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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.
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on April 30, 2012
I bought this book because I share the author's fascination about how so much of today's pop culture recycles, remixes, or simply worships the pop culture of the not so distant past. I was a bit surprised, however, to learn that this book is 95% about pop/rock music. You will find a little about fashion, a little about art, but next to nothing about film, TV, or literature. If the word "Culture" were replaced by the word "Music" in the title, it would be a bit more accurate.

That said, Simon Reynolds is a walking encyclopedia of rock, and he name-drops seemingly thousands of recording artists and movements, at least half of which are profoundly obscure. Though my knowledge is far more limited than his, I didn't find Reynolds' tone to be snobbish or exclusive. He clearly wants to share his passion for music history and has taken care to write something that anybody with a healthy interest in pop/rock over the last 60 years will be able to follow.

A warning, though: the book covers a LOT of ground. It's not a brisk or easy read - you may find yourself, like me, going through a couple of pages, then heading straight to YouTube in order to listen to the music of the many esoteric artists that are referenced. But hey, that expands your horizons, which is a good thing.
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on January 12, 2012
Simon Reynolds creates a glorious mess here, providing a thought-provoking and sometimes maddening look at contemporary culture's obsession with the... not-contemporary. Highly recommended. One note, however, is that the Kindle version has formatting issues. It does not account for the sidebar texts in the layout, which results in having to read the main and secondary texts in alternating paragraphs.
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on July 13, 2014
I’ll start by getting the parts that might turn some people off, but this book is well worth getting past these points. First, the book is mostly about music, not all possible variations on the retro theme. There is some stuff on other retro trends, but music dominates the vast majority of the book. Second, the author’s treatment is academic and occasionally a bit too verbose. He could have trimmed some sections and not lost a bit of impact.

Having those things out of the way, the fascinating topic and the quality of the analysis makes this book just fantastic, especially if one is well-versed in the last 60 years or so of popular music and wants some intriguing insights into where it’s been and where it’s going. Reynolds dissects our urge to look backwards, and puts today in its proper context.

There have always been retro trends, many of which Reynolds documents at various points in the book, but not all are created equal, and there is good reason to think that recent trends are not just “cyclical” and “we’ve been here before” and similar excuses for why there is a dearth of definitively new sounds. The dynamic of “retro” is too complex to explain it in a short review, but there are times when it can spur creativity and help new musical movements launch, and other times where the trend seems to be a calcifying influence that kills the fun for any but the most hardcore. Reynolds explains his problems with retro, particularly the seemingly greater extent of it that we have today. There is good reason to think the super-retro trends of recent vintage are not what has come before, but a new version of retro, influenced by the altered nature of archiving and information in the modern era enabled by computers and the instant access of places like youtube, the virtually infinite music repository. This new access to information and archiving changes how we think and approach music, and unfortunately might have an unintended effect of constant rehash, homage, and mash-up, sacrificing innovation. It raises the possibility that we will be eternally stuck in a backward-looking loop that doesn’t allow more innovative music to emerge. All of this analysis by Reynolds is authoritative and (at least to me) fascinating.

In a note not directly related to music, I also liked the reference to the documentary, "The future is not what it used to be," which I have since watched and is about Erkki Kurenniemi, a Finnish pioneer of electronic music, computers, and robotics. The guy starts out as an innovator, pushing the boundaries of everything he comes across, and today he is totally inward-looking, manically documenting every minutia of his life with photos and descriptions—he even says we should save every receipt and tram slip—in an archive for some future humans to care about when they are bored with their future lives and wish to recreate the past. Rather than creativity, we have curators. Reynolds called the transformation the "perfect parable for our times."

Reading the book also made me think of my own music listening habits—Reynolds generally considers retro trends to be negative compared to those explosions of creativity (like the 60s), but he finds himself indulging in some of the same tendencies retro musicians engage in, like being a bit of an archivist, with curation of an interesting collection being paramount. I have a bit of that tendency, too, as well as liking certain past eras better than most other music including anything going on today. Some of the stuff he talked about returning to a past era and collecting third- and fourth-tier work in spite of the lack of remaining "gems" reminded me of some of my excesses. I ended up reflecting quite a bit on my own music collection (and listening to a number of albums I hadn’t touched in a while) and thinking on how backward looking my own tastes can be sometimes.

So, it’s perhaps a bit long and wordy, but the book rewards those who read it with some great analysis and a lot to think about. Recommended to anyone, and the highest of recommendations to those interested in popular music of the last few decades.
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on November 13, 2014
I started this thinking it was something I'd been waiting for, analysis of impact of current technology on the nature and experience of culture. It's there but incomplete and soon bogged down in an ocean of necessarily haphazard detail that exemplifies the predicament it had started by trying to describe and analyse. First part 5 stars, bulk 2, average 3, average.
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on October 23, 2014
Music critic Simon Reynolds is perhaps best-known for his coining of the term, “post-rock.” He is also regarded for his incorporation of critical theory in his analysis of music. His 2011 book, Retromania was my first encounter with his writing.

“I recently read Simon Reynolds’ Retromania and it was so spot-on as far as our current attitude to music and its history. For my money he’s one of the most intelligent music writers in the last two decades”
— DJ Food

Retromania turned out to be much more than a critical examination of popular culture’s fascination with its past. It was a revealing study of my own approach to culture, trends, styles, and music. And I’m certain that I wasn’t alone in this discovery. Like most readers who made the personal decision to read 500 pages of cultural analysis by a music critic, it demonstrates the emerging and growing demographic of cultural curators.

Brian Eno noticed the rise of the curator and grasped its implications way ahead of the pack. In 1991, reviewing a book on hypertext for Artforum, he proclaimed: Curatorship is arguably the big new job of our times: it is the task of re-evaluating, filtering, digesting, and connecting together. In an age saturated with new artifacts and information, it is perhaps the curator, the connection maker, who is the new storyteller, the meta-author.’

The new century is rich with metadata and globally-accessible archives of content from all cultures and eras. Youtube alone adds 100 hours of new video content every minute, and the emergence of music streaming services have only further-accelerated the accessibility of media, old and new alike. This raises perhaps one of the biggest questions of our era: can culture survive in conditions of limitlessness?

Chapter 4: The Rise of the Rock Curator was the first glimpse into my own rationale as a cultural custodian. It begins with the New Musical Express’ weekly column in the early 1980s – ”Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer.” Several rock groups of the decade presented their music with a kind of invisible reading-and-movie-watching list attached, conveyed through literary references within their lyrics of images depicted on their album jackets. (Sgt. Peppers is perhaps the best-known example of this execution.)

Reynolds writes that “being a Throbbing Gristle or Coil fan was like enrolling in a university course of cultural extremism, the music virtually coming with footnotes and a ‘Further Reading’ section attached.”

As the decade progressed, this curatorial baton was passed from the artists to their fan-base, who began, (whether consciously or unconsciously) to compile not just their favorite artist’s records, but the films, novels, and art which inspired their recordings.

The book goes on to explore the nature of collector-culture in the digital age and touches upon both the decisively retro action of record collecting and the inherent merits and dysfunctions associated with the activity, as well as the hoarding habits of media collection with respect to digital music.

But it was in a chapter on the 60s’ embrace of revivalism that I found the greatest revelation regarding my own bizarre fascination with music, art, and culture of the past. Reynolds writes -

Remember the Pop Boutique store in central London with its slogan ‘Don’t follow fashion. Buy something that’s already out of date’? Just as vintage can have an undercurrent of recalcitrance towards fashion, similarly it is possible for rock nostalgia to contain dissident potential. If Time has become annexed by capitalism’s cynical cycles of product shifting, one way to resist that is to reject temporality altogether. The revivalist does this by fixating on one era and saying: ‘Here I make my stand.’ By fixing identity to the absolute and abiding supremacy of one sound and one style, the revivalist says, ‘ This is me.’

Retromania is a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening read. In a simple skimming of the book’s index, I found what was effectively a list of the contents of my own studio. The book examines:

Pierre Henry’s Le voile d’Orphée I et II
Varese’s Poème électronique
Perrey & Kingsley’s The In Sound From Way Out!
Bell Telephone Laboratories
The BBC Radiophonic Workshop
The Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center
Raymond Scott’s Manhattan Research Inc
The City of Tomorrow (1924)
Blade Runner
The Philips Prospective 21e Siècle label
The 1956 Ideal Home Exhibition
1958 World’s Fair in Brussels
Metropolis
Amazing Stories
Cold War Modern: Design 1945-1970
Disney’s Tomorrowland
Einstürzende Neubauten
The Winstons’ Amen Break
Negativland
Public Image Ltd.
The Black Dog
Stereolab
Plunderphonics
2 Many DJs
24 Hour Party People
William Basinski
Steinski
Pop Will Eat Itself
Throbbing Gristle
Eno & Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
iPod Therefore I Am
Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children
The Avalanches’ Since I Left You
fifties revivalism
The Man Who Fell to Earth
The Hauntology Exhibition at the Berkley Art Museum
The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld
The KLF / Justified Ancients of Mu Mu
DJ Shadow’s monumental Endtroducing LP
The glo-fi / chillwave / hypnagogic pop scene

and much, much more!
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on September 6, 2011
This is certainly a book for those who that current popular music and popular culture in general seems to be lacking in originality and just wants to reinvent the past instead of the future. Reynolds does a great job of marshalling the evidence in form of the overwhelming number of reunion tours, rock documentaries and focus on the glory days of the past. However, he never really answers his own big question namely, why is music currently like this and is it a bad thing?

There are wonderful chapters that tie into the early retro-revivals like Northern Soul and another one about Japanese bands who do spot on sound and sigh renditions of previous anglo bands, hence Reynolds' statement that all of pop music is "Turning Japanese." However, he never seems to talk about the artists that really have come to define pop music. Even though the White Stripes and the Strokes getting passing references he never spends any time on either band, even though those two artists came to define the sound of 2000's rock and attitude. Nor does he spend anytime analyzing the current state of hip-hop, which he has written about extensively. While it can be argued that current hip-hop has gotten a bit lazy, its certainly not true that it is in any way trying to be retro (ie trying to sound like say 1992, or 1987 or what not.)

So in the end the book is a bit unsatisfying your get mini profiles of scenes and artists but no take on "what it all means."
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on May 24, 2016
Got repetitive real fast. Summary: Today's pop culture gets all of its styles from past generations; today's pop culture has no soul nor style of its own. The end.
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on December 23, 2012
At times, I found the writing style a bit academic--not what I was expecting. Another problem with expectations: the title and cover art don't indicate that the book is 98% about popular music. There are a few mentions of fashion and fine art, and little discussion of other aspects of culture, pop or otherwise.

I felt that the last couple chapters made up for the overly long and draggy midsections. Reynolds's discussion of "retro-futurism" in science fiction and contemporary classical music, and the last chapter, describing current technology and popular music, were spot-on.
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on January 26, 2016
fantastic analysis.
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