Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past (2011), Simon Reynolds
As a fan of Simon Reynolds’ writing, I was excited enough for his new book,Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (2011) to order a fairly expensive copy from Amazon.co.uk a couple months before its U.S. release date. I thought I would get a jump on writing about it, but it turns out I needed several months to process the tome.
His basic thesis is that music is running out of new ideas and increasingly recycling old ones to the point where it’s on the verge of creative bankruptcy and cultural irrelevance. The book is written like a 428 page blog freeform think piece. Things get a little confusing when Reynolds discusses some of his favorite artists such as Boards Of Canada, Ariel Pink, Gonjasufi, Panda Bear, Daniel Lopatin, a.k.a Oneohtrix Point Never, Nico Muhly and his beloved hauntology artists while also using them as examples to support his theory. Nevertheless it’s an engaging read, as Reynolds’ writing is as sharp as ever, if not totally persuasive. The best parts are when he examines in detail subjects like Billy Childish, Crypt Records, The Cramps and the Shibuya-kei scene in Japan. The enthusiasm and passion displayed by the people involved with various retro scenes is infectious, while also undercutting Reynolds’ point. His profoundly depressing point. According to Reynolds, great leaps forward in music that occured in the 60s, the 70s and early 80s with post-punk, and to a lesser extent, rave and electronic music in the 90s, are never going to happen again if we continue to cannibalize the ever more increasingly recent past.
I can certainly understand the experience of the shock-of-the-new, what Reynolds calls the “future-rush.” It’s a thrilling experience that is addictive for many. For people of Reynolds’ generation, cultural and technological innovations and new genres seemed to spring up every year, especially in the 18-year period between 1965 and 1983. We know that some sixties music, post-punk and rave gave Reynolds the future-rush, but he neglects to make a case for how exactly that body of music transcends his historical and personal experience of it, what made that music so much more magical and original than other music. In other words, the sensation of future-rush may be in the ear of the beholder.
In his previous book, the brilliant and thorough Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984 (2005), Reynolds makes a convincing case that post-punk was the greatest era of rock music (which I agree with), there he also revealed that this music did not appear out of nowhere. It too had roots in music from the 50s, 60s and 70s, in German space rock, Captain Beefheart, and even prog rock. I was even thanked in the credits for my role in hooking him up with music by the likes of Gong, Gentle Giant and Van Der Graaf Generator, bands revealed in interviews to have been seminal influences for some post-punkers.
All new music has antecedents somewhere. Whether in the marginal areas of its own larger culture, in the fields, churches, forests, colonies, exotic peoples, rising global powers or garages, there’s always some connection with culture’s social and aesthetic past that eventually makes enough sense to enough people to become lastingly meaningful.
I’ll let Reynolds have this one by assuming he’s speaking in terms of relative perception and not absolute terms. But is perceived novelty really the most valuable aspect of music? That type of warp speed development will probably remain unique to that period. Near the end of the 150-year long Baroque period, did audiences think musical innovation was grinding to a halt and despair? The origins of the blues dates back to around 1870; by the time the popularity of that genre was reaching its peak in the 1950s it had already been around for 70 years. Were there people already complaining in the 1920s and 1930s that they were tired and bored of it? Who knows? But I believe the current expectations for innovation in music are connected with the commodification of pop music in late 20th century capitalism. The idea of the need for constant change, novelty, and newness is linked to marketing music as disposable product with an expiration date to be replaced and upgraded. Yet attaching the value of music to novelty alone seems to sell it a bit short. It overlooks the complex and rich human relationship with music that goes back much farther than many presumed.
Paleolithic Pipe, 35,000-45,000 years old
In many ways we’ve barely scratched the surface in understanding music and its effect on us, its relationship to human and social evolution. In This Is Your Brain On Music (2007), Daniel J. Levitan examines evidence that music may have played a key role in the human race evolving the way it did. While it was once believed that a great leap forward in human culture came as a result of modern agriculture, discoveries in Hohle Fels and Vogelherd caves in southern Germany in 2009 confirm otherwise. Bird bone and ivory flutes were discovered that are dated between 35,000 and 45,000 years old, from the Upper Paleolithic Period when modern humans settled in Europe, and integrated with Neanderthals. The best-preserved flute was made from the wing bone of a Griffon vulture. The flutes were discovered laying around with other ivory tools and such suggesting that music was an everyday part of their ancient lives; a group activity that not only promoted group togetherness and synchrony, but actually aided in brain development. In The Power Of Music: Pioneering Discoveries In The New Science Of Song (2011), Elena Mannes reveals that scientists found that music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human activity. This has been backed up by the stunning results of music therapy in helping people with neurological deficits to overcome loss of verbal functions and memory.
The fact that more parts of the brain are stimulated by music than they are by anything else explains why it taps into our intellect, emotions and memory. The brain’s tendency to prioritize happy memories explains the strong connection between music and nostalgia. However, it usually has little to do with how groundbreaking and innovative the music is, hence our fondness for tunes from the past that don’t always conform to the criteria that one currently, intellectually considers good music. It’s an everyday human trait that I really don’t believe will result in completely halting artistic progress. Just because people continue to enjoy some of the same comfort foods over the course of generations will not arrest the development of the culinary arts. Most of our meals will not revolutionize our tastes, our favorite books usually do not significantly alter the path of the literary arts, and our favorite movies do not often turn the entertainment world upside down, yet we continue to enjoy these things and have meaningful lives.
Music’s proven potency does make the emotional investment that much more intense for many of us. In Simon Reynold’s case, his pleasure is linked strongly to discovery and intellectual engagement; and in one period of his life, somewhat loosening up the intellectualism and giving in to a bit of (possibly drug induced) hedonism, which seems to be the only explanation for his valorization of rave music, which for anyone who wasn’t there and chemically altered in the moment is overwhelmingly and soul crushingly dull. For other people this intense relationship with music is reflected in a lifelong fandom of the band Journey, no matter how few of the original members remain. Teasing about his love of raves aside, Reynolds is right about many things in his book. Since the 1960s, there hasn’t been much in terms of mass movement innovation that has captured the imagination of a global audience aside from hip-hop (though he doesn’t even really make a case for that). Most recently there’s been grime and dubstep, but these styles haven’t really taken off beyond their British subcultures. By the end of the book, he takes small comfort in the likelihood that strong, unique individual artists will continue to emerge despite the lack of innovative mass movements. I have to wonder, how much does a person actually like music if they are bored without a consistent hit of supposedly game-changing styles?
I caught myself in this trap a couple times in my life. The first time, when I was around 19, like many people my age I had impossibly high expectations about everything. I was bitterly disappointed by nearly every album that came out by my favorite artists because they didn’t progress enough (in my teenage estimation) from their previous work. I learned to not to be so hasty in dismissing them when I ended up buying many albums for the second time having hastily sold the CDs the first time around! In the late 1990s, just before filesharing got going, I consumed massive quantities of music and experienced a bit of the ADD behavior Reynolds later attributed to a download-culture wherein people skim and skip tracks to the point where they’re too bored and distracted to listen to more than a few seconds of a song. In searching for the next world-changing album I had to remind myself to relax and simply find what I like and spend quality time enjoying it.
Over the years I found my favorite niches. Lots of 1970s music like soul and funk, German Kosmiche, reggae, and of course punk and post-punk. This past decade, I’ve become a fan of a slew of mostly UK indie and post post-punk bands (seeThee Anglophiliac’s Almanac), a few of whom received some critical respect, but most would be the sort respected critics like Reynolds would offer up as a case-in-point of bands milking a genre way past its prime, and this despite the fact that Reynolds himself rated the first Arctic Monkeys album in his year-end list.
My other obsession was sparked by my frustration in seeing favorite indie bands repeatedly put on uninspiring shows where they were simply too aloof to be bothered to give a convincing performance. A small handful of artists might actually be good enough to be too good for their audience, but most aren’t. Fortunately, most metal and heavy rock bands have a much better fundamental understanding of their roles as entertainers, even the arty ones. I’ve especially focused on the stoner/psych/doom specialists like Melvins, Monster Magnet, Kyuss/QOTSA, Acrimony, Orange Goblin, Electric Wizard, Colour Haze, Isis, Boris, Graveyard, Truckfighters and Ufomammut. Some of the bands could be accused of being revivalists, and while not stunningly original they make some absolutely breathtaking heavy music. Others are quite eclectic and experimental, and as restlessly innovative as any current artist, but may not always be recognized for it. In the end it’s not always originality that keeps me coming back to these bands and listening to them. It’s the pleasure I get from the fuzzy guitar tones and rumbling bass, some occasionally great vocal performances along with clever and amusing lyrics. In a recent blog entry, Reynolds admits to being a fan of Saint Vitus’ 1987 doom revival opus Born Too Late. For much the same reason I just mentioned, their ability to use current (for the time) recording technology to pinpoint what made the bulbous low-end sounds of Black Sabbath and magnify their beauty. He just wasn’t moved to seek out other bands that are doing it just as well or even better. To each their own, but just because these bands aren’t single handedly creating new and trailblazing genres, they do remain vital artists burning bright with creativity in my eyes and in the eyes of their fans.
I do agree somewhat with Reynolds’ critique that having easy access to the entire history of recorded music tempts some artists to pack their music too tightly with so much stuff that it all becomes a grey blur, to some extent. I still think albums by Flying Lotus, Gang Gang Dance, Gary War, and Battles are really good, but they would also benefit from a little simplification. Overall I don’t see any drop in quality or originality in the best individual albums from the past decade; TV On The Radio, White Denim, Opeth, Wild Beasts, Ufomammut, LoneLady, Teeth Of The Sea, These New Puritans, King Midas Sound, Baroness, Matias Aguayo, Fever Ray, Kiila, OOIOO, Richard Youngs and many more have put out exceptionally original albums recently. These are just my own personal favorites. There is a massive amount of original music and a lot of it logically resides in avant-garde territory.
Reynolds has mentioned that he’s had people recommend more adventurous metal releases to him. He’s admitted that there is some impressive stuff that is simply too overwhelming and difficult to get into. Here’s where I think we get to the real issue, it’s not that creativity in music has run dry. It’s just that, like all art forms, completely new ideas can only be balanced with accessibility for so long. As all the possibilities are explored, avant-garde naturally progresses to increased complexity (or inversely, extreme lack of complexity), experiments in rhythm, chords and modes that veer into difficult listening, often abandoning melody and even rhythm altogether. When Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie and Max Roach helped evolve jazz from swing to bebop in the 1940s they lost a good portion of their audience who were used to jazz as dance music. That audience split into even smaller fragments when Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor introduced free jazz. A dedicated audience regarded their work and that of John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and Peter Brötzmann as the artistic peak of jazz; many others took the free jazz movement as a sign to give up on the genre entirely. Modern/avant-garde classical went through roughly the same thing. In hindsight, a person in 2011, someone like Simon Reynolds who has likely heard over 30,000 albums in his lifetime, is going to be much more difficult to surprise and impress, particularly with anything that has catchy pop elements, than someone who in the 1960s had only heard a miniscule fraction.
I’ve listened to enough metal that I can appreciate at least some of the overwhelming offerings of avant and post-metal, black metal and twenty other variations of doom, noise, sludge, hardcore and grindcore. I touch on just a few releases from the extreme metal genre every year, like Corrupted, Zu, Sunn 0))), Tombs, Cobalt, Shining and Black Breath, but still favor more relatively populist bands that balance some accessibility such as Mastodon and Opeth. Near the end of his book Reynolds also suggests that as the U.S. and Europe’s roles as global superpowers diminish, so do their arts; the slack being picked up by developing nations like China, India and Brazil. But there has ALWAYS been amazing music created throughout the world. There are always great albums coming out of Brazil every year. But as a large Portuguese language nation they can sustain artists with their own economy; Brazil has no need to bend or compromise for North Americans and Europeans and switch to English. I doubt that critics and fans who have been so far unable to appreciate the riches of global music from the past century, due to language barriers and unfamiliar harmonics, will suddenly have their desires fulfilled by non-Western music. Even when an amazing artist such as Fela Kuti reached out to a global audience by singing (roughly) in English, he did not reach mainstream audiences in the U.S. and Europe. However, it’s always possible that this will change if more talented artists consciously attempt to crossover.
By far the weakest of Reynolds’ arguments regards reissues and reunion tours. What kind of killjoy would not enjoy the incredible performances of The Stooges tours over the past few years? The slavering, unhinged Scratch Acid and the brutally terse Big Black at the Touch & Go 25th Anniversary party. A re-energized Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds on their 2008 tour. The Pixies of 2004 that blew away the tired, burned out Pixies I saw in 1991. The Jesus Lizard in 2009, every bit as awe inspiring as they were two decades ago. If I turned my nose up at reunion shows I would have missed the amazing performance of Ronnie James Dio with Heaven & Hell (e.g. Black Sabbath), as always a spritely, evil elf despite already being sick with cancer. I would have passed up seeing The Cramps’ wonderful Halloween show in San Francisco in 2004.
Reynolds critiqued the celebrations of the 20-year anniversary of Nirvana’sNevermind in a recent Slate article. At Britain’s Reading Festival in August, they screened a film of Nirvana’s Reading performance from 1992. Reynolds called it “an anti-event, a black hole in history” —
“One of the primary aims of my book Retromania is to defamiliarize an attitude that has gradually, insidiously installed itself as normal. To do so requires memory exercises and techniques of retro-speculation: in this case, asking yourself whether the promoters of Woodstock, or the first Lollapalooza in 1991, would have lowered a giant screen onstage and projected footage of a gig from two decades earlier? The answer is no: They were too busy confidently making history to bother with referring back to it.”
He mistakenly made it seem like they interrupted a schedule of live music for this, which was not the case. The film was actually shown on an alternative stage that featured other films and comedians. Despite this probably unintentional inaccuracy, I fail to see the difference between giving 18 year-olds an opportunity to see footage of something they were not around for, and watching the Ken Burns PBS documentaries on jazz, the Prohibition, and all sorts of other histories. Or watching a classic movie. And I would bet big money that the promoters of Woodstock WOULD have shown films during certain long stretches between bands to distract them from the misery of the mud and hunger and bad trips. But there just wasn’t much in terms of music-related film footage then. If asked, I bet Perry Farrell would think it a grand idea to show clips of artists who inspired them, like Bad Brains and Bauhaus. The first Lollapalooza lineup looked pretty retro to me. Most of the bands (Jane’s Addiction, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Nine Inch Nails, Living Colour, Ice-T & Body Count, Butthole Surfers, Rollins Band, Violent Femmes, Fishbone, Emergency Broadcast Network) had mostly already peaked in the early to mid 80s, with the exception of Ice-T and Nine Inch Nails in the 90s.
Is this Disco Inferno reissue ruining the future of creative, new music?
I agree with his assessment that commemorating events simply because they’re round numbers (10th, 20th, etc. anniversaries) is rather odd. But while it seems disconnected with any true need or yearning for people to revisit an event, it isn’t just a top-down marketing ploy. People do like to revisit the past. It is pretty much a universal human nature for better and worse. I can think of worse things than a deluxe reissue of Nevermind with B-sides, alternate mixes and live cuts. I’m a fan of deluxe reissues, as long as the mastering is good and they’re not too overpriced. In an era of disposable compressed files, I like to have a nice artifact from all-time favorite albums with extensive liner notes and bonus tracks. Buying reissues does nothing to prevent me from also buying new albums from current artists. I especially like to buy from their merch table when I see them live. I really don’t see the generally small (unless you’re talking about the Beatles) reissues market having any significant impact on new album sales. I’ve been enjoying the Nevermind reissue a lot, ironically much more than I did whenNevermind was first released. Back then I liked how Cobain sounded like The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg in the first verse of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but overall I didn’t like the production and some of the songs felt incomplete.
People tend to filter out the bad memories and remember the good things. For example, 1991 was a crappy year for me. A relationship crashed and burned and I had the longest dry spell of my life that year. I didn’t get into the grad program I wanted (Santa Cruz’s History Of Consciousness), and I graduated during a recession, got into debt and had to work 70 hour weeks to get out of the hole the rest of the year. But rather than be haunted or obsessed by that supremely shitty year, I fondly remember music and shows from that time. Over the next decade I had a mix tape and CD of my favorite non-Nevermind songs. I got so familiar with them that in this last decade, Nevermind started sounding fresh again, and I liked it better than the first time around! I would be even happier to see deluxe reissues of other favorites like Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, Slint’sSpiderland, Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock and Melvins’ Bullhead. I already own reissues of Swervedriver’s Raise, Monster Magnet’s Spine Of God and The Jesus Lizard’s Goat. My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless is supposedly on the way. Yet this hasn’t stopped me from buying as many new albums as I usually do. I’m sure Reynolds has a good cache of post-punk reissues, and has likely received a copy of Disco Inferno’s The 5 EPs reissue. Is it better because Disco Inferno was a slightly more forward-thinking band? Should it make a difference? Reynolds actually gave Nevermind a pretty positive review at the time. I really don’t see reissues, concert films, documentaries and magazine retrospectives as a problem. I subscribe to Pop Matters on my Kindle and have been impressed by some of the think pieces sparked by the Nirvana reissue.
To his credit, Mr. Reynolds does continue to seek out music, no matter how disappointed he is by much of it, just avoiding curmudgeon status. But I can’t help be disappointed that one of my favorite writers seems to have lost his passion for the majority of music. In the end, I’d still recommend Retromaniaeven if I vehemently disagree with most of it, at least to a certain audience who’s interested in this debate or a fan of Reynolds’ writing. I still hope he’ll respark his enthusiasm next time, and write about grime/dubstep, hauntology or hypnogogia. The future will always be out there no matter whether one gets a rush from it or not.