Saturday, June 18, 2011

Simon Reynolds – ‘Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past’

Excuse me for giving away the ending, but here is Retromania’s final sentence:
I still believe the future is out there.
It jars because it is at odds with virtually everything else in this book, which takes on the vexed question of what is happening to what used to be called pop music, in an age when anyone who wants to can access practically all of it (if ‘it’ is the recordings), and anyone who doesn’t can ignore it completely. Tom Ewing wrote in a Guardian piece this week, ‘With pop I think the hidden article of faith is that music can take over public space, stamp itself on a moment. If a pop single can't do this, then what is it?’, and Reynolds would be unlikely to argue. He provides many examples of the way in which pop’s past has been recycled in the last decade, but readily admits that there has been no surge forward; nothing, content-wise, to challenge the iconography of the technology through which it is distributed:
Napster Soulseek Limewire Gnutella iPod YouTube Pandora MySpace Spotify … these super-brands took the place of super-bands such as Beatles Stones Who Dylan Zeppelin Bowie Sex Pistols Guns N’Roses Nirvana …
Note the decade-proportions there: ’60s – 4, ’70s – 3, ’80s and ’90s – 1 each. Reynolds has written about this before, arguing that fragmentation is responsible both for the disappearance of these super-bands, and the creation of a lot of great music, increasingly consumed by niche audiences. In the book, he puts in a stirring section on his beloved hauntology (littered with bad puns – ‘Seance Fiction’, ‘The Groove Robbers’), which is the closest he can find to an era-defining genre, but admits finally,
in lots of ways figures like Ghost Box, Oneohtrix Point Never et al., are postproduction artists too, rummaging through the flea market of history and piecing together the audio equivalent of a junk-art installation.
Hauntology sounds like the dying gasp of pop, even as it fascinates.

Though it trips up a little trying to see a vital future in a backward-looking present, Retromania spends most of its time charting how we got to this point. Divided into the sections ‘Now’, ‘Then’ and ‘Tomorrow’, it kicks off with a visit to the ghastly-sounding British Music Experience museum (predictably light on the ’90s / ’00s), and ponders the appropriation of the word ‘curate’, which has now made it all the way from ATP to the Oxford Dictionary of English* (‘select to perform at (a music festival)’; a decade ago, it would have applied only to exhibitions). How does all this gentrification sit, he wonders, with Julie Burchill’s 1980 snarl, ‘anything that can fit into ROCK’S RICH TAPESTRY is dead at heart’? But it turns out that old punks aren’t immune from curation, and his next stop is Mick Jones’ Rock ’n’ Roll Public Library, a ‘cosy clutter of souvenirs and keepsakes, the detritus of a life spent rock and rolling’. It sounds, simultaneously, as though it might be worth a visit, and as though it should not be there at all.

Just as he is detached enough to encompass Burchill and Jones without getting polemical, Reynolds’ comments on the way the web changes the behaviour of music fans are well balanced about some fairly unbalanced tendencies. He coins a word, ‘franticity’, which is a ‘brittle mood of impatient fixation’, in the context of the internet and its unencompassable content. All the music’s there, but when are you going to find the time to listen to it? ‘I think my record was to have thirty simultaneous downloads streaming into my computer at once’, he admits. ‘Like the proverbial kid in the candy shop, […] I got lost’. It is interesting to compare this to the later section on Northern Soul, of which he is refreshingly un-enamoured: ‘Motown itself – yeah, fabulous … But fetishising the sub-Motown wannabes?’ There is certainly something frantic in the movement’s quest ‘for new old songs’, and the way DJs would disguise their rarest records by covering the labels (with other, misleading ones) in order to stop others identifying them, either to play in their own DJ sets, or to devalue by re-pressing.

There is a surprising comparison between Northern Soul fans and Grateful Dead fans, both being ‘style tribes whose members travelled to particular clubs or one-off events’, with a ‘fixation on a particular moment in the sixties’. Retro is shown to have sprung up in many places at once in music, and in other areas of culture over a longer period (the foundation of the National Trust in 1894, and English Heritage in 1983). Fashion’s interest in retro and vintage is noted, along with an accusation of change without progress. But then what does progress mean?
There is an argument that the linear model of progress is an ideological figment, something that should never have been transposed from science and technology, where it does apply, onto culture.
Maybe people don’t want culture to progress ‘in the face of capitalism’s reckless and wrecking radicalism’. This fits with the ’80s indie scene in general (and with Lawrence-from-Felt’s career path in particular), described here as
a retreating edge, looking to the sixties and rejecting synthesizers and sequencers for the traditional line-up of guitar–bass–drums.
It is easy to forget that.


* Turns out I actually mean the New Oxford American Dictionary, which had somehow crept back to ‘default’ on my Kindle. The British one doesn’t have this definition.


Andy said...

Finished reading Retromania this morning. I've tried thinking it through a bit and, while I loved the book, and agreed largely with most of the points, I've always felt a little wary of the continual seeking of the 'new' and 'forward-looking' impetous in much music writing. In particular the way the U.K. weeklies in their heyday (pre-noughties) would leap upon scenes and bands instantly then discard them almost as speedily. Such a rapid turnover could be quite fun but it did mean a lot of bands were seen as past it before a first album appeared. In part, looking back can be quite a positive thing (which Reynold's agrees with), a time to re-assess, re-evaluate and appreciate untold or seldom told histories.
Tellingly, I liked the bit about the difference between The Cramps and the rockabilly/garage revival - the distorted mirror thing. I think really that's one way of looking at Larence's post-Felt careet. It's not pure nostalgia, look, weren't the 70s fab, but a different way of looking/listening that is more rewarding/interesting than the golly gosh, look at that of shows like I love the 80s/90s., Thursday 30th June 2011, whatever.
I did feel a sense of sadness in so much as the book does give a sense of nothing new will really happen again but then again, the exciting thing is not knowing. I'm sure there are former members of other cultural eras who, having lived through a period of change still declare nothing that good/original/life changing will ever happen again.
I'm blethering and not sure any of this makes sense, feel free to delete this post.

Chris said...

Not at all, blether away Andy. I absolutely agree about the distorted mirror idea, generally and in relation to Felt / Denim / Go-Kart Mozart. What concerns me is not so much what is happening to music as what is happening to musical influences (i.e. they aren't changing), which is maybe a bit of an abstract thing to worry about.

But maybe not, too: in the old days, there was a mainstream and an underground, and what the internet has turned out to mean is that cultural artefacts have ceased to matter as much as cultural revenue streams - I think there's a bit in the book about how taste no longer seems to be oppositional, there's room for everybody to like their own particular thing. Containers are the new content. Scream all you want, there'll be a box to put you in, an address to deliver you to. And it's this lack of potential for cross-over / further distortions that I don't like. See also Tom Ewing's point, above. I hated the single he links to in his piece (woo, opposition!), but at least it reached someone it shouldn't've.

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