Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past

The tyranny of received ideas, stirred together with lamentations over a contemporary failure of imagination — call it Chronic Creativity Fatigue Syndrome — are not a new plaint. Matthew Arnold, Ezra Pound, and Clement Greenberg are just three critics who railed against artists who recycle the past rather than conjure new forms, structures, and modes of attack.

To this grouchy roster we can now add Simon Reynolds and his Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. Reynolds, author of many books, including Rip It Up and Start Again: Post Punk 1978-1984, is one of our finest music critics — thoughtful, suitably prickly, and vastly versed. In his latest work he weighs in on the contemporary popular music scene — call it the new century’s oeuvre — and he doesn’t like what he sees. Largely, because he claims he has seen — or heard — it all before.

Reynolds declares his intentions in the very first sentence of his introduction, which is titled, of course, “The ‘Re’ Decade.” He observes, “We live in a pop age gone loco for retro and crazy for commemoration.” He believes that very likely, the “Greatest danger to the future of our music culture is…its past.”

It’s the same exhalation of exhaustion that emanated from Clement Greenberg in 1947, in a brief essay entitled “The Present Prospects of American Painting and Sculpture.” He kvetched, “The three, four, or five best artists in this country yearn back to Paris as it was, almost, in 1921, and live partly by time transfusions…all excellence seems to flow still from that vivacious, unbelievable near past…”

While Greenberg made his point in a handful of pages, in Retromania Reynolds has delivered a completist’s analysis of imaginative deprivation. No one can say his thesis goes unsupported. On the contrary, it is over-evidentiary. His book is the definitive take on pop music’s recursivity, a citation-suctioning, reference-rolling, retromanic attempt to prove that music’s past is — like Woody Allen’s floating mother in the short film Oedipus Wrecks — damnably everywhere.

Reynolds insists that the boldface talents of today are essentially in the chop-shop business. Garage punk has returned with the White Stripes, the Hives, and others. Vintage-soul reemerges in the voices of Adele, Duffy and, of course, the late Amy Winehouse. Lady Gaga and Little Boots are reruns of eighties synth-pop. It’s one long Möbius strip of cultural recurrence and, hence, cultural loss.

What Reynolds find more mystifying, though, than pop culture’s death grip on yesterday is that the group you’d expect to be the most forward-looking — hipsters — is in parallel thrall. “The very people who would once have expected to produce (as artists) or champion (as consumers) the non-traditional…that’s the group who are most addicted to the past.”

Reynolds is right. But what he doesn’t point out is that it isn’t just music where hipsters find it cool to be passé. From steampunk to those jaunty fedoras to old-schooly type fonts and letterpress printing to 1920s cocktail culture, the hipster crowd seems bent on crowding out the present.

That’s an example of one of this book’s problems. While it promises a cross-cultural sojourn — its subtitle, after all, references “pop culture” — Reynolds spends precious little time on other manifestations of retro and why it has become culturally normative. He dips into fashion — Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood, Anna Sui — but cinema, literature, and art, domains similarly obsessed with quoting their pasts, aren’t in his ambit. Overall, there’s too much symptom in the book, not enough diagnosis.

Reynolds launches his assault on contemporary music from every conceivable battle station. Each chapter details a separate dimension of repurposing gone wild. Some are conceptual arguments, as in Reynolds’s jeremiad against YouTube for making the past too convenient. He argues, “The presence of the past in our lives has increased immeasurably and insidiously. Old stuff either directly permeates the present, or lurks just beneath the surface of the current…” The availability of old stuff crushes originality. Gresham’s Law becomes Reynolds’s Rule: Old ideas drive out new.

The YouTube chapter, like the entire book, is almost obsessively populated with battalions of examples, many of which plunge deeply into the arcane and often indict Reynolds for the same crimes of over-documentation of which he accuses today’s music. Indeed, he has no fondness for rock documentaries, or what he calls the entire rock-heritage industry, and spends a whole chapter pulling apart the dead and dusty ironies of the rock museum, reunions, and reenactments. He trenchantly comments that “[r]ock (and rock writing) was always energized and focused by being against…but the rock museum…presents music with the battle lines erased, everything wrapped up in a warm blanket of acceptance and appreciation.”

There’s also chapter on Japan, which Reynolds dubs “The Empire of Retro and the Hipster Internationale.”  He attributes the Japanese passion for the past to cultural norms, writing that “their lack of emphasis on originality and the obsession with details” renders them a hotbed for repurposing. But once again, that obsession becomes his. The level of associative speckling and mind-numbing linkages can be astounding, straining the incipient ADD of the general reader. But if you’re interested in the way Japanese bands channel the West — say the history of the “Shibuya-kei” movement, named after a Tokyo neighborhood and possessing a “taste map that shows a pronounced bias towards the borderline anodyne: French sixties pop, Italian soundtracks, bossa nova, and especially sunshine pop (Roger Nichols & the Small Circle of Friends, a sub-Fifth Dimension outfit were a particular touchstone)” — well, you’ll be in retro heaven.

All Reynolds’s chapters are actually self-contained essays built around a common theme. And even though they are organized around a time continuum — Reynolds has divided the book into “Now,” “Then,” and “Tomorrow” — you could read them in any order and not lose the narrative thrust, because the argument loops and lopes rather than building. It is a not a tight musical composition, although in Mahlerian fashion, there is an unmissably recurring theme.

In some chapters Reynolds approaches a first-person essay. I loved the piece on record collecting — an astute deconstruction of the pathology of veneration — that bricolages the psychology of accumulation; his son’s Pokémon collection; Walter Benjamin; vinyl records; the concept of “sharity” (share+charity+rarity); the Mutant Sounds blog; the state of “franticity”; his avoidance and eventual surrender to the iPod and its shuffle function, which by “eliminating the need for choice, yet guaranteeing familiarity…relieves you of the burden of desire itself’; and the replacement of an “either/or” reality by “plus/and” reality. It sounds exhausting, and it is. In a good way.

I also loved Reynolds’s chapter on the fifties, which he titles “Rock On (And On) (And On) — The Never-Ending Fifties Revival.” This is one of his least meandering analyses, a tight story of how the fifties influenced everything after. That includes the Beatles’ White Album and Dylan and the Band. It continues through the Doors and Frank Zappa’s Cruising with Ruben & the Jets, “an entire album devoted to doo-wop…” It also winds its way through Meatloaf, the Cramps, and Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” while infecting British rockabilly entertainers like Shakin’ Stevens and American “pasticheurs” like the Stray Cats. Reynolds maintains that fifties rock, like the Ratpack or Motown, has “ascended to the level of perennial cool.”

Other chapters are less successful. “Out of Space” attempts to connect our lost belief in the miraculous nature of the future with the decline of experimental electronic music and the emergence of “retro-futurism,” an idea of the future that has collapsed into quoting and parodying previous visions. He finds his operating metaphor in the difference between Disney’s original 1955 Tomorrowland and the shabby state of affairs he came upon when visiting the current “Dream Home” with his family. Its “décor of fake wood panels” was “desperately uninspiring and lugubrious.” But the chapter is a stretch. Sometimes the sheer depth of Reynolds’s knowledge, the sprightliness of his writing, and the connective chutzpah of his referential leaps are more convincing than they deserve to be. You’ve got to admire the act, though.

You also have to admire Reynolds’s persistence. Just when you think he’s scavenged the last corner of the language for another way to describe the genealogy of redundancy, he manufactures another. He almost has as many words for retro as the Eskimos allegedly have for snow: “Sonic antiquing”; “nostalgic layering”; “sonic reclamation project”; “rock-scholarly-obsession”; “heavily-indebted brand”; “tribute-through-desecration”; record-collection rockers”; “auto-cannibalism; “time-warp cultists’ “pastiche/recombinant ethos”; and “retro reconstruction.” When Reynolds’s coinage engine is running  on empty, he relies on others, borrowing “Archive Fever” from Derrida, “Memoradelia” from Patrick McNally, and “Hauntology” from critical theory.

“Life is the elimination of what is dead,” wrote Wallace Stevens. Reynolds is all for some dramatic debridement. Yes, he acknowledges that some artists can “push through an imitative phase before finding their own style.” But since the mid-eighties, Reynolds grouses, “blatantly derivative groups” have started to receive critical acclaim. We’ve lost all distinguishment. He wonders how so-called “epoch defining figures” like the Stone Roses and Elastica can earn that status when “the substance of their sound referred back to a much earlier epoch.”

The answer doesn’t seem all that complicated. We take emotional comfort in the familiar, the sound of preexisting conditions. And we take status comfort in believing that we are discerning enough to appreciate the new. What better psychic gratification than to combine them both in a continuing aural orgy of self-satisfaction?

I wish that Reynolds had chosen to write more about the music itself. But I don’t think he’s that kind of critic — he’s no Lester Bangs. He doesn’t use the music of language to describe the language of music. He’s not able to make you feel the vocals, the compositional structure, the arrangements, the way Pauline Kael could describe the experience of seeing a film. He substitutes a pornography of references for an eroticism of words.

Nonetheless, Retromania is remarkably researched, enthusiastically written, and — although often a victim of its own enthusiasms — truly important.