Thoughts on “Use Somebody,” Simon Reynolds’s Retromania, and Danny Kirwan

I’ve been bothered lately by this. Why do I know this song “Use Somebody” so well when I never ever have chosen to hear it and have never heard it straight through in its entirety? It has been out there in my everyday life, ambiently, and I have somehow absorbed enough of it from a myriad of sources to reconstruct the entire thing, like a cognitive Bit Torrent. For me it is part of a pop-culture background that I think I ignore but which actually forms an important backdrop, the ground against which the things I choose to care about can stand out. If I notice this backdrop at all, I usually find myself thinking, Who’s this for? Who wants this? Not me. Sometimes I sit through entire movies — most recently, Drive — with this feeling, as if the whole point of the experience is to make me believe that I am uniquely superior to the implied audience of the thing.

What that induced sense of superiority hides from me is how this background made of “Use Somebody”s is imposed upon me and affects what I actually choose to hear, choose to value. That dumb song and others like it are shaping my reactionary aesthetics and defining the sort of self-definitional moves I can make to try to retain a sense of myself (albeit a degraged self, a subject limited to cultural consumption) as apart from that background, as someone special who has not yet been washed into the gutter of the mainstream. So “Use Somebody” has shaped me against my will; in its small way, it’s an integral part of what it means for me to be a part of this time and place. The inescapable is what defines the cultural moment and to an extent, it defines us. But what I think my relationship to “Use Somebody” suggests is that we don’t know what is inescapable directly. It’s not what is obvious. It’s not what springs immediately to our consciousness when we think of what we are into, or even what others are into. Instead it seeps in, bearing untold ideological poisons.

In an obscure way I haven’t yet entirely clarified for myself, Simon Reynolds’s recent book Retromania seems to be about this. On its face, the book is an open-ended examination of how digitization of pop’s past is affecting its contemporary development. (Kurt Andersen adopted a similar theme in this Vanity Fair piece about the dearth of cultural innovation and how nothing becomes dated anymore. He also admits to mistaking Josh Ritter for Bob Dylan in the piece, which sort of invalidates his credentials for writing about culture.) But it’s also about nostalgia as a mode of control, a way of trying to more thoroughly reject the backdrop of “Use Somebody” and exempt oneself from the zeitgeist. Of course, Reynolds’s point is that collective rejection is the current zeitgeist. And what’s more, I think, it makes repressed or disavowed material like “Use Somebody” even more insidious and potent.

Reynolds, who wrote the postpunk history Rip It Up, focuses mainly on music, detailing the various ramifications of consuming music as information rather than sound. The broad outlines of the argument are fairly familiar: digitization floods the world with MP3s and destroys the music market which once ordered and limited the pop sphere. Faced with the surfeit of music goods to experience and conditioned to appreciate novelty over immersive experience, consumers develop shortcuts for consuming it: collecting rather than listening being one of the main ones.

So many of the consumer-friendly advances of the digital era relate to time management: the freedom to be inattentive or interrupted during a television programme (pause, rewind ), to reschedule the viewing of programmes to when it’s more convenient and to stockpile televisual time for a rainy day ( recordable DVDs, TiVo )…. The CD remote, essentially the same device as a TV remote, brought music under the sway of channel-surfing logic. This was the dawn of a new digital-era way of experiencing time, something we’ve since become totally familiar with. And every gain in consumer-empowering convenience has come at the cost of disempowering the power of art to dominate our attention, to induce a state of aesthetic surrender.

This is music to my ears, as it fits with my longstanding jihad against convenience as a value.

But the key issue is to think about why we choose novelty over immersion. Why do choose convenience — the speed of consumption — over the sensory qualities of a consumption experience? Occasionally I see arguments that claim we have some evolutionarily conditioned bias toward novelty, but these seem less convincing to me than analyses that link it to capitalism’s need, in order to reproduce itself as a system, to secure steadily growing consumer demand. People must feel the impulse to always need more and to see shopping as fulfillment in its own right, as entirely natural. The prerogatives embedded in consumer capitalism have assured that technological innovation will focus chiefly on convenience, on increasing how much a consumer can consume given unalterable time constraints. Ideology has followed suit, and we end up thinking quantity is a better kind of quality rather than its antithesis.

What Reynolds dubs retromania seems a paradoxical way for capital to proceed to secure ideological dominance, but it makes a diabolical sort of sense: get novelty and innovation on the cheap by recycling the ready-at-hand past. This has the added bonus of fusing the new with the familiar, so consumers can appease two contradictory longings simultaneously. Nostalgia and novelty fuse in a new kind of cultural artifact, which Reynolds spends a lot of time cataloging: stuff like I Love the ___’s, reunion tours, bands playing their old albums in sequence, Web 2.0 music like Flying Lotus, Girt Talk, etc. This new artifact flatters us for previous cultural knowledge, which abets the need to approach culture as a kind of archivist and to view cultural consumption as a kind of inner encyclopedia-making process. And it also makes our compendium of sheer trivia about pop culture into genuine cultural capital, giving us incentive to protect the system that lends value to our memory hoard. And as a result, I end up reading things like this exhaustive post about Falco. (You don’t know Falco? Well, I am glad you asked…)

Consequently, we start to feel cluttered in her heads with information that feels both useless and useful at the same time. It seems like a waste of brain space for me, for example, to be maintaining a list of black-metal bands in my head; I don’t even like that music. But I’ve actually drawn on that list dozens of times in random conversations to make jokes or to surprise people with an incongruous reference or to unsettle their assumptions about my cultural range, etc.

How do we resist this? Should we bother? For me, that question has provoked another seemingly unrelated question: Why do Danny Kirwan solo albums exist?

Not to pick on Kirwan, one of the several guitarists who had a stint fronting Fleetwood Mac in the pre–Buckingham Nicks era — Bare Trees was released during his watch and is a pretty great album — but the fact he was given the opportunity to issue solo albums in the 1970s on a major label after getting himself kicked out of Fleetwood Mac seems indicative of how Big Culture once had an insatiable appetite for new cultural product from sources that they had come to trust as “professional.” Before digitization and the internet upended models of cultural distribution, the flow of cultural product and the instigation of cultural demand could be much more carefully managed from the commanding heights. Consumers had some amount of money they were willing to spend to experience the novel, and the culture industry manufactured enough new product to fill the shelves accordingly, usually in a weekly rhythm.

Some or even most of that stuff went the way of Danny Kirwan solo albums, but the logic of the business was still such that it was more lucrative to tolerate the flops of the Kirwans of the industry than to open the floodgates to unvetted or less polished talent. Because the product being sold was not the records themselves so much as novelty qua novelty, the rate of new material entering the pipeline was far more important than the quality of any particular album. So there was no special incentive to discover new geniuses. Danny Kirwan was fine. He had a foothold in the business, proved himself to be someone who could deliver a product on time, so he got hired to do more records. (In other media, it works the same way; professionalization trumps raw talent. The same magazine writers get assignments because they have proved to be serviceable and reliable; the same actors show up over and over again because they establish their bland acceptability; and so on.)

As Reynolds points out, digitization changed the equation for record companies. It offered them the temptation to reissue old product in new form rather than continue to cultivate new product from its stable of acceptable performers. The selling point was the convenience of CDs — they were easier to care for, easier to store, and easier to play in a customized way. This marketing emphasis moves the process of music listening ahead of the music itself and ahead of managed novelty. The problem for the music business is that this same convenience became a weapon against them — it allowed consumers to circumvent the system of managed novelty and expect more. It allowed to redistribute music themselves. And it it sanctified the idea that what was old wan’t just old but classic, and broadened that view beyond the hard-core collectors and music nerds.

The internet completes the destruction of the old system by democratizing distribution and the A&R functions. You don’t have to go to the record store and contemplate Danny Kirwan’s album because it is one of the few new things on the new releases wall. Instead a blend of new and old things get circulated within a dynamic online ecosystem that is tailored to each individual user on the basis of their social networks and so on. So the music business can no longer extort value through their ability to control the flow of professionally produced novelty; the flow is now a surfeit coming at consumers from all sorts of directions. And anyone (including me) can pass themselves off as a culture producer and inject content into the internet, leveraging their networks to get it exposure.

Value now is captured by harnessing the filtering that consumers perform for one another, monitoring the lateral cultural chatter and trying to time the implied markets. This is another aspect of the retromania phenomenon. Amateur bricoleurs sort through the digitized detritus of the past (Danny Kirwan solo albums, Falco, etc.), trying to make cultural capital out of it.

How one feels about the question of resistance probably depends on how successful one is at that task.