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.
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Reynolds even dips into the literary world, giving Kathy Acker a well-considered cameo. It turns out that the writer spoke of her 1986 reworking of Don Quixote as being directly inspired by appropriation art: “What I really wanted to do was a Sherrie Levine painting…. I wanted to see whether I could do something similar with prose.” Acker and other postmodern writers, as well as Levine and her Pictures Generation compatriots, incorporated pre-existing art into their work, sometimes as a way of seeking space as women within a male-dominated context, sometimes to interrogate ideas such as artistic originality, autonomous genius and the status of individual identity under capitalism. But to Reynolds, these acts of creative larceny amount to one more step down the wrong path. Another misstep was The Whitey Album, a tribute-packed record by the Sonic Youth side project Ciccone Youth, which seems to get under Reynolds’s skin because it epitomizes the way Sonic Youth, with its gallery-scene roots, acted as a sort of Patient Zero (“the ultimate portal band,” Reynolds grumbles), infecting pop music with viruses running already rampant in the art world.
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Retromania has received a lot of media attention, most of it glowing, since its publication in July. Clearly, Reynolds has tapped into a widespread cultural apprehension and given us much to think about. Yet his argument has several fundamental problems, beginning with his blatant disregard of the First Law of Pop Thermodynamics: no music will ever matter as much as the stuff you loved at 16. Reynolds also ignores the corollary to this law: taking drugs can get you pretty close to recapturing that teenage Eden, but only for a little while.
Nothing Reynolds hears these days excites him the way postpunk did when he was in high school, or the way rave did in the early 1990s, when he was 28 and on Ecstasy. (He does not talk here of using drugs during his rave phase, but in his 1999 book on the scene, Generation Ecstasy, he wrote of partying on the drug.) Yet instead of recognizing his shifts in reception as a side effect (pace Joey Ramone) of growing up, he wallows in disappointment and blames contemporary pop. This is risky: an unsympathetic reader could easily brand Retromania the cri de coeur of a dad whose life is overrun with new responsibilities and early bedtimes, complaining that nobody is making music like they used to anymore. The cranky, condescending tone of the book’s early pages does nothing to dispel this interpretation. “Even bands no one ever gave a shit about are re-forming,” he writes, and he later decries the 2008 full-album concert by Van Morrison that spawned “a new album with the hideous title Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl.” Sometimes he just lets the can-you-believe-it italics do the snarling for him: Lenny Kaye’s “archaeological dig into rock antiquity involves music as recent as four years previously.” Reynolds’s targets are generally artists, musicians and nerdy collector types, and seeing him shovel scorn on them is like watching a valedictorian dress down his high school’s photography and Dungeons & Dragons clubs for being intolerable nerds.
There’s simply no way for a pop musician or pop-loving artist to win his game. If a re-creation of an event—a seminal museum appearance-cum-riot by Blixa Bargeld and other members of Einstürzende Neubauten, say—is too keen on getting the details right, he takes to task those involved for betraying the improvisatory flavor of the original. (“While today’s mellow, urbane Bargeld was tickled pink, I can’t help suspecting that the young, amphetamine-wired Blixa would have seen red.”) If a concert or rave cherry-picks hits from the past, it’s engaging in faithless sugarcoating. The latter, we are told, was the problem with a retro-’90s rave whose DJs played only the best tracks from the era, rather than going for verisimilitude by interspersing the hits amid a sea of novelty crud. (Thanks to the First Law, though, Reynolds still remembers it as “a fantastic party, full of hands-in-the-air fervour.”) For Reynolds, the only way not to betray the past is to toss it in the dustbin: “Maybe we need to forget. Maybe forgetting is as essential for a culture as it is existentially and emotionally necessary for individuals.” But while such historical myopia might in small doses feel novel, even liberating, it’s hardly a sound principle on which to base one’s assessment of art. Reynolds, an uncommonly astute cultural critic, has to know this. So what’s holding him back?
It takes him nearly 300 pages to confess what by that point is beyond obvious: his so-called addiction to the future is itself motivated by wistfulness and nostalgia. He stops there, though, failing to see (or at least admit) that, disappointed by his inability to find transcendent experiences—bliss, to borrow the name of his pioneering music blog—in contemporary pop music, he is targeting others in whom he recognizes his own detested tendencies. It would not be overstating things to say that the first third of his book, with its curmudgeonly excess, is characterized by a great deal of repressed self-loathing. Later, he stifles the opprobrium to engage in more straightforward stories of people’s varying relationships to pop pasts, but his peevishness lingers anyway, like smoke from one burning house suffusing an entire block.
It didn’t have to be this way. Reynolds could have admitted at the outset that he is powerless over his necessarily unquenchable addiction to the way music made him feel when he was young and free (and less knowledgeable about the history of pop). He then could have launched in good faith into an exploration of the world of his fellow future addicts, seeking to understand with equanimity the qualities of pop he thinks have stranded us in a dead end.
This approach likely would have helped Retromania avoid its surfeit of sourness and the strain one detects as Reynolds shoehorns diverse phenomena into his framework (or, in some places, stops bothering). It also would have complemented his faith, however uninterrogated, in authentic emotional expression. He wants to detect “felt emotion behind the songs”; he wants them to be expressions of “personal experience” that sound like they were “torn from the soul” and evince no sign of “a tumour of not-really-meaning-it.” He announces these preferences without acknowledging that the idea of expressivity has long been a complicated one, especially in those arts—poetry, classical music, visual art—that have been shaken by an avant-garde or two. At least since Rimbaud, poets have questioned the “lyric subject,” the presumed knowable and unified self that voices a poem out of a simply occupied subject position. Anybody whose identity in the world is not taken for granted—this would include, at the least, women, colonized subjects, queers, nonwhites—is likely to have a more fraught relation to selfhood and thus to the idea of authentically expressing that self. What’s more, in his simultaneous devotions to music’s development and to its “torn from the soul” quality, Reynolds ignores how twentieth-century music’s greatest break with the past served precisely to drive a wedge between music and emotional expression. I’m thinking of Arnold Schönberg’s formulation of the tone row during the 1920s; in the years that followed, not only notes’ tones but their duration, attack and dynamic level were brought under the sway of serialism’s mathematical rigor by composers who sensed the limits of treating music exclusively as an instrument of “felt emotion.” To require sincerity in music while cursing it for not moving forward is like tying a dog’s ankles together and then scolding it for staying put when you call.
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At the heart of this profoundly unfashionable—indeed, deliberately anti-fashionable—book is a deep anxiety about, even a bitter rejection of, the polyvalent, citational character of contemporary culture. Reynolds would be more convincing if he addressed his animus toward postmodernism head-on, attempting a direct critique of it on the merits. Instead he far too often reports and ridicules in the same breath, sketching history in order to scorn it, like a small-town editorial writer visiting the Whitney Biennial and then demanding, the answer already arrived at, “But is it art?” When, close to the end of Retromania, Reynolds finally admits that there might be a philosophical issue at hand, he wiggles out of arguing it by pleading personal preference: “As a died[sic]-in-the-wool modernist…I would find it hard to break the habit of a lifetime, to kick ‘tomorrow.’ Giving it up would feel like giving in, learning to settle for less.” This from the man who worries that pop is stuck in the past? To anyone who thought that modernism was a historical paradigm, the stuff of intellectual history, Reynolds brings to mind Buckley’s conservative, who stands athwart history yelling, “Stop!”
For a book that is all about bemoaning a failure to move forward, this is quite a paradox. It might simply be a sign that Reynolds, however reluctantly, is of his age, consigned to making an argument with an irresolvable contradiction at its core. What he never seems to realize is that the feeling of absorption, of flow, that he pines for in his contemporary experience of pop music isn’t beyond his grasp. It can come simply from making a conscious effort to investigate the qualities of the present moment, and from cultivating a willingness to go along and an openness to being surprised. Sometimes music reaches out and grabs us by the scruff of the neck; sometimes (especially as we grow older) we have to decide to reach out to the music instead. The very sense of history and reference—the inescapable citationality—that bugs Reynolds does not bespeak an era without authentic characteristics: this is its characteristic. We can blame the present for not giving us the rush of techno past, or we can explore it in a spirit of genuine curiosity to see what it has to offer. The choice is ours, if we are humble and honest enough to make it.