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Thought-provoking look at retro by English pop music critic
on September 15, 2011
"Retromania" is a long, extensive thought-piece on the rise to dominance of "retro" culture by the expat British pop critic Simon Reynolds (b. 1963). While Reynolds looks at the influence of retro in many areas of culture, from fashion to cinema to television, the real focus is on pop music. As we are living through a (permanent?) high tide of retro, it is impossible to fully understand as it seems to swamp every aspect of our cultural lives, so it's hardly surprising that Reynolds seems at times puzzled by the phenomenon. But he approaches the topic with intelligence, honesty, an almost bizarrely extensive knowledge of pop music history, and also a flair for writing. I found the book to be fascinating and I am sure I will be reflecting on the ideas Reynolds presents in the future. Finally, I found Reynolds to be a pleasant critic with whom to explore this topic - he isn't grating in the way so many critics can be, which is no mean feat.
I have a couple of comments and criticisms but let me start by summarizing the various parts of this sprawling and idea-filled book:
Reynolds lays out the initial approach to "retro" in his introduction, wittily titled "The `Re' Decade." What is retro? Reynolds later on presents a parsing of the word when covering 1960s fashion. Writers on fashion differentiate between "historicism", which is inspired by styles from a fairly remote time period (say, the Edwardian period), and "retro", the self-conscious remaking of art initially made within living memory (e.g. writing a song that sounds just like Alice in Chains' 90s output). Reynolds rightly comments that the two categories flow into each other and points out how the 2000s (which he calls the "noughties") involved the recycling of every style. He senses that this re-cycling has overwhelmed the forward- or inward-looking creative impulse and wonders why this urge to recycle has become so strong and whether it portends a poverty of artistic creativity: "Is nostalgia stopping our culture's ability to surge forward or are we nostalgic precisely because our culture has stopped moving forward?" Then he quotes the eclectic songwriter Sufjan Stevens: "Rock and roll is a museum piece." Reynolds returns to a general reflection of the issue in his concluding chapter "The Shock of the Old", where he meditates on why he is so uncomfortable with the retro phenomenon. But note that this book is an examination and not polemical commentary.
In between, he covers many topics: the resurgence of reunion tours and retrospective recording issuances in the 2000s, the influence of digital copying on the creation of a shallow grazing culture among listeners and viewers (I could write an entire review about this interesting chapter), record collecting in the age of cheap digital copies, the rise of "curators" specializing in all byways of pop music and other art forms, and the fact that this retro consciousness actually manifested itself in Japan in the 1980s, before its full rise to prominence in Europe and the Americas. There's a very interesting chapter on fashion in the 1960s, on the 1950s revival (which never ends), use of music samples and the reaction to retro-mania, involving a desire for greater orientation towards the future.
In examining the subject, Reynolds deploys not only his extensive knowledge of pop music (and I mean extensive - this book gave me a full picture of all this music I will never hear - which is actually one of the themes in the section on technology and record collecting) but also insights by well-known writers such as Jean Baudrillard, Walter Benjamin, of course, and also applies Harold Bloom's "anxiety of influence" idea.
Reynolds is a snappy, stylish writer. For example: "Metastasis, the word for the spread of disease through the body, inadvertently pinpoints the malaise of postmodern pop: there is a profound connection between meta-ness (referentiality, copies of copies) and stasis (the sensation that pop history has come to a halt)." Nice phrase turning there.
I'm just scratching the surface of a rich book, one that has been written out of passionate interest. I have a couple of comments that I will briefly add before recommending that you order this book and read it. First, I wish Reynolds had paid more attention to demographics. We live in a weird culture where adolescent musical tastes are retained seemingly in perpetuity into old age. The fact that the developed world is in the midst of a major transition as the swollen post-war generation ages and assumes a majority status is logically going to have a big effect on cultural trends, given this retention of tastes. Reynolds is seemingly oblivious to this, based on his extensive references to punk and post-punk music. Punk to me is a minor footnote to music history (I give the bands credit for humor and not taking themselves seriously), but the point is that Reynolds grew up with this music and refers back to it constantly, seemingly out of all proportion to its interest. This constant thinking about punk is natural, given the retention of tastes and Reynolds' demographic. But a twenty-something referencing punk today is going to mean something quite a bit different from when Reynolds does. So one of the interesting things about current retro culture is how influential it is on young people, who re-create the 60s or 70s without having lived through them. I wish Reynolds had been more focussed on this distinction. Also, note how Japan - the harbinger of our demographic shift - indulged in retromania in the 1980s (oh oh). Secondly, I wish Reynolds had spent some time thinking and listening to an echo of the retro phenomenon in the classical musical world, the emergence of neoclassicism (a word which only briefly appears in the book) in the early 20th century (e.g. Igor Stravinsky work in the 1920-30s). I think a look farther back in history would have provided a bit of context. Third, Reynolds puzzlingly doesn't devote enough time to rap and hip-hop, which exhibit many retro traits and are an important part of our current ahistoricity and retromania. But these quibbles didn't interfere with my appreciating Reynolds' thoughtfulness and ability to integrate materials and thoughts.
"Retromania" is a fascinating book which I think you will like.