AN AMBIVALENT INDICTMENT Simon Reynolds & Retromania

“The
axis of time has flipped, and the past has displaced the future in the cultural
imagination”: the British journalist explains.

 

BY LOGAN K. YOUNG

 

If Greil Marcus were right, ours should have been a true
blank generation. Some twenty years after Lipstick Traces: A Secret History
of the 20th Century
, in Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own
Past
, Simon Reynolds sees the fledgling 21st for what it really is. And his
diagnosis may scare you. At 500 scintillating pages, Reynolds’ Retromania is a virtuosic dossier on how, if we don’t push forward, the entirety of
civilized culture will eventually self-destruct. Stuck between the year we make
contact and the year the Mayans have us going silent, indeed, looking back
looks pretty vacant right now.

 

BLURT recently caught up with
Reynolds in between book tours to see if things really are as bleak as they
seem. And because this is Simon Reynolds, he, of course, had a lot to say. (Go here to read our review of Retromania, published earlier this year by Faber
& Faber.)

 

***

 

BLURT: Now that the reviews
are in, what’s the biggest criticism of Retromania that you’ve found
unfair or unfounded?

 SIMON REYNOLDS: That the book is one long
grouch. It’s fairly clear, at least if you’ve actually read it, that I’m as
fascinated and intrigued by retro culture as I am alarmed and disgusted. And as
I make explicit upfront, I am also involved in the culture myself, as a fan who
obsessively pores over rock history and who loves certain retromaniacal
artists, but also professionally, through reviewing reissues, being in rock
docs and so forth. So I would describe the book as “an ambivalent indictment.”

        The
other angle that some reviewers put forth that I find suspect is this notion
that recycling and derivativeness have always part of pop culture. I think this
is symptomatic of the very syndrome I’m critiquing: there’s an inability to
believe or even imagine that there was ever anything unprecedented or out of
the blue in music. But rock history – indeed popular culture history, in
general – is teeming with examples of things that are “new under the sun.” The
artists in question usually start from something – they have primary influences
and sources that they wrestle with – but very quickly they take those
influences to totally unexpected and radically new places. The Beatles,
obviously, but James Brown, Miles Davis, Kraftwerk,  Giorgo Moroder, Talking Heads, Chic, etc. And
whole genres: roots/dub, reggae, electro, techno, jungle, etc.

 

Have you noticed a difference between the
British versus the American response? To wit, your latest book tour is booked
for Spain.

 There were some really intelligent reviews in
Britain but, good or bad, they were generally rather argumentative. Often the
reviewers seemed affronted by the premise. I noticed that this was coming often
from people whose main job is as a newspaper’s chief weekly reviewer of new
releases. Now Retromania is a book that would interfere with the
functioning of that kind of generalist, week-in-week-out reviewer, because to
do that job you need to be relentlessly positive and always convinced that
there’s great stuff out there. I think you’d probably be having to fight
against ennui and “seen it all before” jadedness on a weekly basis, doing that
job, especially at this time.

        The
American reviews have sometimes taken issue with aspects of the book, but
they’ve overall been much more well thought out and balanced. I can’t complain
about the responses, as it is a book designed to provoke debate and
disagreement. I just went to Italy, where the book has received a great
response. I’m hoping to get to France, Germany and the Spanish-reading world
(the book is coming out via a publisher in Argentina) next year.

 

Given your similarly encyclopedic studies of
rave culture, post-punk and even gender in music, when did you first become aware
of “retromania” as an affliction? I can’t imagine the idea came separate from
them?

 My editor in the U.K., Lee Brackstone, said
something at one of the London events about how Retromania was the last
volume in a sort of trilogy that started with Energy Flash (a.k.a. Generation
Ecstasy
) and continued with Rip It Up and Start Again. I had never
thought of that before but it makes sense: Energy Flash is about the
nineties as one long future-rush, and Rip It Up is about growing up
during post-punk, and how that would make me the kind of person who would
embrace rave and techno as a renaissance for the modernist spirit in music. And
then Retromania is about what happened to those energies when we
actually reached the future, which is to say the 21st century. It’s a history
of the present, meaning the 11 or 12 years of the 2000s and early 2010s.

        When
I was looking back over my old writings to see if there was anything I could
re-purpose for Retromania, I was struck by how often – and by how early
– retro had been a preoccupation. Even in an essay on the parlous state of
music in 1985 that I wrote in our fanzine Monitor, there’s a reference
to the glut of reissues. Later on I would be writing in Melody Maker about bands I loved that were very obviously influenced by the sixties, but
trying to imagine them as the start of something new rather than a faint echo
of a lost golden age. That took some rhetorical effort, as you can imagine.
It’s definitely been there as a concern right from almost the start: the accumulating
burden of rock’s own history, and how that becomes an insidious mindset of
reference and reverence. I think my generation inherited a sense of
belatedness, that we were after the sixties and most of us had missed punk,
too.  So there was a kind of struggle to
outflank that condition of being the epigone.

 

You mention artists like Ariel Pink that are
doing a great job of synthesizing influence, but what about those who are truly
blazing a unique path? Any endorsements?

 I think Oneohtrix Point Never has done certain
things that seem to be pretty untaggable, alongside other pieces that are
working with a very eighties sound-palette that recalls at various points: New
Age, space music and Jon Hassell’s Fourth World records. I’m also
digging the albums by Joker and Rustie. I enjoy the sense of scale and
hyper-gloss in their tracks. “Micro” is done with, worn out, as a strategy in
electronic music; it’s time for some Macro. Most of the stuff that catches my
ear and enchants me seems to be stuff that is vaguely evocative of some or
other past – or mingled pasts – but without specifically and consciously
invoking artists or styles from yesteryear. So I really dug the Metronomy album
The English Riviera, which is not exactly new but it’s hard to tag it to
any specific era, and it feels fresh. They remind in that respect of Vampire
Weekend. Also been enjoying music by Laurel Halo and Maria Minerva, which is
equally vague in its evocations.

        That
said, I do really enjoy stuff that is playing games with specific styles from
the past, people like James Ferraro, the artists on Not Not Fun. At the end,
though, I am always craving and searching for that sound that completely
disorients and astounds, which you can’t place in a scheme of reference.
There’s certain footwork tracks on the Bangs & Works compilations that
Planet Mu have done – this subculture of rough, weird beats for very peculiar
dancing, produced by Chicago youngsters – that give me this “shock of the
new/now” sensation. I get that feeling – not so much sonically, but more in
terms of spirit and attitude – from certain of Ke$ha’s records, like “We R Who
We R.”  The eternal present of the
teenage, reinvented for the 21st Century.

 

Indeed, the crisis of looking back is an
existential one. And yet, we’re all – as a culture totale – complicit in
it. What’s the habit we most need to drop, then, to become a highly progressive
people?
 

 Oh, I don’t know. I certainly think critics
could stop making excuses for “non-creative garbage” (to borrow a line from
Monty Python). They could be a bit more stern and judgemental. But the problem
starts at an earlier stage than mediation or critical filtration. Obviously,
the problem is not that people are less talented these days. It’s much more
macro and structural, a change in the base-line conditions in which culture is
made. In an essay I did for The Wire that paralleled the book and
expanded on its themes, I wrote in near mystical terms about how the axis of
time has flipped, and the past has displaced the future in the cultural
imagination. I do think something like that has happened in terms of the
archival universe that is the internet. This is why Bruce Sterling and William
Gibson have been riffing on “atemporality” as a byproduct or effect of network
culture. The internet and digital culture has interfered with our very sense of
culture-time. It’s no longer uni-linear, heading into the future, the unknown.

 

Finally, have you seen Woody Allen’s Midnight
in Paris
? Parts of it sounded just like a page from Retromania.

 I haven’t seen it yet, but it does sound like it
overlaps uncannily with stuff talked about in the prologue, where I’m
discussing the concept of nostalgia. If it had come out a year earlier, it
would have been a gift to me in terms of something to write about in the book.
This cinematic season has seen a couple of releases that chime with Retromania.
Well, more than a couple, if you want to talk about the latest crop of remakes,
but specifically Super 8, which is riddled with “dead media” references,
has the Spielberg-homage/eighties-nostalgia aspect, and is, to use a British
expression, a load of cobblers. And then Drive, which I’ve not seen, but
which sounds like it’s incredibly referential in terms of movie history. Paul
Morley on the U.K. TV show Late Review said it was a movie all about
being cool, and so completely uncool. That had the ring of truth to me. I
suspect it is coming from the Tarantino school: visually ravishing, narratively
thrilling, superbly acted, but utterly empty. A meta-movie.

 

Leave a Reply