Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past
Faber and Faber, 2011
Has pop culture’s past ever been so abundantly present? From remakes in film and television to the return of just about everything in fashion, it often seems that way. In Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past, pop music critic Simon Reynolds (interviewed by Alex Niven  in this issue) suggests that the first decade of the new millennium was the “re-decade”, a period characterised by “revivals, reissues, remakes and re-enactments”. “Instead of being about itself,” Reynolds argues, “the noughties has been about every other previous decade, happening again all at once.”
Though best known as a music critic, Reynolds wrote his two major previous books, Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture (1998) and Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-84 (2005), in the role of music journalist-turned-pop historian. In these works, the impulse to construct a comprehensive and canonical narrative largely predominated over aesthetic discussion and theory. Retromania is different: much less consistently a work of storytelling, it features whole chapters exploring the psychological, sociological, and technological dimensions of our current predicament. In spending so much time analysing the present, it becomes an historical work in a different sense—a record of one music writer’s reaction to the vastly reordered landscape of pop culture consumption.
After an introduction and a prologue outlining Reynolds’s ideas and assumptions about the concept of retro and its present ubiquity, the book is divided into sections titled “Now” (which examines the contemporary moment), “Then” (which consists of detailed accounts of pop music revivals since the 1950s), and “Tomorrow” (which discusses contemporary music and cases of “lost futures”). The “Then” section is where Retromania’s real strength lies, a return to the rich history-telling textures of Energy Flash and Rip It Up. A survey of every significant pop revival since “trad jazz”, it offers an absorbing alternative narrative of pop’s development and highlights the constant repurposing of the old. Reynolds describes fascinatingly kooky figures and bands, such as Ian Levine, Billy Childish, Dr. Feelgood, The Cramps, and Sha Na Na (a doo-wop revival band that performed immediately before Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock).
It is surprising to learn just how much 70s and 80s pop was influenced by that of the 50s and 60s. Reynolds talks of “endless revivals”, but if music-makers and fans have always continually returned to the simplicity of rock ‘n’ roll, aren’t these revivals better viewed as evidence of a continuing tradition, a recurring myth or cultural trope that sometimes tops the charts and sometimes languishes in relative obscurity, but always, in the end, defines the genre? To paraphrase one of Reynolds’s own interviewees, no one accuses classical orchestras of a revival of 19th-century German music. Moreover, Reynolds often misses an important aspect of what might be taken to be revivalism: when the past returns it will inevitably be accompanied by different sounds, different audiences, and different meanings (however subtle those differences may be). He expresses disappointment with 80s band The Jesus and Mary Chain’s use of sugary 50s and 60s pop, for example, but doesn’t recognise that that band’s use of distinctive guitar and vocal timbres, slower tempos, and heavier reverb ultimately transformed their original references quite profoundly.
“Tomorrow” is the shortest section in the book, tying together music of the noughties, “nostalgia for the future” as expressed by the post-war European avant-garde, and cultural theory. Relatively little time is spent on more recent musical developments such as hauntology and hypnagogic pop, which are lumped together with retro hip-hop and mash-up culture, while other acts of the last decade are mentioned only in passing. In attempting to understand the cultural climate in the wake of postmodernism, Reynolds examines and applies the theory of Nicolas Bourriaud—such as his concept of the “altermodern”—which was never really distinct enough from the concepts of classic postmodernism to make a major contribution to the critical terrain and which is not entirely compelling in its appearance here.
While “Then” and “Tomorrow” contain Retromania’s most interesting material, it’s the “Now” section that really typifies the book and presents some of its most thought-provoking claims. Reynolds catalogues every facet of pop music’s current cultural and technological situation, contexts that, he argues, have all in some way caused the eponymous malaise to take hold. He identifies the culprits as, for example, pop music museums, band reunions, Internet sites like YouTube, the allure of record collecting, mp3s (and the “sharity blogs” that provide them), iPods, rock curators, retrospectively invented genres, boxed set reissues, and postmodern hipster culture in general. Bolstered by hundreds of interviews, quotations, and anecdotes, Reynolds approaches each of these areas with the same intensity and eye for fascinating detail that he brought to Energy Flash and Rip It Up. In Retromania, however, value judgement is much closer to the surface. As the book’s opening hints, Reynolds is not particularly enthusiastic about these developments and their purported effects on listening habits and musical creativity. As it turns out, he is almost entirely negative about all of it, and exhaustingly so.
Given that Reynolds often reiterates his allegiances to sci-fi authors like William Gibson and J.G. Ballard, it is fitting that the “Now” section reads like a dystopian science-fiction satire about the future of pop music written circa 1988. This fact hits you as soon as he starts poetically describing the absurdities of rock museums: giant cut-outs of Johnny Rotten, roaming, misty-eyed punks, and threadbare memorabilia encased in glass. Later on, Reynolds rails against every kind of musical digitisation, starting with the premise that “the easiest way to convey how things have changed is to compare the present with conditions when I was a lad back in the late seventies”. The self-awareness hinted at by the colloquialism here does not succeed in tempering the subjective nature of this approach. With only a few token assurances to the contrary, Reynolds suggests that every new form of musical consumption to have developed since the start of his music writing career has ultimately contributed to a process that is “killing music”. His fears, backed up by a sometimes one-sided selection of sources, share the mixture of excitement, panic, and dread that characterised the responses of Jean Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson, and Marshall McLuhan (three writers Reynolds often returns to here) to the spread of new structures of consumption like television and shopping malls. For Reynolds, the Internet and its mp3s offer only excess and high speed: he describes this state as “franticity” and concludes that new music-makers are “glutted”.
Yet despite his avowed left-wing, modernist, and mildly Marxist sympathies, Reynolds contradicts leftist critiques of reification and commodification with comments like “it was easier to form attachment to music when it was a thing” and with the relish with which he remembers record shops and the many purchases he made in them. If pop music has benefitted in any way at all from the relative unyoking from industrial production that the Internet has brought, there is not a whiff of this in Retromania. Indeed, Reynolds sees only drawbacks to the digital age. Every time he benefits from new ways of discovering music it seems to happen despite his intentions, and he ventures to struggle free. At one point, he confesses, apparently earnestly, that he once found himself with “thirty simultaneous downloads streaming into my computer at once”—”it was a dark time”, he opines.
This is all a question of age and experience, of course. Younger appreciators of music might be perfectly comfortable with the idea of using Internet archives and mp3 downloads to access music and might view Reynolds’s complaint as an overreaction typical of those on the older side of the generation gap. It would be wrong to fall into the trap of thinking that there is nothing credible in Reynolds’s claims just because he is of an older generation. But equally, if Reynolds is aware, as he surely is, that the same type of inter-generational complaint has been made by almost every critic of art since ancient times, he doesn’t fully address this fact (surely he himself was frustrated with the older generation’s criticisms of rave music’s own “frantic” and excessive qualities in the early 90s?). Instead, he comes dangerously close to reviving the age-old and familiar reactionary refrain that what was once precious is being drained of meaning, significance, and all that was once good about it. This is not to say that Reynolds’s complaints aren’t valid and often persuasively articulated—they do throw down a challenge to be taken very seriously. But they would be even more convincing if they weren’t so one-sided and so clearly victim to subjectivity.
In fact, at times it appears that it is Reynolds himself who is the obvious nostalgic, and his persistent yearning for the better old days regularly echoes that of the pop music he accuses of the same condition. Retromania is full of tender remembrances of the author’s childhood, undergraduate years, and record-collecting hobbies. It even contains some gently poignant asides about his family life and mid-life anxieties. This book can be seen as a portrait of a prominent music critic taking stock, his face dimly reflected in the glass cases displaying the pop objects that appear to have become museum pieces. Yet however subjective we might consider Reynolds’s approach to be, and however mildly reactionary his stance may seem, Retromania remains a work of real historical importance. As 20th-century listening habits give way to those of the 21st, this book offers a timely response to a decisive moment in the development of pop music production and raises concerns that are not easily dismissed. Serious music fans and music-makers alike should read it not just for its striking presentation of pop’s history and teleology, but for its informed and passionate challenge to a burgeoning zeitgeist.
Adam Harper is reading for a DPhil in Musicology at Wadham College, Oxford. He writes for The Wire and blogs at Rouge’s Foam , and is the author of Infinite Music, forthcoming from Zer0 Books.