"This is the way that pop ends," music critic Simon Reynolds wrote in his 2011 book, Retromania. "Not with a bang but with a box set whose fourth disc you never get around to playing and an overpriced ticket to the track-by-track restaging of the Pavement album you played to death in your first year in college." The death of originality in music; our cultural obsession with nostalgia; the near-total availability of any kind of music, at any time—these are the themes that made Retromania one of the year's most controversial books—inside and out of the world of music criticism. To kick off our music-crit week, Bookforum asked writers Ann Powers, Carl Wilson and Daphne Carr to participate in a conversation about Retromania.
Ann Powers: Hello Carl and Daphne,
It’s a pleasure to share thoughts with two of my favorite forward-thinking writers about what Simon Reynolds has termed “pop culture’s addiction to its own past.”
That’s the subtitle of Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, the latest weigh-in from this master at penning warmly contrarian overviews on key cultural questions. The book’s thesis, as stated by in the author’s introduction, is a glum one: “Instead of being about itself, the 2000s has been about every other previous decade happening again all at once: a simultaneity of pop time that abolishes history while nibbling away at the present’s own sense of itself as an era with a distinct identity and feel.” In twelve wide-ranging chapters, Reynolds surveys the history of pop revivals, retreads and archival spelunking, and argues that at this point, “we can’t get past the past.”
Reynolds has long been one of pop’s hot-button writers: previous works, from the 1995 gender analysis The Sex Revolts, co-authored with his wife, Joy Press, to his 2006 post-punk chronicle Rip It Up And Start Again, have played a definitive role in public conversations about essential aspects of music and its complementary lifestyles.
Retromania’s doing the same thing: since its July stateside publication, references to it have been showing up in the media on what seems like a daily basis, not only in mostly glowing reviews but in album write-ups, artist profiles, even Fashion Week reports. Whatever you think of Reynolds’ conclusions, you gotta be impressed with his knack for choosing relevant subjects. He’s a catchphrase whiz.
I admire the thoroughness and depth of Reynolds’s book—he comes up with many zingers, calling Youtube not just a website but a “cultural practice” (which seems right to me) and coining terms like “hauntology” and “sonic antiquing” to get at the ways the stuff that’s come before invades our emotions and our day-to-day leisure practices. I have questions, though, about whether his assessments of today’s historical excavations are always accurate.
What aspects of Reynolds’ critique ignited sparks of recognition in your brains? What did you find lacking?
Looking forward to looking back, not in anger but in curiosity, with you!
Daphne Carr: Hi Ann and Carl,
I’ve decided to listen to Skrillex while writing this, to ward off all nostalgia vampires except those that hover around my still NIN-wringing head.
I see Simon Reynolds’s writing at a crossroads between two generations of writers. I don’t want to do some age-ist thing, but can we talk about how Simon’s age and the age of the readers might influence perceptions about his argument? The frustrations and problems Simon has with digital networking technology and the shape of creativity in response to it are not concerns for people ten or twenty years younger than him, I think. How to incorporate the past and deal with the pang of nostalgia are ongoing questions, but I think each generation has different answers. Simon speaks for someone, but not me. Does he speak for you?
I agree with Ann that Simon is a cultural bellwether, and I see him as a bridge between the gonzo zeitgeist-defining of his hero Lester Bangs and the more distanced writing of early 2000s pop music ethnography. He is to pop music’s avant-garde as Chuck Klosterman to its trash culture. So this topic is a difficult one for Reynolds, and it reads like a man in struggle: an anxious mind shaped by British cultural studies who loves the semi-popular and underground and is trying to make sense of the current wave of mass culture’s changing creation, listening, and distribution practices. It feels overwhelmed. The language is all pathology, either by contagion or hysteria.
One of the things that it striking to me about this book is its mix of genres. The division of the book into thirds, each with a different tone and style, makes it feel like an essay collection. The first third (“Now’) often reads like techno-future doomsday predictions from the early 2000s, when culture writers realized the internet was not a fad. The middle third (“Then”) feels like “the old Simon,” quite literally, the Brit still in love with the idea and history of punk, which contains a lot of memoir and self-reference to his past publications. The third (“Tomorrow”) feels most like today’s Simon: future oriented.
What this says to me is that all the Simons are trying to reconcile with the central fact of being an “old modernist-minded post-punk”—something he deals with more in Rip It Up. This is a man who, for better or worse, believes not just in human progress, but pop music progress. Central to his argument is the idea that a generational deficiency has occurred in the years since his coming of age. His youth was marked by being on the dole with only “mischief, or drugs, or creativity” – a kind of materialist argument that creativity thrives most in a “cultural economy of dearth.”
Access to abundance is his culprit for the end of the constant innovation through time that is progress. The non-old are the bad guys, because we’re stuck. Thus the symptoms of the age: “retro,” which is moving backwards, and the archive, which is moving sideways. This is the news hook of Retromania, that, “The sensation of moving forward grew fainter as the decade unfurled. Time itself seemed to become sluggish, like a river that stats to meander and form oxbow lakes."
On the first page he asks, “‘Could it be that the greatest danger to the future of our music culture is . . . its past?” and later refines the question to “can culture survive in conditions of limitlessness?” Abundance is the problem both of creation and consumption in the present, he argues. (My favorite line of the book is “Boredom is different nowadays”ญญ—so punk). His is a contrarian argument for scarcity, liveness, and obscurity in the face of access to the plethora of the digital age. In the book Liveness, Philip Auslander argues that the value of “the live” in pop only came about in contrast to recording. What Simon seems to be struggling with is the next stage in mediatization of art: lack of materiality, and the change or loss of the residual mystique and privilege bound up in its objecthood and formerly limited distribution.
“The interweb in general,” he writes, “has screwed up my enjoyment of record collecting.” I feel like this is the secret nag that prompted the writing of Retromania. Record collecting is about the anal drive to store and classify with mastery and discernment as the goal. It is a hunt in which the only record that matters is the one not in the collection, a “masculine sickness” of wanting to master what masters you, he says. Access ruins the hunt, and the internet is the ultimate spoil for Reynolds. “Sharity” killed his collector fever. But ephemerality and scarcity don’t “produce” meaning and value, they are just shapes to a kind of value. Simon’s sentiment conflates the experience of finding and purchasing an album as inextricably bound to the pleasure and meaning of the sonic experience.
One of the things I think Simon does well is discuss the fight for control over pop’s meaning and history in the contemporary moment. The rise of curator-creative class, which Bourdieu called the cultural intermediaries and Reynolds correctly calls “hipsters” is not new, but is more conspicuous in the last decade. It’s also threatening to professional music critics, as is the rise of nostalgia industries: both render critical thought on contemporary popular music unwanted or unneeded.
This is part of the generation gap that I experience with the book. When Simon writes that “it’s the absence of revivalism and nostalgia during the sixties itself that partly accounts for why there have been endless sixties revivals ever since” and then spends a chapter describing ’60s nostalgia for the ‘50s I chalk it up to a generational blind spot. (That ‘50s chapter is one of my favorites, by the way: Sha Na Na at Woodstock is one of those great undiscussed moments of boomer pop history.) He writes that “the sixties and seventies exert a vice-like grip on our imaginations” but for younger people, those damned decades’ culture and people control a kind of narrative, but not the narrative. One of the major flaws of this book is the fact that it doesn’t address hip-hop’s relationship with recorded history, cultural ownership, and generation. It makes the argument sort of work but it’s too glaring an omission.
So on that note, I really want to address is this unfortunate turn to nationalist essentialism to explain supposedly universal behaviors such as “retro” performance. This is something Christgau called out Simon for a while ago with the M.I.A. debate in the Village Voice, but here it’s egregious: there is whole chapter about inauthentic facsimiles bands is titled “Turning Japanese.” Reynolds discusses the ability to “curate, assimilate and reprocess Western popular culture” as “Japanoid.” Japanese musicians are feminized as making the “sprightly, the blithe” retro pop, a product of a new class of Japanese “rootless cosmopolitans” in the 1990s, but Reynolds sees this as larger trend he calls “the retro virus” that spread to our shores in bands like Vampire Weekend and LCD Soundsystem. The crisis of this sensibility, apparently, is that we have well-made music with lots of technology but it doesn’t matter like it used to.
Finally, women don’t appear very often in the book as individuals, but in groups.
They are known as the Brit female boom, “shrieking Durannies,” and the rather amazing description of “remarkably well-preserved women in their fifties enjoying the opportunity to dress up as the rock chicks they’d been a couple of decades ago” at a CBGB’s reunion gig. Perhaps the thing that most drove home Simon’s lack of concern with the way that women historically have experienced or continue to experience pop music is his flat dismissal of Creedence as retro rock without “erotic urgency.” My mind flashed to Ellen Willis’s review in the New Yorker, where she dances with herself in the mirror to the sexy rasp of John Fogerty.
Carl, what are your thoughts about the relationship between aesthetic judgments and nostalgia?
Carl Wilson: Hi Daphne and Ann,
Before sitting down to write this response at my computer (which Simon sometimes made me feel was some kind of portal to purgatory), I read the last few pages of Retromania while listening to the podcast of DJ/rupture (Jace Clayton)’s WFMU show Mudd Up. This was as deliberate as Daphne’s Skrillex choice: Jace has some of the biggest ears on the planet, and his show always makes it clear that there are a billion things going on, especially beyond the western world, that I don’t know about. In fact he called this episode: “Nothing Lasts Forever, Something Else Always Happens.” Simon Reynolds take note.
Like both of you, I deeply respect Simon as a critic, but felt reading Retromania as though his smartest self wasn’t at the helm. Perhaps it was a case of the hook wagging the book—having committed to a saleable “retro is ruining everything” thesis, he had to bend his thoughts to fit the mold. Or perhaps he is mistaking a personal, midlife experience for objective cultural truth.
As another straight guy only a few years younger than Simon, I have some of the same anxieties around the way technology makes cultural experiences and trends less decipherable, and alters how music establishes significance. I grew up with the mode of consumption in which it might take weeks or months to seek out music that you’d heard about, so the hunt bestowed preordained value on the prize. As Chuck Klosterman said, when you only have ten tapes, that music lodges in your mind, no matter what it is. If you have a hundred you start placing them in complex hierarchies. If you have, figuratively, a million, that’s a very different experience. But doesn’t the old model also imply a kind of critical grade inflation on the basis of scarcity? One reason more critics take chart pop seriously now than in, say, the mid-’80s to late ’90s is that non-chart stuff has become so much easier to find, so we’re less prone to valorize obscurity for its own sake. (That situation also eases the way for indie-label music to become more or less mainstream.)
That leveling effect also means critics’ access to music is no longer vastly greater than fans’ access, nor do we have remotely exclusive purchase on forums to express opinions about it. That climbdown in authority is rough, not just on our status but on making a living. Simon was an early and energetic adopter of Internet music discussion, but I don’t think that exempts him from the professional angst I find between the margins of Retromania. I sympathize: The conversation was smaller once, and an idea or catchphrase could much more easily get written into pop history. The democratization of fan discourse brings a relativization and forking of pathways that means no one person can even imagine they are plugged into every part of the debate. In one recent interview, Simon laments that critics no longer get behind movements and concepts collectively—as they once did with his “post-rock”— I agree, but it is largely because people are looking in so many different directions.
Simon and I are both members of so-called Gen X, although I’m not sure if that translates across the Atlantic. A big part of that experience was the sense of being marginalized by the generation before us and the way it had mythologized its own youth, its own nostalgia. At some point Simon says we’ve never been able to escape the epochal heft of the 1960 because it was so potent; I felt like he’d been drinking too much Boomer Kool-Aid, as that’s a narrative I’ve spent much of my life trying to unwrite, or at least complicate. The 1960s and 1970s were heady times, sure, but in their own way so were the past three decades, and they’re all worthy of remembrance. We haven’t run out of history.
If only the whole book had been more like the middle, where Simon does what he does best, often in the bolded sidebars, documenting and analyzing how music works in a case-by-case, cluster-by-cluster manner. He surveys the whole history of retro-ism in pop, giving us great nuggets of anecdote and research. Yet that section also undermines his thesis, showing how retro was part of hippie, part of punk, even jazz – basically every supposedly novel musical movement. It becomes evident that what he now reads as mere repetition was once revelatory to him, like the back-to-basics garage-rock aspect of punk, which then gave way to hundreds of punk-plus (punk plus country, punk plus electronics, punk plus Derrida, punk plus folk, you name it) hybrids; or the disco-plus of house and techno, which then became another set of crossbreeds. He wants to identify as a modernist, but modernism never invented things out of whole cloth – it took what existed and bent, folded and mutilated it. That’s the very nature of human consciousness, as the structure of language demonstrates – bricolage and juxtaposition. As the great modernist poet Wallace Stevens put it, “In the sum of the parts/ There are only the parts.”
What was new in postmodernism was to demystify that process – in a way to remove the remnant bits of 19th-century Romanticism that modernism carried. It’s surprising how little of the critical theory discussing that turn shows up in this book.
But even just to deal with the music listener’s experience, it’s always been the case that if you look closely enough at any “new” music you can identify the constituent parts. And the older you are, the more prone you are to do so. Simon underestimates how all the skill and knowledge he’s built up (and possibly the aging brain’s decreasing circuits for novelty) might cause him to pick music apart almost involuntarily, and how that makes less and less sound new. No doubt there were people in the early 1970s who heard the Stooges and said, “Well, that’s just the Velvet Underground plus a little Doors and Eddie Cochran,” or what have you? But for punk that band was foundational.
To get back to the hook-wagging-book issue, the final third of the book read as if Simon was re-reading all the stuff that’s interested him the past decade to suit his thesis. M.I.A., a cultural-sensibility synthesist Simon’s frequently wrestled with, comes in for only a couple of cursory mentions under the degraded, rubric of fashion. Surely she is a harbinger of things to come, even if she’s lost her initial spark. Likewise he leaves out what once was called “shanty house,” such as Rio’s baile funk or the worldwide variants on dancehall, all of which refute his claim that the technologies of the past decade has not spawned any new kind of - consider how international music is being transformed by cellphones and web cafes, through which local music traditions breed with cutting-edge sounds and produce hopeful monsters.
Daphne challenged Simon’s perspective on grounds of gender, sexuality, race and more; I’d like to raise the problems of economics and class. There’s a place late in the book that he raises an intriguing analogy with post-industrial or “post-production” economics, but he screws it up. Rather than reading musical borrowings as allegorically equivalent to derivatives that bottom out in value, why not look more at what the crash, and the decade before it, have done to the economic status of music itself? Making music is less and less a profit-making, sustainable activity. In previous pop “movements,” there’s been a breakthrough with an artist who took what the underground was doing and translated it into major-label pop: Dylan, Sex Pistols, Clash, Run-DMC, REM, Nirvana, Prodigy, Moby, etc. That’s the only way the average, non-subcultural teen can find out where to dig. The radio and TV aren’t doing that as much as they used to, because those media are weaker; the Internet is much less of a “push” medium and less monolithic. So if there is no one big thing happening, that’s partly why.
Another thing is that those pop phenomena happened in a relatively brief period of prosperity and social mobility after the Second World War, and in America even after the First. If the juice has gone out of them, it may have far less to do with pop nostalgia than with the fluidity of social categories in times of enormous growth and change. Mass culture has a lot to do with interchange between classes (which in America, more than elsewhere in the 20th century, to its benefit, was also interchange between “races,” tactical alliances of fellow up-and-comers such as African Americans and Jews, to mention the one most influential on postwar pop music). If barriers to rising from working to middle-class are becoming more rigid — indeed, with the odds increasing of “falling” the other way — and cross-class empathy correspondingly diminishing, the stakes of music making may change considerably. I’ve written, for example, about the way that much of the “indie” music of the past decade seems to have become more distinctly upper-middle-class. Simon touches on this idea but much less than he blames the technological sources.
Then again, it may be simply that the technological revolution is so transformative, of everything from individual subjectivity to social relations, that they temporarily are taking up much of the space in youth culture previously dominated by music. Maybe everyone is too busy dealing with the hurtling-comet effects of their daily Facebook, Twitter and other feeds. The recent work I see that has the frisson of previous pop revolutions are more multi- or even hyper-mediatized, from meme-based video remixes to the certifiably original art of young, queer American video artist Ryan Trecartin (for whom music, especially hip-hop, definitely plays a prominent role). The music-centred responses might just be lagging behind the past decade’s enormous sensory shift. Punk and rave kids were bored and made something to answer their boredom. Maybe no one is bored right now. Maybe we’re excessively unbored.
Indeed, if there’s any movement in music that the Internet and social-media era has ushered in, it’s actually amateur music-making. As the musicologist Karl Hagstrom Miller has documented, sales of musical instruments actually skyrocketed in the 2000s and home recording proliferated as never before. People gave each other music lessons and collaborated on songs over YouTube, where they also posted endless cover versions of pop songs (which is of course how Justin Bieber was discovered), not to mention their own remixes, videos, Auto-Tuned news, memes set to music and all the other sorts of musical theatre indigenous to the medium. In the mainstream media they had Glee and American Idol and Susan Boyle and all the other musical contests and reality programming to encourage them. Some of these people are of course actually aiming at going pro, but for the majority it’s just a happy, sometimes obsessive avocation, participation in the grand activity that the great musicologist Christopher Small, who died in September, called “musicking.” As movements go this may not be a rupture-in-time event like punk rock, but it’s the real DIY.
What you find there is many tendencies talking and dancing alongside each other but not rushing to find common ground. Pop movements are more decentralized, less targeted, but also more multifaceted, accommodating and receptive. In that environment, curmudgeonly complaints that music is not articulating a new agenda and set of demands might have a gratifying ring, but they also foreclose the chance that unfamiliar truths might appear. Simon’s better self hastens to assure us, at the last minute, “I still believe that the future is out there.” I think it might be closer than it appears in his rearview mirror.
Ann Powers: Daphne, Carl,
I’m grateful to both of you for going in deep with Retromania. It might be worth mentioning, at this point, that we’ve all had personal encounters with Simon (that’s not “Mr. Reynolds” to you!), as well as being active and passionate participants in a pop-critical discourse that’s long been heavily influenced by his work. He’s one of our big thinkers, and always deserves serious consideration.
I agree with both of you that close examination reveals Retromania as more of a focused argument/lament than the cumulative work some reviewers are calling it. Daphne, your killer close readings show that the weltschmerz that hangs heavy over this book come uncomfortably close to a wounded cry from a member of the rockist patriarchy. Carl, you stop mid-book (my favorite section, too) to point out that Simon’s trip down retro’s memory lane undoes his assertion that this moment is somehow unique.
I have to think that these strange oversights are choices, not accidents. Simon has long championed women artists working within the scenes to which he’s most attached (here’s a recent example) and though he’s a vocal opponent of the “deadening” effects of mainstream rap, he hardly denies its impact on younger culture-makers. The aw-shucks way he reveals his own biases throughout, both in the first-person passages reflecting upon his own evolving notions of “future” and “past” and in language choices that consistently skew toward melancholia (metaphorical catchphrases like “hip replacement,” “future fatigue” and “the living dead” set the tone), make this the oddest kind of polemic: a loud, fervent sigh.
This makes me wonder: is Simon playing a trick on us all? Is the sense of loss he projects actually meant to remedy the endless stream of future-talk that’s cluttered up the nonfiction best-seller lists for years? Instead of directing our focus toward outliers and the new new thing, Retromania celebrates what it argues against. Possibly?
One thing’s for sure: Retromania is resonating with people. Now that you’ve both provided key critiques of the book, I ask you to contemplate what uses it might serve as it helps define the larger conversation about popular culture in the next decade. What parameters might it define? Do you think it will have any effect on artists?
I have one other thing to add, which relates, I think, to Daphne’s concerns about the generational bias of this book. It’s about the way young people experience what’s “old” as what’s new. Simon, who is just a bit younger than I am, mentions in one of those excellent bold-faced footnotes the mid-1980s trendlet called “the Paisley Underground”: a small California scene that revived the music and styles of late-1960s El Lay folkish psychedelia. I was really into that stuff when I was twenty-two. And my experience of it was not rooted in any kind of longing for the past. I was living in the present: 1986, San Francisco. My friends and I did not think of ourselves as revivalists: for us, psychedelia, like the queer politics that took us into the streets to support ACT-UP, was totally new. It connected us to the place where we lived, but it didn’t take us back in time.
I bring this up to pose a few more questions: in what other ways does “retro” flourish, beyond “mania”? How does unearthing lost histories serve to change the power dynamics of the present? When does mining the past actually become a progressive act?
Daphne Carr: Lots of great questions, Ann, and Carl!
I’m not sure that the book will frame many future conversations or create a large turn in understanding about the zeitgeist the way that other pop music books have. I think the argument is too messy and contradictory, which is, in some ways, why it has served as a perfect launchpad for a many different kinds of think pieces in the book’s press cycle. The book feels more like a series of examples of a fractured and frustrated experiences with recent media practices and the changes in the music industry than it does a composite theoretical framework. As for ‘fooling’ us, there is something about the tone of the book that makes me feel Simon might have taken on a character, one of the guys at the shop from High Fidelity, and tried to write the book from that point of view. It would explain a lot about the exclusions and dismissals that we know he doesn’t make in his daily work. The character feels more curmudgeon than trickster, though perhaps Simon is winking a bit from behind this voice.
Carl Wilson: That’s quite a theory, Ann. I cynically wondered if Simon had just gotten trapped in the cul-de-sac of having come up with a catchy but thin thesis and then having to back it up. You’re suggesting that instead it’s a feat of critical jiu-jitsu. As if his title secretly had an invisible exclamation mark: Retromania!
Ann, I’ve had similar youthful experiences of getting caught up in things I thought were new that were closer to revivals. In the ‘90s, in the wake of the great “Alternative” boom-bust cycle, I got very taken with the alt-country scene, which ranged from singer-songwriters such as Richard Buckner and Jay Farrar of Son Volt to raggedy acoustic bands like the underrated Freakwater and twang-rock and Southern-roots-rock bands like the Old 97s, Bottle Rockets and Drive-By Truckers. Of course I knew that they were hybridizing old music, but it was particularly music that was born to talk about hard times and disenfranchisement, and as an underemployed Gen X slacker etc., that seemed apt to me. Yet the years I spent engaged with that scene (including some more hardcore country and bluegrass fans who thought the alt-stuff was just the product of bad musicianship) set me off on a deeper education in the history of American music, including its class and racial subtexts. Indeed, it was that experience that set me on the path that led to my book, as I began to understand how diverse social experiences could lead audiences to radically different musical expectations.
And of course it’s not that unusual for retro-minded researchers to discover something that changes our idea of musical history, and for that to change the way we see the present. A lot of the material that’s been coming out on minstrelsy, vaudeville and ragtime does that for me - to find that the past was more modern than we realize. Simon’s own piece on young women playing synthesizers points to a few of the undersung female electronic-music-makers of the past to help dispel the idea that synths are a boy toy.
I’ll be curious to see if Retromania does end up framing future debate. If think it might affect things less for anything specific it says than by catching a moment: It doesn’t seem like a bad thing right now for someone to raise his hand and ask if we’ve gotten a little too impressed with ourselves for our remix party tricks. If it prevents any music writer from ever again writing about how revolutionary Girl Talk is, I’ll be enormously grateful. Maybe it will make some musicians ask themselves whether they are bringing enough novelty and charge of their own to the influences they assimilate.
Or maybe not. I have to admit again to being a little cynical about the attention this book is getting. While it has its strong points, what it mainly has is a great elevator pitch. “There’s nothing new happening in music these days” is the kind of statement that draws grunts of agreement as easily as “Those jerks in Washington are all the same.” But I don’t think that what flows from that will have the staying power that Simon’s studies of techno and post-punk do. Those books contributed depth to the discussion, while Retromania is more of a conversation-stopper. Now that he’s got it out of his system (and that women-and-synthesizers piece sure read like he had), I look forward to following where he goes next.