Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past: Simon Reynolds : Faber & Faber

Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past
Simon Reynolds
Faber & Faber

It seems we are living in a pop age gone crazy for it’s own past. Now-a-days every past band from Bananarama to Urge Overkill is dusting off their equipment and heading out on a reunion tour. Re-formations, expanded reissues of classic albums and outtake-crammed box sets, remakes and sequels, tribute albums and mash-ups all will inevitably follow.. Ok nice, given the aging populations. the new availability of formats like MP3, itunes, etc. But remember, Pop and Rock are really only n it’s first generational cycle. What happens when we run out of the past? Author Simon Reynolds asks “Are we heading toward a sort of culturalecological catastrophe where the archival stream of pop history has been exhausted?”

Creator of Rip it Up and Start Again, punk’s great legacy, Simon Reynolds has been lauded as one of the finest music writers of his generation. He suggests that we are nearing the tipping point and that although earlier eras had their own obsessions with antiquity —For instance the Renaissance had obsession for Roman and Greek classicism, the Gothic movement’s worshiped medievalism, The Victorian embraced the historical artefacts of Japan and the new colonies— never has there been a society so obsessed with the cultural artefacts of its our own immediate past.

This book examines the cult and industry of retro and asks the question: Will our obsession for the past kill off any originality and distinctiveness of our own? In the light of recent Big Day Out Headliners Soundgarden and upcoming tourists Creedance Clearwater Revival it would be worth asking what role and relevance these bands play in today’s music culture. Soundgarden, for example have long been referred to as Grunge Pioneers, yet by their own admittance they are a band that is not intended to last. Adopting the punk ethic of a do-it-yourslef, paper the cracks and live fast and die young the band created a maelstrom of driving chords, infectious tunes and power angst that was meant to sum up the youth of the 80’s but never to last past the decade. I wondered as I watched three greying rockers (dressed as bike mechanics, slowly moving about the stage) what their impact would be on the teens of today. So has Reynolds, when he questioned the revived tours of The Sex Pistols and panty dampers Boyzone. Truth be told, the main audience attendance in all cases were guitar players and aging punks with their nephews. And in the case of Boybands, grownup teeny bopper mums and their daughters. CCR will attract a sing along classic hits crowd. The simple truth is that we like to connect with our past and relive the glories. Why else would grown men collect old cars, women keep love letters or grannies keep their wedding photos and marriage china. The reality is our past is what makes us. Music is no different and Retromania feeds off that.

There is no doubt Reynolds is a musical trainspotter and his work is pretty comprehensive, evidence based and thoroughly researched. That said 500 pages is far too long for the tenuous and uncertain conclusions he inevitably reaches. He skips from genre to genre and band to band with only loose and unsatisfactory theories to bind the narrative. Disappointedly, it seems there is no music from the 2000's remotely as good as the best albums from previous decades. He concludes Retro has killed true innovation, yet Rock itself was a remodelling of blues, blues was a modelling from Jazz, music hall and before that Spirituals. So in that argument we learn and steal from the past to build our new. He also argues that the technological marvels of the decade have not made our music significantly better. Just flashier. I wonder on that one. As I meet artists creating techno from laptops and composing, as Bjork did, on iPads, what’s new and what’s retro?
Clearly, Reynolds is a man from the pre-2000’s. he embraces Punk as the true rock’n’roll but I think he’s missed a major opportunity by his summary dismissal of Mashup and other emerging genres - surprising, because the real story of Mashup-- a bunch of mostly British weirdos labouring in obscurity whose work suddenly blew up and was immediately absorbed by the mainstream-- sounds exactly like all the stories Reynolds tells about punk, electronica, and 60's rock. He dismisses Mashup as a "fad," "a barren genre-- nothing will come from it." Yet half the decade's pop music grew from the seeds Mashup planted, from Madonna's "Hung Up" through Lady Gaga, the Black Eyed Peas, much of Kanye, Katy Perry and the current genre gumbo we find ourselves in. If anything music has become so indefinable we can only identify past genres (and label them as retro – retro punk, retro-garage, retro-pscho-billy) and look to the new innovations as emerging styles, yet to be identified and consumed. Ultimately, I find talking to musicians that they just crate and play what’s in their head. It’s up to us listeners and journalists to come up with the labels and categories.
That argument aside, 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. Yet, at the end of the 500 pages does he really answer his own big question: Why is music currently like this and is it a bad thing?

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.
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 that very phenomenon. Yet, 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. Reynolds is still, though a pleasant critic with whom to explore this topic and avoids that grating and bitching styles of so many other critics can be, which is no mean feat.
Simon Reynolds is a music critic whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Village Voice, Spin, Rolling Stone, and Artforum. He is the author of five previous books, including Rip It Up and Start Again.

Check out Reynolds' Blog:

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