20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
"Retromania" is a long, extensive thought-piece on the rise to dominance of "retro" culture by the expat British pop critic Simon Reynolds (b. 1963). While Reynolds looks at the influence of retro in many areas of culture, from fashion to cinema to television, the real focus is on pop music. As we are living through a (permanent?) high tide of retro, it is impossible to fully understand as it seems to swamp every aspect of our cultural lives, so it's hardly surprising that Reynolds seems at times puzzled by the phenomenon. But he approaches the topic with intelligence, honesty, an almost bizarrely extensive knowledge of pop music history, and also a flair for writing. I found the book to be fascinating and I am sure I will be reflecting on the ideas Reynolds presents in the future. Finally, I found Reynolds to be a pleasant critic with whom to explore this topic - he isn't grating in the way so many critics can be, which is no mean feat.
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
I’ll start by getting the parts that might turn some people off, but this book is well worth getting past these points. First, the book is mostly about music, not all possible variations on the retro theme. There is some stuff on other retro trends, but music dominates the vast majority of the book. Second, the author’s treatment is academic and occasionally a bit too verbose. He could have trimmed some sections and not lost a bit of impact.
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.