writes
this is the way that pop ends, not with a BANG but with a box set whose fourth disc you never get around to playing and an overpriced ticket to the track-by-track restaging of the Pixies or Pavement album you played to death in your first year at university.
How the fuck can you go to bed mad at the guy who wrote that? If you care about music in the last fifteen years and where pop culture in general is headed, you really need to read Reynolds’s book. Thankfully, it’s now in paperback, so you shouldn’t hurt yourself too badly if you accidentally throw it on your own foot.