Simon Reynolds' Retromania: Critic Talks About Pop's Obsession with the Past and the Digiculture of Tomorrow

The cover of Retromania, released in May
The cover of Retromania, released in May
Courtesy of Simon Reynolds

Isn't it ridiculous that it's now fair game to recycle the nineties and call your product retro? We've entered a phase where mashing up the sixties and the seventies is overdone -- now, the recent decades are up for grabs in the contemporary pop culture machine.

Esteemed music critic Simon Reynolds, who writes for The New York Times, Slate and Spin, has taken up this question in his new book Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past (which he'll be signing at Skylight Books in Los Feliz this Sunday), and shown that the answer is much more dense and thorny than one might expect. Reynolds, who grew up in the UK during post-punk and was a hardcore champion of rave music in the nineties, is essentially a futurist at heart.

In Retromania, Reynolds voices the worry that pop music doesn't seem to be moving forwards in the same way anymore, but is now simply content with recycling and resampling past music to create a sense of nostalgia. At the start of his book, he dauntingly asks, "Could it be that the greatest danger to the future of our music culture is ... its past?"

Reynolds' work provides a very rich answer: first, he looks at the current obsession with retro-ness and nostalgia, especially the 21st century's obsession with museumification and "curation."

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He finds that while we often idolize the sixties and the seventies as a time when people lived in the present, you can really trace the desire to relive the past back into the very beginnings of rock n' roll. Arguably, nostalgia and retromania are defining, even in-built features of pop and rock, and there's no getting away from them.

Throughout his debate, staggering in its trove of fascinating pop culture facts, he's also engaging with a deeper question, of course: What comes after postmodernism? No one has found any satisfactory answers to these questions yet, but Reynolds begins to formulate an idea of a digimodern age (a term he borrows from critic Alan Kirby), and peppers his book with references to theorists like Svetlana Boym, Andreas Huyssen, and Fredric Jameson, as well as authors from Fernando Pessoa to Pitchfork writer Eric Harvey. Reynolds' work is truly varied in the way it travels along the whole spectrum of academic to art and pop criticism. Instead of weighing down his book, they help to create a rich tapestry that begins to explain how pop culture -- and especially, our current pop culture -- works.

Yet Reynolds is left with a nagging question that probably many music listeners feel today: "Given that I enjoy many aspects of retro, why do I still feel deep down that it is lame and shameful?" And what does the music of the future look like, in which artists stop recycling things they find online and begin creating with them?

Yesterday, LA Weekly spoke to Reynolds about his book, and his visions of the future of music:

What specifically made you begin this project?

I noticed there was a lot of strange nostalgia happening, and was completely struck by the total phenomenon -- doing the album through in its original sequence at concerts. This began with [festival organizers] All Tomorrow's Parties, but obviously a lot of people were copying it. That struck me as very emblematic.

A lot of the music in the underground music scene, including the stuff that I like, seemed to be bound up with recycling the past. Including Ariel Pink, who is one of my favorite musicians of the past 10 years. You can't really understand his music without coming to terms with the past, haunting, the references. There is definitely an interest in creating a sense of mistiness. The more I thought about it, while it seems to be endemic at the moment, it of course has a long history in pop.

I'm fascinated by young people who decide that they're not interested in contemporary stuff. There have always been strange aesthete deviant types who dedicate themselves [to] being out of time.

How did you begin to define your subject, since it's so incredibly vast?

I just tried to think of as many areas as I could and list them. I could have spent 10 years on it and done a multivolume work. I read Benjamin, Borges, and more. Some people have even brought up Borges' thing about the guy who copied Don Quixote [his story 'Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote' in Ficciones]. There's this idea that a copy is never exactly the same as the original, but there's a lot of people doing the exact same thing as the copy. If you look at the history of pop music, you could say the Rolling Stones created innovation by copying the blues and getting it slightly wrong.

What was the most surprising discovery you made while researching this book?

When I started looking into the history of revivalism and nostalgia in rock, I traced it all the way back to 1968, which surprised me that it went back that far. It began with Back in the USSR, and then Frank Zappa did a doo-wop inspired album, and then the following year you had Creedence Clearwater Revival. It was this sort of moment where people had been through the psychedelic excesses, and were feeling kind of groundless.

John Lennon renounced psychedelia, and said nobody has every improved on Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly. Out of that came glam, which had a whole back to the fifties element in it. Even some of David Bowie's music was very basic rock 'n' roll. It had a modernist and postmodernism impulse inbuilt in a structural way -- there was always this tendency, always this weakness. The minute you start losing ground, people began looking back.

Are you a nostalgic or a futurist?

I think that ideologically and temperamentally I'm inclined more towards the futurist camp. I would describe the book as an ambivalent indictment. I'm quite a nostalgic person. I think they're two sides of the same coin, really. In the book, the obvious example for that is being a raver -- I was going to raves and clubs and dancing all night and taking the appropriate chemicals -- obsessed with the latest developments in music. But then what happened was there was a certain point when suddenly you start thinking wistfully about that, when you are at the height of that. That's the whole of pop music. There's a sort of nostalgia for the virgin status of pop music, or the use of pop music.

Who are your favorite retro artists?

The ones that seem most interesting is where it comes out mangled in some way. I think Ariel Pink is like that, you could even see The Cramps as being like that - it's very bound up with being in a time-warp but their album sound is noisy and jangly. I used to really like The Jesus and Mary Chain. I like some things The White Stripes did, but they seem on the whole to be rather backward-looking.

 

Ariel Pink, the biggest nostalgic of them all.
Ariel Pink, the biggest nostalgic of them all.

How do you envision the future of postmodernism?

It's got to end at some point. In the art world, "postmodernism is dead" has been a fanfare for quite a while, but no one has established what came after it. Alan Kirby put forward the idea of digimodernism -- he claims that there's this whole new cultural paradigm that has replaced postmodernism. He identifies various hallmarks of digital culture. Unfortunately, he dislikes every manifestation of digiculture. What is changing is that there's a return to long narratives -- digital culture is onwardness and endlessness.

Do you have an answer to the question, postmodernism + internet = ?

I think we're seeing it. This is the everything time. I think where it stops being postmodern is where people are taking stuff from all over the place, but it's not citation. You don't necessarily know or need to know where it's from. With your classic prime-era postmdernism, there was always a certain sense of pathos. We come after something, and we're in its shadow. You got that in certain musical examples, like Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way." It was played a lot on MTV in the nineties. It was a very Hendrix-y song. He even has a bassist who has a white afro. There was a pathos there -- it's a copy of something that was world-shaking in its day. And then you have this xeroxed photocopy of the past. Now, there's a whole past to steal from. I think people even sample from things they find on YouTube.

Does irony have a place in all of this?

Irony is the de facto cultural consciousness of clever people. In my everyday interactions with people, we're all ironical, we can't help it. If you're at all knowing about anything, if you have any sense of the idea that there's a gap between how things are represented and that reality is unreachable, then you're bound to have an ironical sense. There are lots of people in the world who are outside irony -- tea party people and religious right people. They are the people who seem capable of acting more. Unfortunately, often it's for the worse. I wish there was more music based around the idea of, as the Sex Pistols say, "We mean it, man."

What do you consider the most forward-thinking music being made now?

Music doesn't come from deep within, and it's not necessarily referring to anything out there. It's much more in reference to other kinds of music. That seems to be fairly endemic to indie culture. You do have groups that are more in line with new earnestness, like Animal Collective and Panda Bear -- something that's childlike or primal in some way. They're kind of funny, but they actually didn't seem to have any sense of irony.

Pavement and Animal Collective worked in record stores, so they both knew about the music. The end result for a group like Pavement was its irony, whereas with Animal Collective is much more open-hearted.

I hear a lot of things that I really like and seem fresh -- it depends on how much you want to give them a hard time. I really like Micachu and the Shapes. Her actual name is Mica Levi -- she's sort of coming out of lo-fi indie, but she listens to grime, dubstep and hip-hop. There's a sort of sense that it goes well beyond indie as we understand it. There's also Gang Gang Dance, Tuneyards, I really like Vampire Weekend -- they put it all together in a really fresh way. The Dirty Projectors -- he's really clever.

I think the most interesting bands seem a bit omnivorous. It's hard to say whether it has to do with the internet or not. Gang Gang Dance's new album -- at the start, they have a voice that says, "I can hear everything. It's everything time." There are quite a lot of bands that are based on this idea of 'everything time.'

What's going on now in L.A., music-wise?

Ariel Pink and [L.A. band] Puro Instinct are really into Soviet New Wave music right now. They call it Stilyagi. They're like a youth tribe, inspired by a lot of things that came from the West but did it in their own way.

Simon Reynolds will appear at Skylight Books to discuss and sign his book this Sunday, July 31, at 5 p.m. 1818 North Vermont Ave., (323) 660-1175 www.skylightbooks.com

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