PopMatters talks with music critic Simon Reynolds about his new book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, as well as the modern state of pop futurism, the changing nature of music criticism, and the post-punk historian's favorite '80s alt-rock bands.
Since the '80s, British-born/American-based writer Simon Reynolds has been showcasing his analytical, articulate, and occasionally quite humorous approach to music criticism in most any major publication one can name, ranging from Melody Maker and Spin to The New York Times and The Guardian. He’s also a notable presence on the music section shelves of book stores due to his authorship of tomes including Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 and Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture, the former being the definitive and most engaging account of that genre/movement to be found. His newest book is Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (released in the UK on 2 June and due out in the US on 19 July), wherein he takes a broad-based yet more personal look at the 21st century’s increasing obsession with retro sounds and signifiers in lieu of the futurism and stylistic innovation that so motivated pop styles in previous decades.
In this interview, PopMatters and Reynolds not only chat about the origins of and questions posed by Retromania, but touch upon other subjects including the modern state of pop futurism, the changing nature of music criticism in the era of digiculture, and just what exactly one of the music press’ foremost proponents of post-punk and electronica thinks about alternative rock’s retro-adoring standard-bearers from the '80s.
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What inspired you to write Retromania?
It's something that's been at the back of my mind for ages now, but the real trigger was being bemused by an array of retro- and nostalgia-oriented phenomena I noticed around 2006 or so, everything from the "whole album" fad of artists performing their most iconic record in its entirety, to that Beatles remix record Love that George Martin and his son Giles made, to rock reenactments like the recreation at London's ICA a few years ago of a 1984 concert by members of Einsturzende Neubauten complete with the audience riot triggered by the performance. There was a spate of things and I started thinking, "Wow, this is pretty weird." I had also been thinking, in a kind of fascinated yet alarmed way, about the file-sharing blog scene and YouTube and how the musical past had become this is massive, ever-expanding online archive: almost like a new world, one in which you could become lost, but also a realm that bands and fans could explore and bring back strange treasure. A space of danger, but also possibility.
Why do you feel this fixation with the past is so pervasive now, as opposed to previous eras? Or is it just more discernible now than ever before?
It's been building for a while; many of the developments I look at in Retromania can be traced back to the ‘90s, even the ‘80s. But the 2000s was when everything came to a fruition: as the decade proceeded, there was a mounting sense of crisis and deadlock. In some ways Retromania is a history of the Noughties as a "like name, like nature" decade where "nought" happened: there was a bustle of micro-genres, a steady turnover of new artists, but no major new movements in music on a par with punk, hip hop, or rave. Instead, all the real innovative energy was in the way musical data was distributed, stored, shared, archived. From YouTube to file-sharing, it's simply possible now to drown in the past, without any financial cost, in a way that it never was before. So you get young fans and musicians who have heard a staggering amount of music by the age of 20, the kind of learning that would have once taken a lifetime of listening to absorb and a small fortune to pay for. Knowledge that was once hard to come by, scattered across books that were often obscure or out-of-print, is now out there for everybody to access. The question is whether this generation has been able to process all this music and knowledge, to digest it or even feel it in any kind of meaningful way. Much of this decade it felt like music culture has been shell-shocked by this sudden "affluence". But perhaps the generation that has grown up knowing nothing else but the digiculture conditions of super-abundance and atemporality, perhaps they'll be better placed to cope with it and make something out of it?
I do feel it's inevitable that this and later generations will achieve a sort of "digiculture equilibrium" somewhere down the line--just see how we all take inventions like television or telephones or even recorded sound for granted but when they first arrived they were astonishing developments that totally changed how people had received information for eons prior. Being able to record sound--the ultimate archival development--arguably helped society appreciate music even more than it had before. But you say "like name, like decade"--that's a rather damning view of music in the last decade, isn't it? Are there any promising artistic developments from the '00s you highlight in Retromania, ways out of the backwards-looking rut?
In terms of "Wow, FUTURE!" moments, they tend to be more sporadic for me, rather than genre-bound. In the ‘90s there were whole genres or movements that seemed like giant waves of innovation that sustained themselves over several years, or even a whole decade. So genres like jungle and UK garage, which were arguably really just stages within the same scene/genre. Or R&B, street rap, and dancehall. In the Noughties it felt more the case that genres were fairly static but every so often, amid a welter of fairly unadventurous work, you'd get a flash of something really new. I don't think R&B was nearly as innovative this past decade as it was in the ‘90s--think of the evolution from from Teddy Riley to Timbaland--but my jaw did drop at Rihanna's "Umbrella" and Beyonce's "Single Ladies".
Dubstep as a whole strikes me as an extension of the ‘90s, but it does regularly produce some really exciting stuff that feels "new-ish" or "new enough": Zomby's self-titled EP on Hyperdub, Cooly G's tracks on the same label, bits by James Blake and Ramadanman. I would actually argue that the pure wobble stuff that connoisseurs nowadays look down [upon] is the element within dubstep that is the genre's greatest claim to being a New Thing. And despite the disapproval of the scene's custodians, this new "filthstep" direction is just getting more abjectly gnarly and baroquely bass-warped with producers like Borgore and Stenchman. The Future, maybe, just not one that you'd want to spend too much time in! Elsewhere in electronic music there's been Villalobos, Actress, certain things by Oneohtrix Point Never and Laurel Halo . . .
One of the main areas throughout the music landscape where something exciting is going on is in the area of voice manipulation: digital texturizing of the voice using overdriven AutoTune, speeding and slowing down of vocals, micro-editing of vocal samples. You get that from the ultra-underground level of Chicago footwork through hiptronica (Burial, Blake) and witch house (Salem, et al) right across into the heart of the pop mainstream with Black Eyed Peas and Ke$ha. That is exciting, although if you think about it, it does trace back to the ‘90s and the vocal science of Todd Edwards and various UK garage and jungle producers. Not forgetting Cher!
Judging by the synopsis of the book, Retromania is less of a general history of backward-looking tendencies in popular culture and more theory-heavy than your previous book of original writing, Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. How did your approach to writing and research differ from that for your previous tome?
It's not theory-heavy so much as ideas-driven. There is an investigative element, with me going to interview people and check stuff out, but it is much more about ideas, cultural trends, and broad historical developments across late 20th century culture. For Rip It Up, I interviewed about 125 people; for Retromania, it was something like 40.
In a way, Retromania is a more explicitly personal book. Rip It Up is totally personal because it's a love letter to an era that had a profound formative effect on me. But on a chapter-by-chapter level, I step back and let the voices of the artists and other key figures of the period be heard. In Retromania, I am much more a presence: it's my take on what happened in the last decade, and there's a good amount that draws on my life, experience, and memories.
What do you think is more responsible for the presence of retro elements and signifiers in music: the establishment of and reverence for/fetishization of a musical canon (they got it right the first time, so why muck about with it), or plain ordinary lack of imagination?
One factor is simply that rock has been around for over five decades now, so there is just this massive accumulation of musical ideas, along with style and imagery, to draw on. At a certain point in a genre's history, the odds get increasingly stacked against innovation, because the past starts stacking up.
In Rip It Up and Start Again, you emphasized the futurist spirit of the post-punk movement--that whole rock-is-dead, pushing-creative-boundaries attitude that was enabled for a lot of people by punk rock's scorched-earth approach. As you touched on earlier, much contemporary electronic music is definitely forward-looking (in large part due to its reliance on cutting-edge technology), but who do you see as the 21st century inheritors of this sensibility in rock music? Or has the genre become too obsessed with rifling through the past for ideas (see: the still-enduring post-punk revival, all these noise pop/C86 wannabes like Vivian Girls and Best Coast) to prevent it from yielding anything truly innovative these days?
What's interesting is that for so many the innovation issue is not considered urgent. "Is this innovative?" is not a question that people are asking so much. So with Vivian Girls and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, or the Vaccines in the UK, what's striking is that these groups have their supporters who don't seem to regard their derivativeness to be a blemish. You couldn’t even talk about apologists for those bands because they're not in the least apologetic: the absence of innovation doesn't bother or embarrass them.
For me what's really startling about those three groups is that they have returned to the same set of mostly ‘60s influences that were already seeming rather obvious and played-out when the C86 bands were deploying them. I lived through C86, it was one of the things I wrote about as a cub reporter at Melody Maker, and although there were interesting things about the scene to do with the clothing and the overall vibe and ethos of "cutie" (as it was also known), the music even in 1986 seemed distinctly backward-looking. Twenty-five [years] later we have groups returning to the exact same stagnant pool of influences, and getting a good amount of journalistic hype.
There's a bunch of vaguely rock-aligned groups, what you might call post-indie, who are doing interesting things with the archival overload of music history while also keeping their ears tuned to what's going on with contemporary dance music and black pop, and furthermore in some cases also checking out ideas from outside the Anglo-American rock/pop tradition. Animal Collective would the key group for that in the last decade, they brought a new vibe to alternative music. Gang Gang Dance also. I actually think Vampire Weekend have done some innovative, or at least very fresh, things. Micachu and the Shapes made a really cool record with Jewellery and tUnE-YarDs, who I also like, are in some ways the American Micachu and the Shapes.