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Retromania Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past

Simon Reynolds

(Faber and Faber, Inc.; US: Jul 2011)

Retromania is designed to be a polemic, the kind of book you’d throw against the wall if you weren’t so immersed in it. It’s frustrating, disheartening, and very frequently on point about the state of music in the 21st century. 


Reynolds’s two major works, Energy Flash (Generation Ecstasy in the US) and Rip It Up and Start Again were intense case studies, erudite and well-researched works of scholarship on specific musical developments.  Written with a fan’s enthusiasm and, in the case of Energy Flash, a participant’s anthropological field experience though they were, those two books mainly focused on chronological historical assessments of the cultural and sonic circumstances that respectively ushered rave and post-punk’s arrival and subsequent development.


Retromania is a bit more broad, and it’s hard not to consider this to be something of a cumulative work for Reynolds, pulling off the ultimate contrarian move by posing the entirety of the 20th century as a period of relentless copying and backwards-looking, with brief pockets of innovation causing supernova-like waves of radiation to roll out into the pop matrix.


Retromania is also Reynolds’s most biographical work to date, tracing his own development along an often nonlinear path through pop’s various nostalgic periods. And while this is hardly the most theory-dense piece Reynolds has ever written, he does find time to fit in all the standbys from philosophy and literature—Benjamin, Baudrillard, Derrida, Dick, Jameson, Ballard, et al.—to touch on some of the major concepts from his writing. From a retro-historical perspective, the book even contains within it a kind of “greatest hits” from the debates and discussions that have circulated around the music blogging community that grew around Reynolds over the last decade.


Retromania is about the anxiety of influence; how our present moment is feeding into it, how it emerged framed as a historical inevitability, and how its necrotic collateral is any futurism that may have the audacity to disregard the past. “History must have a dustbin, or history will be a dustbin”, Reynolds says at one point. He argues that music’s new decentralized framework encourages only relationships with the retroscape, the known universe, the long tail only offering its solutions to Baudrillard’s “problems [that have] already been solved” (my quote, not his). 


In the book’s first section, “Now”, Reynolds examines modern technologies (YouTube, iPod, P2P, et al.) which are not inherently designed to be time machines, but whose use value grows as the historical vaults expand. Much has been written about the iPod as a solipsistic device, “Radio Me”, as Reynolds puts it.  Equally important as “Me” in this equation though is the “Radio” half of this phrase. In Retromania, the iPod is shown to be the opposite of radio, which has the potential to surprise, and forge new connections or allegiances with the universe beyond Radio Me. It may be hard for younger listeners to imagine radio as bastion of pluralism, but there was a time when radio could not only challenge, but actually overthrow existing norms.  Now, the mantra on the airwaves seems to be “pop will repeat itself”, as one of the chapters in Retromania puts it.


Still, even in deference to radio, Reynolds is equally critical of the newfound role of the “curator”, whose existence is only validated in reference to others. Despite this, Reynolds seems throughout the book to be softly endorsing the return of a curatorial status quo, a sacrosanct mainstream that can be negated and overthrown.  Mark “K-Punk” Fisher’s term for what the Ghost Box hauntologists (discussed at length here) saw in the socialist enterprise of ‘70s BBC Television—a “benevolent paternalism”—seems apt here. 


Music’s accessibility is now such that the underground vanguard and the pop aristocracy can blissfully ignore one another. Reynolds’s recent interview with Amanda Brown of Not Not Fun Records found the young upstart proclaiming that she was not bothered by existence of Justin Bieber. In the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, this would be unthinkable. To even participate in the underground then, one was obliged to defile the pop overlords, or at the very least cast doubt upon them. Now, if you don’t like what’s on the radio, you simply switch it off and carve your own path. The problem with total autonomy then, is that it doesn’t come with an atlas, so it’s much easier to just follow the topography of the curator, who has already neatly mapped the known universe into navigable routes.


For all the rich theory and sociology in Retromania, Reynolds really doesn’t touch upon the economic dimensions of the modern music landscape; MTV’s second wave of reality programming supplanting its musical hierarchy, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 turning American radio into a generic and predictable platform of revenue-generating promotional materials backed by a universal playlist of ubiquitous favorites, the rise of the e-zines/blogs causing the music press to back away from adventurous journalism in favor of puff pieces and a litany of lists, and the collapse of the major labels’ blockbuster model under an indifferent public untroubled by ripping off an industry that had routinely ripped off consumers and artists alike for the previous 30 years.


The collapse of the music industry on all fronts likely lead to a monetary retreat into the safety of the familiar, the pop hierarchy unwilling to finance any risky business venture that might threaten an already unstable infrastructure. Only late in the book does Reynolds confront this changing dynamic, but only by finding parallels between sonic derivation and capital’s recursive methods of wealth production (relying on speculative markets, “meta-money”, and short term reinvestment, which were all championed as market innovation but failed to stimulate real long-term growth), finding metaphor, rather than palpable cause, in the ‘naughts market crash.


Instead of finding fault in music’s financial backers and its promotional apparatus, Reynolds focuses on individual players and scenes, admittedly covering a breathtaking amount of ground, particularly in his “Then” section. From the Japanese Shibuya-Kei artists to Mashups to The Cramps to Trad Jazz to Patti Smith to The Flamin’ Groovies to Skiffle to Lester Bangs to Northern Soul to John Lennon to the Numero Group reissue label, Reynolds does a fascinating job of tracking not only the social trajectories of retro, but their ideological movements, as well. 


Retro was initially a rejection of and reaction to the premature burial of certain genres and styles. It was an attempt to prove that there was still vitality and vigor in left-for-dead (or actually dead) scenes. Proponents tended to see their chosen field as the pinnacle of creative energy that no other music could ever surpass. Sampling and remix culture added a new dimension to the retro tendency by creating an architecture that allowed for past musicks to have functional uses—as cultural capital, as sonic referent, as texture, as rhythm engine—that could hybridize new forms (hip-hop, jungle, big beat, chillwave, et al.).


Here, retro culture became postmodern, delimited by traditional composition and ontologically impure, calling into question the values of authorship, virtuosity, and authenticity. This kind of retro was not founded on a nationalism of style, but by a multiculturalism, a seemingly altruistic blending whose direction was at best sideways, but rarely forward.


There’s a way in which the latter kind of advanced mixology can produce something alchemical or even sublime. Reynolds has often proposed that music’s progression is fueled by an interplay of black and white music, with blacks producing cutting-edge sound and whites generating fresh ideas by trying to recreate those sounds and “getting it wrong”. When a subculture’s “wrongness” is sufficient enough to produce new affects and ideas, though, is in the eye of the beholder.  Several of the examples Reynolds cites as mere mimicry actually defy their heritage by using new equipment, emphasizing timbre over melody, or incorporating the syncopation of global dance music.  As subtle as these alterations may be, they can produce grand changes in the larger soundscape.


Far more bizarre than those who “got it wrong”, are those who obsessively try to get it right. Reynolds reacts with the exactly appropriate amount of disheartened awe as he reels through the more blatant plundering swindles of the naughts, such as artists performing entire albums live in concert, habitual reissues, and the truly outrageous restaging of moments from rock’s past (Bowie’s final show as Ziggy Stardust, The Cramps’s performance at a mental institute, and an Einsturzende Neubaten gig that descended into a riot). 


These kind of retroactive moments pose pop music’s initial staging in the 20th century as a blueprint, making even music’s uncomfortable turmoils mappable and metric. A period of reflection after a period of massive change is probably appropriate, but that’s not what’s happened in most retromaniacal music. Most newly produced music doesn’t intuit about the past, it simply wants to emulate, to steal its charms and its magic powers to absorb as its own. 


Reynolds poses a few counter-examples. Hauntology, with its spectral vernacular of forgotten futures and occult mystery, attempt to make the past less, rather than more, comprehensible, an alien world we could never fully engage with. The inverse colonialism of hypnagogic pop conquers the elegant and hygienic luxury of ‘80s yacht rock and smears it with psychedelic crust and cassette warble, running it through the improper channels and reducing it to piecemeal for basement artists. 


Hauntology and hypnagogic pop are both discussed in the section of the book called “Future”, though that section, too, seems more hung up on past futures rather than current ones. At times, Retromania reads as if Reynolds is trying to document the ways in which people once listened to music, the way pop once mattered. His writing is filled with great uncertainty about where this all this retroaction is going, which is why it’s such a prescient read. It may become dated quickly or it may be an important diagnostic for a long-winded, terminal case of febrile self-duplication. Without a clear vision for the future and in a nostalgic mode for the old-fashioned music experience, Reynolds can come off a bit somewhat symptomatic of his own disorder. 


However, it could be that Reynolds, like Lydon and McLaren before him, is trying to inscribe “No Future” on a bankrupt political model to show that the current course is rigged, there’s no way through until we burn all the referents, until we exist in relationship to nothing else. Reynolds is looking for new purisms, ones future listeners can get retroactively excited about.

Rating:

Timothy Gabriele is a writer who studied English and Film at the University of Massachussetts at Amherst. He currently lives in the New Haven, CT region with his wife, his daughter, his dog, and two cats. His column, The Difference Engine, appears regularly at PopMatters. He can be found twittering @Wildcorrective and blogging at 555 Enterprises.


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