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Retromania, Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past by Simon Reynolds

PDF Retromania, Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past by Simon Reynolds Date Published 05.01.2012

Book author
  1. Simon Reynolds
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The first book to make sense of 21st Century pop, Retromania explores rock’s nostalgia industry of revivals, reissues, reunions and remakes, and argues that there has never before been a culture so obsessed with its own immediate past. Pulling together parallel threads from music, fashion, art, and new media, Simon Reynolds confronts a central paradox of our era: from iPods to YouTube, we’re empowered by mind-blowing technology, but too often it’s used as a time machine or as a tool to shuffle and rearrange music from yesterday.We live in the digital future but we’re mesmerized by our analogue past.

The ‘Re’ Decade

We live in a pop age gone loco for retro and crazy for commemoration. Band reformations and reunion tours, tribute albums and box sets, anniversary festivals and live performances of classic albums: each new year is better than the last one for music from yesteryear.

Could it be that the greatest danger to the future of our music culture is ... its past?

Maybe that sounds unnecessarily apocalyptic. But the scenario I’m imagining isn’t a cataclysm so much as a gradual wind-down. This is the way that pop ends, not with a BANG but with a box set whose fourth disc you never get around to playing and an overpriced ticket to the track-by- track restaging of the Pixies or Pavement album you played to death in your first year at university.

Once upon a time, pop’s metabolism buzzed with dynamic energy, creating the surging-into-the-future feel of periods like the psychedelic sixties, the post-punk seventies, the hip-hop eighties and the rave nineties. The 2000s felt different. Pitchfork critic Tim Finney noted ‘the curious slowness with which this decade marches forward’. He was specifically monitoring electronic dance music, which all through the nineties had been pop culture’s vanguard, hurling forth a new Next Big Thing every season. But Finney’s observation can be applied not just to dance music but to popular music in its entirety. The sensation of moving forward grew fainter as the decade unfurled. Time itself seemed to become sluggish, like a river that starts to meander and form oxbow lakes.

If the pulse of NOW felt weaker with each passing year, that’s because in the 2000s the pop present became ever more crowded out by the past, whether in the form of archived memories of yesteryear or retro-rock leeching off ancient styles. Instead of being about itself, the 2000s has been about every other previous decade happening again all at once: a simultaneity of pop time that abolishes history while nibbling away at the present’s own sense of itself as an era with a distinct identity and feel.

Instead of being the threshold to the future, the first ten years of the twenty-first century turned out to be the ‘Re’ Decade. The 2000s were dominated by the ‘re-’ prefix: revivals, reissues, remakes, re-enactments. Endless retrospection: every year brought a fresh spate of anniversaries, with their attendant glut of biographies, memoirs, rockumentaries, biopics and commemorative issues of magazines. Then there were the band reformations, whether it was groups reuniting for nostalgia tours in order to replenish (or to bloat still further) the members’ bank balances (Police, Led Zeppelin, Pixies ... the list is endless) or as a prequel to returning to the studio to relaunch their careers as recording artists (Stooges, Throbbing Gristle, Devo, Fleetwood Mac, My Bloody Valentine et al.).

If only it was just the old music and old musicians coming back, in archived form or as reanimated performers. But the 2000s was also the decade of rampant recycling: bygone genres revived and renovated, vintage sonic material reprocessed and recombined. Too often with new young bands, beneath their taut skin and rosy cheeks you could detect the sagging grey flesh of old ideas.

As the 2000s proceeded, the interval between something happening and its being revisited seemed to shrink insidiously. The I Love the [Decade] TV series created by the BBC and adapted by VH1 for America hurtled through the seventies, eighties and nineties, and then – with I Love the New Millennium, which aired in the summer of 2008 – wrapped up the 2000s before the decade was even over. Meanwhile, the reissue industry’s tentacles have already reached the late nineties, with box sets and remastered/ expanded versions of German minimal techno, Britpop and even Morrissey’s lamest run of solo albums. The rising tide of the historical past is lapping at our ankles. As for revivals, the music scene mostly abided by the Twenty-Year Rule of Revivalism: the eighties were ‘in’ for much of the 2000s, in the form of the post-punk, electropop and most recently Goth resurgences. But you also had precocious glimpses of nineties revivalism, with the nurave fad and the rise of shoegaze, grunge and Britpop as reference points for new indie bands.

The word ‘retro’ has a quite specific meaning: it refers to a self-conscious fetish for period stylisation (in music, clothes, design) expressed creatively through pastiche and citation. Retro in its strict sense tends to be the preserve of aesthetes, connoisseurs and collectors, people who possess a near-scholarly depth of knowledge combined with a sharp sense of irony. But the word has come to be used in a much more vague way to describe pretty much anything that relates to the relatively recent past of popular culture. Following this looser common usage of the word, Retromania investigates the entire range of contemporary uses and abuses of the pop past. This includes phenomena such as the vastly increased presence in our lives of old pop culture: from the availability of back-catalogue records to YouTube’s gigantic collective archive and the massive changes in music consumption engendered by playback devices like the iPod (which often functions as a personal ‘oldies’ radio station). Another major area is the natural greying of rock music some fifty years into its existence: performers from the past who stick around, continuing to tour and record, as well as artists who mount comebacks after a long period of retirement. Finally, there’s ‘new old’ music made by young musicians who draw heavily on the past, often in a clearly signposted and arty way.

Earlier eras had their own obsessions with antiquity, of course, from the Renaissance’s veneration of Roman and Greek classicism to the Gothic movement’s invocations of the medieval. But there has never been a society in human history so obsessed with the cultural artifacts of its own immediate past. That is what distinguishes retro from antiquarianism or history: the fascination for fashions, fads, sounds and stars that occurred within living memory. Increasingly, that means pop culture that you already experienced the first time around (as a conscious, pop-aware person, as opposed to stuff that you lived through unaware as a small child).

This kind of retromania has become a dominant force in our culture, to the point where it feels like we’ve reached some kind of tipping point. Is nostalgia stopping our culture’s ability to surge forward, or are we nostalgic precisely because our culture has stopped moving forward and so we inevitably look back to more momentous and dynamic times? But what happens when we run out of past? Are we heading towards a sort of cultural – ecological catastrophe, when the seam of pop history is exhausted? And out of all the things that happened this past decade, what could possibly fuel tomorrow’s nostalgia crazes and retro fads?

I’m not alone in feeling perplexed by these prospects. I’ve lost count of the number of hand-wringing newspaper columns and blog posts that worry about what happened to innovation and upheaval in music. Where are the major new genres and subcultures of the twenty-first century? Sometimes it’s the musicians themselves who sound a note of weary déjà vu. In a 2007 interview, Sufjan Stevens declared: ‘Rock and roll is a museum piece ... . There are great rock bands today – I love the White Stripes, I love the Raconteurs. But it’s a museum piece. You’re watching the History Channel when you go to these clubs. They’re just reenacting an old sentiment. They’re channeling the ghosts of that era – the Who, punk rock, the Sex Pistols, whatever. It’s been done. The rebellion’s over.’

This malaise is not restricted to pop music, of course. Look at the Hollywood mania for remaking blockbuster movies from a couple of decades earlier: Alfie, Ocean’s Eleven, Bad News Bears, Casino Royale, The Pink Panther, Hairspray, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Fame, Tron,True Grit ... The near future promises remakes of The Fly (yes, it’s being made for the third time), The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Dirty Dozen ..., while Russell Brand is due to star in remakes of Arthur and Drop Dead Fred. When they’re not revamping proven box-office successes of the past, the movie industry is adapting much-loved ‘iconic’ TV series for the big screen, like The Dukes of Hazzard, Charlie’s Angels and Get Smart, along with bygone kiddy cartoons like Yogi Bear and The Smurfs. Somewhere between the two is the Star Trek that hit cinema screens in mid-2009: not strictly a remake but a prequel (the ad slogan drips with unintentional irony: ‘The Future Begins’) featuring the young Spock and Kirk. This movie trades off the generation-spanning cumulative affection created by the original sixties TV series, the eighties film versions and the subsequent Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series.

Theatre has a long tradition of reviving canonic plays and much-loved musicals, but here too you can see the remake and the spin-off catching on with productions like Spamalot (based on the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and ‘jukebox musicals’ written around golden oldies by legendary bands or drawn from vintage genres: We Will Rock You (Queen), Good Vibrations (Beach Boys), The Times They Are A-Changin’ (Bob Dylan) and Rock of Ages (eighties hair metal). There’s even ‘jukebox TV’ with shows like Glee and Pop Idol/American Idol (with its Beatles nights, Stones nights et al.), which fold rock and soul back into the nonthreatening tradition of showbiz/light entertainment/variety. Television has even got in on the remake action, albeit with generally less success than Hollywood. People in the industry describe the contemporised version of the classic TV series as ‘a presold concept’, but so far the attempts – glitzy remakes of The Prisoner, The Survivors, The Rockford Files, Charlie’s Angels, Dragnet, The Twilight Zone, The Fugitive, Kojak, Bionic Woman, Hawaii Five-O, Beverly Hills 90210, Dallas, plus Britcom favourites like Minder, Reggie Perrin and The Likely Lads – have not ‘sold’ especially well in terms of ratings (indeed, in America these remakes often get cancelled before the season is through). Still, people keep trying: the logic of renovating the tried-and-true, of milking the cult status of the original, seems an irresistible pitch.
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