Monday, August 8, 2011

Simon Reynolds Goes Retro

HAS the end of cultural history ever been so much fun?

Your humble scribe has been reading Simon Reynolds since his work was a well-kept secret of the British music press. (He was also, during the ‘90s, one of two rock-crit Simons in the Village Voice, the other being the code-cracking rock sociologist Simon Frith.)

He’s written with insight and intelligence about rock n roll, subculture, shoegaze, “post-rock,” electronica and rave culture. His biggest hit stateside has probably been Rip It Up and Start Again: Post Punk 1978-1984, published in this country in 2006. (Due to Henry Rollins plug for the British edition, I had my Manchester-dwelling sister drag one home for me for Christmas one year.)

Reynolds’ latest book – which arrives about a year after his move to Los Angeles – is Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past. The book concentrates on popular music, but it stretches to include all kinds of related subjects, among them memory, hipster retro culture, the psychology of the collector, the "big in Japan" phenomenon, commodity fetishism, YouTube and digital means of recording and storage.

I read nearly everything I find by Reynolds, but this book taps into several longtime passions of mine: In college, as I tried to make simultaneous sense of postmodern theorist Frederic Jameson and the emerging sample-madness of hip hop, I wrote an essay called “Pop Will Eat Itself” which laid out some of the issues that would continue to fascinate me for the next two decades. But I only scratched the surface what Reynolds gets into here. (I also had no idea how much of a retro cat I would become as an adult.)

Now please allow me to slip back to my Vox tube amp, collection of ‘60s jazz records and stash of prewar noir novels: Here’s Simon.

When did you realize that it had gotten this bad? That we were not just living through garden-variety nostalgia but might be poised to swallow our own future?

Shortly before deciding to do the book! Which would have been 2007 or so. But the feeling had been creeping up on me for a while, I’d been blogging stuff with retro themes for quite a while.
The book comes out of this mounting sense of bemusement at the phenomenon of retro that built up over the Noughties, and from a feeling of alarm at what it seemed to herald for the future – which is to say precisely an absence of future, the repetition of the already-heard.

It also comes from curiosity about how things had gotten like this, and how far the roots of retro could be traced. Because as soon as I started thinking about the subject in depth, during the writing of the proposal, I realized that retro had been this spectre on the periphery of my consciousness going way way back. There is a piece I wrote in a fanzine in the mid-Eighties, when music seemed to be stagnant and deadlocked, where I mention en passant that there’s been a glut of reissues and retrospection and that hasn’t helped the situation! So one of the things the book is showing is that retromania as a phenomenon is not an overnight development, it’s something that’s built up over a couple of decades.

What happened in terms of the swarming, ever-expanding digital archive of pop culture that has accrued over the past decade — filesharing, Wikipedia, YouTube, etc etc etc — that was the fruition of tendencies and directions that go back to long before the Internet. So part of the book is also an investigation of the history of retro; I’m looking back at pop’s own looking back, the history of revivalism and what I call “timewarp cults’.

You open the book describing the 17th century origins of the word “nostalgia." For how long have human beings longed for the past? Did Cro-Magnon man pine for the days when he was pushing the Neanderthals aside?

I think looking back to the past and venerating it is something that runs through the entirety of human civilization and is almost certainly part of every culture on the planet. The idea that things were better in the some glorious earlier time, that the ancestors were wise and just and existed in some kind of perfect state of equilibrium, but that at some point things went awry and the current situation we inhabit is fallen or lesser...  this is a near-universal way of seeing things. And on the individual level, we are all prone to nostalgia, I’m sure. Certainly daydreaming about my personal past, feeling wistful about lost moments, is a big part of my make-up.

Nostalgia in the sense of nostalgia for the popular culture and everyday trappings (food, clothes, transport, how stuff looked and was designed, etc etc) of an era that you personally lived through...  I think that is a relatively recent development, though. It seems like a 20th Century thing. That kind of nostalgia is inextricably linked to how fast fashions, entertainment, and so forth, change: they’re two sides of the same coin. And that cycle definitely got faster and faster as the 20th Century proceeded. Hence there’s more to be nostalgic about.

That kind of nostalgia is different from antiquarianism or an interest in history or the olden days. When I was very young I wanted to be an archaeologist and that impulse is to do with the thrill of treasure seeking (I had a very na├»ve idea of what being an archaeologist was like, which was shattered when I attended my first dig) and a fascination for how differently people lived in olden times. There are many ways of being interested in the past that don’t have anything to do with nostalgia. People who form Early Music ensembles aren’t nostalgic, I don’t think. They don’t want to go back to the days of bubonic plague and petty criminals being drawn-and-quartered.

But retro is something a little different from nostalgia, right?

In the book I talk about retro in two ways. There is a sort of vague use of “retro” as an umbrella term for anything to do with phenomena that have some relationship to the past; usually it’s a derogatory or slightly mocking use of the word. 

All the things that get loosely described as ‘retro’ are dealt with in the book: nostalgia, reunion tours, heritage culture, rock museums, revivals, reissuing, remakes, etc. However ‘retro’ actually has a more specific meaning that actually has little to do with nostalgia as an emotion of genuine loss and longing towards the past. Retro in this narrower, precise sense refers to a cultivated appreciation of past styles, usually with a sense of irony as opposed to anguish. Retro aesthetes are charmed by the quaintness of things from the past, but they don’t want to go back in time. This “pure” retro is much more aestheticized and style-oriented. In a non-pejorative sense, just a simple statement of fact, it is superficial: it attends to and delights in the surface properties of the style.

That’s why ‘retro’ in this sense first manifested in the world of fashion and graphic design. Then it gradually spread into, or emerged within, music. And initially it was a rarefied, sophisticated sensibility, and in the rather earnest context of rock culture in the 70s, it was cutting edge. The pioneers of it in rock would have been figures like Roxy Music, or later the  B-52s. Art school and/or gay musicians.  Nowadays it is really widespread in “post-indie” music culture and a lot of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking operators currently active approach the past as this gigantic flea market of sound and style and imagery through they sift for style signifiers to play with.

Haven’t cultural critics decried this kind of thing before? Paul Weller and company went retro decades ago, and I recall a 1986 Esquire article calling the ‘80s “The Re Decade.” What’s different now?

It’s a recurrent complaint that’s emerged at moments of seeming stagnation in music. In the Seventies, journalist and cultural pundits noticed that there was a lot of revivalism going on, particularly the Fifties revival that was big in rock but also took in things like American Graffiti and Happy Days, but I think there was also in the Seventies a bit of Twenties revivalism going on and probably some other decades got dabbled with too. 

In the Eighties postmodernism reached the music and youth press as well as mainstream magazines, so I’m not surprised to hear about that Esquire article; I can remember pieces in The Face about ‘The Age of Plunder’. There was recycling going on all across from music (with so many Eighties pop groups referencing Sixties soul) to Swatch watches with their use of Constructivist and Suprematist imagery. In the early 90s I wrote a piece whose working title was actually ‘Retromania’ for the Guardian and it talked about the reissue explosion and also two then-new rock magazines, Mojo and Vox, that had a very pronounced orientation towards the rock past, collector culture, and so forth.

As I say this has been building for years, but I think what makes it different now is the scale and intensity, and how it’s been affected by digital culture, how that has induced a state of atemporality. Also this current stagnant, directionless phase has gone on much longer than any previous lull: it’s been like this for about a dozen years, where no new major movement or genre in music has come forward.  Indeed, tying in with what I said about digiculture, I think you can loosely time the onset of the current malaise-without-end-in-sight to when broadband kicked in and a whole bunch of things to do with the Internet took off and started pushing us towards the Cloud and the state of perpetual connectivity.

If someone wrote a book this year about the dangers of pollution, or overpopulation, or global warming, I don’t think anyone would say, “oh we’ve heard this before, there were lots of scares about environmental issues in the 1970s, or people were worried about the ozone layer back in the early 90s...  ’. 

Someone in the UK compared Retromania to An Inconvenient Truth.  I think there’s some truth to that in so far as the problems I’m examining didn’t come about overnight and at various points people have remarked upon these syndromes before and expressed alarm about them.

The advent of recording and photography made retro possible. How has technology – which we associate with the future – quickened the process?

Well I go into this in some depth in the book, obviously. It’s a BIG topic. To keep it short, I will say that we’ve seen in the last twenty years a bumpy but implacable transition from the Analogue System to the Digital System, with things like CDs and iPods as transitional formats and technology that will disappear as all culture becomes subsumed as the Cloud.  The Analogue way of experiencing culture involved dearth, distance, and delay: there was a limited number of cultural artifacts that most individuals could afford, these took a solid form that had to be physically transported (in the case of magazines, recordings, if not radio and TV, although the latter were limited by broadcast range), and that involved waiting (for things to be released or published or broadcast). The Digital way of experiencing culture is organized around super-abundance, post-geographical proximity, and instantaneity/immediacy. There are no limits. Yet human beings remain stubbornly analogue entities and as many many people are discovering there is a lot to be said in favour of limits.

This can’t be good. What does it tell us about Anglo-American society in the 21st century, that we’ve become -- as your subtitle has it -- addicted to our own past?

Well, it could be telling us lots of things. That we’ve become victims of our technology. That we bought into the ideology of convenience as a supreme value. Or could it be that old stuff seems comfortable at a time characterized on the one hand by mind-blowing technological changes (the aforementioned digiculture stuff) but on the other hand characterized by an anxiety-stoking sense of political-economic deterioration/deadlock/instability. The past seems alluring because the present is a mess and the future is hard to envisage in positive terms. “Better days” have become something it’s more plausible to project backwards in time rather than forwards in time. 


Milton said...

Nice conclusion to a very interesting post, Scott. Makes me think of the Peter Matthiessen observation that too many people remember the past and too few remember the future.

Scott Timberg said...

That sounds like something Philip K. Dick might have said... Glad you liked.

Pete Bilderback said...

"People who form Early Music ensembles aren’t nostalgic, I don’t think. They don’t want to go back to the days of bubonic plague and petty criminals being drawn-and-quartered."

Indeed, that would make them Republicans.

This looks like a must-read. Thanks Scott!