Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past Paperback – Jul 19 2011
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“Amazing.” ―Bruce Sterling, Wired.com
“Looking back over the last 25 years you'd be hard pressed to name a music journalist more adept at tracking and defining the zeitgeist.” ―Dave Haslam, The Guardian
“Simon Reynolds, one of our most thoughtful music writers, poses a stark question for anyone who cares about the future of pop . . . A devastating critique of the way music is now consumed.” ―Patrick Sawer, The Daily Telegraph
“Bracingly sharp. As a work of contemporary historiography, a thick description of the transformations in our relationship to time--as well as to place--Retromania deserves to be very widely read.” ―Sukhdev Sandhu, The Observer (London)
“A provocative and original inquiry into the past and future of popular music.” ―Booklist (starred review)
“[A] mix of canny erudition, critical theory, stylish prose, and vibrant evocations.” ―Publishers Weekly
“Important--and alarming--reading for pop-music aficionados.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“A hugely interesting and useful debate starter.” ―NME
“If anyone can make sense of pop music's steady mutation from what George Melly noted as its ‘worship of the present,' to its current status as a living heritage industry where past, present and what the author calls a nostalgia for a lost future coexist, then you'd have to trust Reynolds. He's a top-table critic whose keen ear is matched by a sharp eye for cultural context . . . An erudite study of pop's eternal lock groove.” ―Mark Paytress, Mojo
“The world's finest living music writer.” ―Christopher Mosley, D magazine
“Retromania is a terrific book. Reynolds brings profound knowledge and oceanic depth and width to his argument, tracing his theme from trad jazz through the '70s rock and roll boom to the hipsterism of today, via the hyper-connectedness and infinite jukebox of the web. Unlike many of the pop writers who inspired him as a youth, he deploys his high intelligence and vast range of reference lucidly, to argue and illuminate, not dazzle or alienate.” ―Steve Yates, The Word
“Compulsively readable.” ―FACT magazine
“If I had to choose just one commentator to guide me through the last quarter-century of popular (and not so popular) music, it would have to be--on the basis of depth of knowledge, range of reference, soundness of judgment, and fluency of style--Simon Reynolds.” ―Geoff Dyer, author of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
“If pop music is all about right now, what happens when the past refuses to go quietly? The ever-brilliant Simon Reynolds investigates the cult of retro, the temptations of nostalgia, and the future of music culture--all with a detective's cold eye and a fan's hot heart.” ―Rob Sheffield, author of Love Is a Mixtape
“One of my favorite music writers wrestles one of my favorite musical paradoxes: What's up with the fetish for the Old in pop's Land of the Eternal New? Unpacking how YouTube makes history more lateral than linear, pondering the remarkable endurance of England's Northern Soul scene, or wondering if record collecting is indeed a distinctly masculine sickness, Reynolds's deep inquiries lead to a bigger question: Does obsessive engagement with the past make it harder to invent the future?” ―Will Hermes, author of Love Goes to Buildings on Fire
“The crowning achievement of Retromania is that it in no way contributes to the cultural malaise it critiques. You may struggle with the suspicion that you've seen it all before and heard it all before--but you've never read anything that approaches the idea of retro from as many entertaining and incisive angles. The present may be collapsing into the past, but this is a book for the ages.” ―Greg Milner, author of Perfecting Sound Forever
About the Author
Simon Reynolds is a music critic whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Village Voice, Spin, Rolling Stone, and Artforum. He is the author of five previous books, including Rip It Up and Start Again.
Inside This Book(Learn More)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I have a couple of comments and criticisms but let me start by summarizing the various parts of this sprawling and idea-filled book:
Reynolds lays out the initial approach to "retro" in his introduction, wittily titled "The `Re' Decade." What is retro? Reynolds later on presents a parsing of the word when covering 1960s fashion. Writers on fashion differentiate between "historicism", which is inspired by styles from a fairly remote time period (say, the Edwardian period), and "retro", the self-conscious remaking of art initially made within living memory (e.g. writing a song that sounds just like Alice in Chains' 90s output). Reynolds rightly comments that the two categories flow into each other and points out how the 2000s (which he calls the "noughties") involved the recycling of every style. He senses that this re-cycling has overwhelmed the forward- or inward-looking creative impulse and wonders why this urge to recycle has become so strong and whether it portends a poverty of artistic creativity: "Is nostalgia stopping our culture's ability to surge forward or are we nostalgic precisely because our culture has stopped moving forward?" Then he quotes the eclectic songwriter Sufjan Stevens: "Rock and roll is a museum piece." Reynolds returns to a general reflection of the issue in his concluding chapter "The Shock of the Old", where he meditates on why he is so uncomfortable with the retro phenomenon. But note that this book is an examination and not polemical commentary.
In between, he covers many topics: the resurgence of reunion tours and retrospective recording issuances in the 2000s, the influence of digital copying on the creation of a shallow grazing culture among listeners and viewers (I could write an entire review about this interesting chapter), record collecting in the age of cheap digital copies, the rise of "curators" specializing in all byways of pop music and other art forms, and the fact that this retro consciousness actually manifested itself in Japan in the 1980s, before its full rise to prominence in Europe and the Americas. There's a very interesting chapter on fashion in the 1960s, on the 1950s revival (which never ends), use of music samples and the reaction to retro-mania, involving a desire for greater orientation towards the future.
In examining the subject, Reynolds deploys not only his extensive knowledge of pop music (and I mean extensive - this book gave me a full picture of all this music I will never hear - which is actually one of the themes in the section on technology and record collecting) but also insights by well-known writers such as Jean Baudrillard, Walter Benjamin, of course, and also applies Harold Bloom's "anxiety of influence" idea.
Reynolds is a snappy, stylish writer. For example: "Metastasis, the word for the spread of disease through the body, inadvertently pinpoints the malaise of postmodern pop: there is a profound connection between meta-ness (referentiality, copies of copies) and stasis (the sensation that pop history has come to a halt)." Nice phrase turning there.
I'm just scratching the surface of a rich book, one that has been written out of passionate interest. I have a couple of comments that I will briefly add before recommending that you order this book and read it. First, I wish Reynolds had paid more attention to demographics. We live in a weird culture where adolescent musical tastes are retained seemingly in perpetuity into old age. The fact that the developed world is in the midst of a major transition as the swollen post-war generation ages and assumes a majority status is logically going to have a big effect on cultural trends, given this retention of tastes. Reynolds is seemingly oblivious to this, based on his extensive references to punk and post-punk music. Punk to me is a minor footnote to music history (I give the bands credit for humor and not taking themselves seriously), but the point is that Reynolds grew up with this music and refers back to it constantly, seemingly out of all proportion to its interest. This constant thinking about punk is natural, given the retention of tastes and Reynolds' demographic. But a twenty-something referencing punk today is going to mean something quite a bit different from when Reynolds does. So one of the interesting things about current retro culture is how influential it is on young people, who re-create the 60s or 70s without having lived through them. I wish Reynolds had been more focussed on this distinction. Also, note how Japan - the harbinger of our demographic shift - indulged in retromania in the 1980s (oh oh). Secondly, I wish Reynolds had spent some time thinking and listening to an echo of the retro phenomenon in the classical musical world, the emergence of neoclassicism (a word which only briefly appears in the book) in the early 20th century (e.g. Igor Stravinsky work in the 1920-30s). I think a look farther back in history would have provided a bit of context. Third, Reynolds puzzlingly doesn't devote enough time to rap and hip-hop, which exhibit many retro traits and are an important part of our current ahistoricity and retromania. But these quibbles didn't interfere with my appreciating Reynolds' thoughtfulness and ability to integrate materials and thoughts.
"Retromania" is a fascinating book which I think you will like.
That said, Simon Reynolds is a walking encyclopedia of rock, and he name-drops seemingly thousands of recording artists and movements, at least half of which are profoundly obscure. Though my knowledge is far more limited than his, I didn't find Reynolds' tone to be snobbish or exclusive. He clearly wants to share his passion for music history and has taken care to write something that anybody with a healthy interest in pop/rock over the last 60 years will be able to follow.
A warning, though: the book covers a LOT of ground. It's not a brisk or easy read - you may find yourself, like me, going through a couple of pages, then heading straight to YouTube in order to listen to the music of the many esoteric artists that are referenced. But hey, that expands your horizons, which is a good thing.
Having those things out of the way, the fascinating topic and the quality of the analysis makes this book just fantastic, especially if one is well-versed in the last 60 years or so of popular music and wants some intriguing insights into where it’s been and where it’s going. Reynolds dissects our urge to look backwards, and puts today in its proper context.
There have always been retro trends, many of which Reynolds documents at various points in the book, but not all are created equal, and there is good reason to think that recent trends are not just “cyclical” and “we’ve been here before” and similar excuses for why there is a dearth of definitively new sounds. The dynamic of “retro” is too complex to explain it in a short review, but there are times when it can spur creativity and help new musical movements launch, and other times where the trend seems to be a calcifying influence that kills the fun for any but the most hardcore. Reynolds explains his problems with retro, particularly the seemingly greater extent of it that we have today. There is good reason to think the super-retro trends of recent vintage are not what has come before, but a new version of retro, influenced by the altered nature of archiving and information in the modern era enabled by computers and the instant access of places like youtube, the virtually infinite music repository. This new access to information and archiving changes how we think and approach music, and unfortunately might have an unintended effect of constant rehash, homage, and mash-up, sacrificing innovation. It raises the possibility that we will be eternally stuck in a backward-looking loop that doesn’t allow more innovative music to emerge. All of this analysis by Reynolds is authoritative and (at least to me) fascinating.
In a note not directly related to music, I also liked the reference to the documentary, "The future is not what it used to be," which I have since watched and is about Erkki Kurenniemi, a Finnish pioneer of electronic music, computers, and robotics. The guy starts out as an innovator, pushing the boundaries of everything he comes across, and today he is totally inward-looking, manically documenting every minutia of his life with photos and descriptions—he even says we should save every receipt and tram slip—in an archive for some future humans to care about when they are bored with their future lives and wish to recreate the past. Rather than creativity, we have curators. Reynolds called the transformation the "perfect parable for our times."
Reading the book also made me think of my own music listening habits—Reynolds generally considers retro trends to be negative compared to those explosions of creativity (like the 60s), but he finds himself indulging in some of the same tendencies retro musicians engage in, like being a bit of an archivist, with curation of an interesting collection being paramount. I have a bit of that tendency, too, as well as liking certain past eras better than most other music including anything going on today. Some of the stuff he talked about returning to a past era and collecting third- and fourth-tier work in spite of the lack of remaining "gems" reminded me of some of my excesses. I ended up reflecting quite a bit on my own music collection (and listening to a number of albums I hadn’t touched in a while) and thinking on how backward looking my own tastes can be sometimes.
So, it’s perhaps a bit long and wordy, but the book rewards those who read it with some great analysis and a lot to think about. Recommended to anyone, and the highest of recommendations to those interested in popular music of the last few decades.
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