The future just isn’t what it used to be. NASA’s shuttle program has been mothballed, Disney’s Tomorrowland looks more antique than futuristic and speculative sci-fi has been eclipsed by vampires and zombies. This failure of productive imagination, this lethal persistence of the undead, can be detected perhaps most perniciously—or so argues Simon Reynolds in Retromania—in the realm of pop music, where Top Forty artists rehash everything from blue-eyed soul to Euro-trance, blatantly failing to create anything genuinely new.
“We live in a pop age gone loco for retro,” writes Reynolds, a prolific British-born, Los Angeles–based critic whose previous books described the subcultures of rave and postpunk with sympathy and style. In his new book he draws on sources ranging from Harold Bloom to Jean Baudrillard, Walter Benjamin to Billboard, in an attempt to flesh out his longstanding interest in pop’s tendency to romanticize its history and cannibalize its past. At the rate we’re going, Reynolds suggests, within the next decade or so there’ll be no pop left to plunder. In the meantime, while the necrophiliac masses happily cram their iPods with the latest recaps of the old, Reynolds and his fellow “future addicts” (a minority, he admits) will get ever more bored, and “music”—he repeatedly says “music” when he means “pop music,” a significant substitution—will die.
The retro turn Reynolds diagnoses has been especially apparent to my peer group in the past two or three years, ever since the revival caravan, which operates like clockwork on a twenty-year lag, rolled up to the pop culture of our teen years. The Pixies reunited, and Pavement did too; the twentieth anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind sparked broad reminiscences; Pearl Jam was given the lifetime-achievement rock-doc treatment. Of course, this retro craze is far from new: pop artists have been ripping off and building on the sounds of their predecessors ever since old-time and bluegrass raided traditional British Isles tunes and blues musicians borrowed from slave songs. But Reynolds believes this tendency is now worse than ever, that the cycles of revival are accelerating and intensifying, and that there’s a disturbing amount of pop that consists entirely of citation and quotation—Girl Talk being the most obvious example, freak-folk a rather subtler one. Even without his doomsday narrative, the phenomenon is overdue for a sustained critical study, and Reynolds is to be applauded for diving in.
In many ways, he is the perfect person to conduct this investigation. He listens to scads of music and writes about it excellently, and he has a formidable grasp of the history of pop, especially in Britain. Thanks to these strengths, the middle third of the book, which traces a history of pop borrowing from the 1960s to the present, is particularly engaging.
Another trait that works in his favor is his cultural range: Retromania develops its central theme by examining not only pop music but art (particularly re-enactments and appropriation art), fashion, television and digital technologies. His readings of the latter are particularly thorough and intelligent. Of YouTube, Reynolds writes that it offers “the consumer-empowering convenience of the time display at the bottom of the video, which allows the viewer to drag the scroll bar and jump within the video clip (or song) to get to ‘the good bit’ sooner. YouTube, based around excerpts, is already in the business of fragmenting larger narratives (the programme, the movie, the album), but this function actually encourages us, as viewers, to break cultural fragments into even smaller subunits, insidiously eroding our ability to concentrate and our willingness to let something unfold. As with the Internet as a whole, our sense of temporality grows ever more brittle and inconstant.” Of the iPod: “The social aspect is completely absent. Instead of the chance encounters and risky collisions”—such as walking through a dorm and hearing neighbors’ music—“the iPod offers by way of compensation the solitary thrill of total mastery.” Of the computer desktop: “My self and the screen are one; the various pages and windows simultaneously open add up to a picture of ‘continuous partial attention’…. It’s the ‘present’ I inhabit that really feels stretched thin, a here-and-now pierced by portals to innumerable potential elsewheres and elsewhens.” This strain of techno alarmism is not new (see The Shallows and You Are Not a Gadget), but Reynolds’s distillation of it is almost potent enough to seduce a reader into his apocalyptic worldview.