James Parker - Simon Reynolds Retromania and the Atemporality of Contemporary Pop-libre

August 5, 2017 | Author: dzabaleba | Category: Entertainment (General), Leisure
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Review: Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past (2011)

Simon Reynolds, Retromania and the Atemporality of Contemporary ‘Pop’

James Parker 156

One book dominated music criticism in 2011. A virtuoso work of both musical and cultural history, a strangely personal memoir of a life dedicated to pop and its more obscure fringes, an absorbing and incisive polemic against certain forms of musicological nostalgia, retro and pastiche, a sometimes deterministic and curmudgeonly look at the tectonic changes supposedly wrought by the ‘digital revolution’ on both musical consumption and practice: Simon Reynolds’s Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction To Its Own Past was all of these things and more. Artforum put it in its top 10 books of the year and called it ‘the best book on pop music written since the turn of the twenty-first century’.1 Perhaps it is. But the fact that many of the other main contenders were also written by Reynolds means that this is probably not a question worth dwelling on at length. Simon Reynolds is almost certainly the most important music critic writing today. He is a superb historian, a prolific and incisive critic and an extremely judicious theoretician. Only Greil Marcus and Simon Frith could possibly claim to have contributed more towards the sophistication of contemporary music discourse, but neither has managed to keep their finger on the pulse in quite the way Reynolds does. Since the start of his career in the mid 1980s, he has written for every major music publication on both sides of the Atlantic and authored seven critically acclaimed books, each of which has seemed exceptionally ‘timely’ on its release. Retromania is no exception there, except that its timeliness is far more overt. The book finds Reynolds as self-appointed diagnostician of the Now: of contemporariness itself. And he pulls no punches in the delivery of his findings. Pop has lost its momentum, he argues. The present has been infected by an obsession with the past. Fitting, then, that it’s with Reynolds’s own past that I want to begin. A close reading of his early work reveals a vision of pop and the function of music to which Reynolds has remained committed for virtually the entire duration of his career. Retromania turns out to be Reynolds’s not-so-surprising response to pop’s recent failure to live up to his unashamedly modernist expectations. 1. THEN In 1984, Simon Reynolds was on the dole. He had just completed a degree in history at Oxford and needed funds in order to dedicate himself properly to the work of launching a new zine with some friends. The result was Monitor. Today it would probably be called a journal. The production values were high, the aesthetic crisp and contemporary — ‘high quality paper stock, stark typefaces, striking design’2 — and, in terms of content, the authors certainly weren’t afraid to wear

their learning on their sleaves. Monitor’s founding principle was ‘no reviews, no interviews, just thinkpieces’.3 The sixth and final issue, for instance, published in the summer of 1986, was entitled ‘Pop: Subversion and Surveillance’.4 Which is to say, Monitor was fairly subversive itself at a time where the majority of fanzines prided themselves on their belligerent antiintellectualism, on the one hand, and a kind of ‘egomaniacal self-celebration’ on the other.5 By this point, Reynolds had already been hired as a staff-writer at an ailing Melody Maker. Together with some of his old mates from Monitor who were hired soon after, he played a key role in the magazine’s famed renaissance between the end of the eighties and the early nineties: an intellectual thorn in the once great NME’s now rather Neanderthal, rockist side. Reynolds’s first book Blissed Out was published in 1990.6 A collection of his best pieces from Melody Maker, which he had now left in order to follow his girlfriend (and fellow writer, Joy Press) to the US, the book essentially makes an argument for jouissance in Rock. At a time when most rock criticism continued to ‘probe rock for its “spirit”’, to work out what it was ‘saying’, to Reynolds it just ‘seemed more exciting to be swept up in its incoherence’.7 The sheer noisy ecstasies of My Bloody Valentine’s guitars, for instance, ‘the “visual noise” of certain kinds of flamboyance, brio, effervescence, élan’, the ‘geyser gush of glossalalia’, Prince’s scream, the Pixies’s holler: this was what rock at the vanguard was about for Reynolds at the end of the 1980s.8 After Blissed Out came The Sex Revolts in 1995, an engaging but now rather dated study of rock’s relations to gender and rebellion that Reynolds co-authored with Joy Press, now his wife.9 And then, three years later while he was a senior-editor at Spin magazine, Energy Flash.10 Energy Flash is important for a few of reasons. First, historically: because it traces with such rigour and erudition a history of rave and rave culture, right from the genre’s early days in Detroit, New York and Chicago through to its ‘climactic budding in the motorway-side paddocks of Britain in the late 1980s and early 1990s’.11 MOJO called the book ‘exceptional’: ‘Reynolds has tracked the unfolding sounds and rituals of “the (al) chemical generation” so comprehensively’, it said, ‘that he virtually obviates the need for any further literature on the period’.12 Not only that, but with Energy Flash Reynolds brought to the music itself a level of sophistication, theoretical rigour and intelligence that was conspicuously lacking in much of the global dance press at the time. Kodwo Eshun, for instance, has called dance criticism circa 1995 ‘meagre, miserly, mediocre’, intent on maintaining rhythm as ‘an unwritable, ineffable mystery.’13 Reynolds, by contrast, not only wanted to explain rave, but to valorise it, to give it a certain amount of ‘high-culture’ legitimacy at a time where it was being systematically derided in some

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quarters as mindless drug and body music. For Reynolds, ‘electronic dance music dissolves the old dichotomy between head and body, between “serious” music for home-listening and “stupid” music for the dancefloor’. There is a ‘kinaesthetic intelligence’ to it. ‘A good dancer is “listening” with every sinew and tendon in her body … The entire body becomes an ear.’14 Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book, however, is that it came from an erstwhile rock critic. Sonically, rock and rave may not have much to do with each other, but, as Reynolds explained in 2002, ‘in terms of attitudes and values’ rock had a huge influence on it. By the 1990s, electronica had ‘become the inheritor of rock’s seriousness: its belief that music can change the world (or at least an individual’s consciousness), rock notions of “progression” or “subversion”, the conviction that music needs to be more than entertainment’. And it did this even as it was overtly challenging, or even dismantling rockist conventions in relation to how creativity works (electronica, for instance, was quick to jettison rock’s cult of the musician as ‘auteur’), what defines art, and ‘where precisely the meaning and power of music is located’.15 This distinctly modernist vision of music’s power and social import has always been shadowed in Reynolds’s work by an anxiety about its failure, which, as we shall see, reaches its peak in Retromania. Already, in a piece for the very first issue of Monitor, way back in 1984, Reynolds wondered: ‘What happens to movements when they cease to move? Why do youth culture revolutionaries persist in allegiance to styles and subcultures long after their moment of peak impact?’16 Why would punk, for instance, a genre that shone so brightly with the promise of reinvention in the second half of the 1970s, devolve into mere ‘style’, a series of standard gestures — of sound, dress and attitude — rather than remaining committed to the project of reinvention itself? Why persist with the techniques of punk, when its spirit was so much more interesting and important? It was precisely a concern for this spirit — music’s futurist or teleological mandate as it played out in the wake of punk — that animated Reynolds’s next book, a genealogy of so-called ‘post-punk’, published in 2005 and appropriately entitled Rip It Up and Start Again.17 Rip It Up and Start Again charts a very discrete period of musical history: just seven years, from 1978 to 1984, a period of virtually unrivalled musical creativity and perhaps even ‘progress’. Post-punk, for Reynolds – The Fall, Joy Division, Public Image Ltd, Pere Ubu, Devo, The Residents, Throbbing Gristle, The Slits, The Art of Noise – was musically ‘way more interesting than what happened in 1976-7 itself, when punk staged its back-tobasics rock’n’roll revival’. Indeed, in terms of the ‘sheer amount of great music created, the spirit of adventure and idealism that infused it, and the way that the music seemed inextricably connected to the political and social

turbulence of the times,’ post-punk rivalled even ‘those fabled years between 1963 and 1967 commonly known as the “sixties”.’ ‘There was a similar mood-blend of anticipation and anxiety, a mania for all things new and futuristic coupled with fear of what the future had in store.’18 ‘I’ve come pretty close since,’ Reynolds explains, ‘but I’ve never been quite as exhilarated as I was back then.’19 And clearly for Reynolds exhilaration is the name of the game. This, for Reynolds, is the essence of ‘pop’. In Retromania, he calls it ‘future-rush’:20 an affective state, the experience of being confronted with ‘the new’, the necessary antidote to what Alain Badiou has called the ‘febrile sterility’ of contemporary culture. Rip It Up And Start Again is probably still Reynolds’s most influential book. When Leeds University held a conference at the start of 2010 entitled ‘Post-Punk Performance: The Alternative 80s’, for instance, author and critic Alex Ogg called it the ‘elephant in the room’, by far and away the conference’s ‘dominant text,’ a ‘near ubiquitous reference point’, ‘doctrinal’.21 This was a problem for Ogg not just because it tainted proceedings with an unsettling degree of uniformity, but because Reynolds’s book is so selective, and specifically in favour of the period’s ‘more progressive voices’, even if they were heard and consumed as ‘punk’ at the time.22 In other words, Reynolds stands accused of defining post-punk according to his own specifically modernist predilections, and in doing so of ‘unfairly diminishing the parental culture’s diversity and vitality.’23 If Rip It Up has been both influential and controversial, then, on its release in 2005 it was also extremely timely. A swathe of new bands had recently begun to revive post-punk’s sound and conventions. Foreshadowing the entire tenor of Retromania, this was the note on which the book finished. At the start of the 2000s the sounds being made by the likes of The Rapture, Liars, LCD Soundsystem, Interpol, !!!, Wolf Eyes and Franz Ferdinand would have seemed strangely familiar to anyone conversant with the music covered in the book. Reynolds put it like this: ‘

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Many of these groups are just great … and it’s both thrilling and enjoyably disorienting to hear the sounds of my youth resurrected … Yet the very thing that seems most worth resurrecting from post-punk is its commitment to change. This belief was expressed both in the conviction that music should keep moving forward and in the confidence that music can transform the world, even if only through altering one individual’s perceptions or enlarging their sense of possibility.24 In other words, post-punk is not a sound, it’s an attitude. Moreover, it’s an attitude that Reynolds has found in all his favourite music right from the very start of a career:

a forward logic, if you like, a total commitment to and investment in ‘the artistic imperative to be original’.25 It’s precisely this imperative that in Retromania Reynolds finds so conspicuously lacking since the start of the new millennium. Since then, he writes, the ‘pulse of the NOW’ has begun to feel weaker with each passing year. 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.26 In other words, we live in a time in which The Strokes’s debut Is This It? can be lauded by many as the great album of the decade not just in spite of the fact but partly because ‘everything about [it] seemed like it was lifted from ’60s and ’70s garage rock.’27 We live in a time when a throwback like Adele is not only the biggest selling artists of the decade, but is roundly applauded for her ‘state-of-the art retro soul, with touches of Motown, bossa nova and 1970s piano pop.’28 We live in a time where the hottest new sound to grace the global popconsciousness in the last couple of years, what Mark Fisher has called ‘euphoric R&B’, sounds breathtakingly similar to the kind of Eurohouse being played in Ibiza as recently as the 1990s.29 2. NOW Strictly speaking, Retromania is about more than just music. At its broadest, it is a sweeping and at times polemical critique of contemporary popular culture in its entirety: TV, film, fashion, even furniture. All of it, Reynolds claims, has succumbed to the same retro-centric ‘malaise’: a case of out with the new, in with the old: endless Hollywood remakes, the constant revivals of ‘classic’ TV shows, vintage aviators, retro haircuts, oldschool typewriters, Eames chairs. In its most general form, the diagnosis is this: ‘there has never been a society in human history so obsessed with the cultural artifacts of its own immediate past’.30 The argument in this respect is not always subtle or convincing. Reynolds’s penchant for fashion-bashing especially will rile anyone who takes more than a passing interest in that particular area. ‘We talk of artistic movements or political movements,’ he writes, ‘because they are building towards something, and in the process they definitively jettison earlier stages of development or outmoded ideas. But in fashion, everything démodé becomes à la mode again, sooner or later … In fashion, everything is transient except the

sweet music of the cash register.’31 Indeed, Reynolds’s failure to strictly delimit his field of inquiry to pop music, or indeed music, means his argument is often drawn to those aspects of culture that reinforce his argument, rather than being an exhaustive analysis of a specific field of practice. Elsewhere, however, the book’s non- or notexclusively musicological passages are amongst its most fascinating and least controversial parts. The histories Reynolds offers of certain previous retro-cultures — from the British trad-jazz revival of the 1940s and 50s through Northern Soul to the strange cultish underground of hardcore Record Collecting and Japan’s peculiar and longstanding fetishisation of retro and pastiche — are all particularly good. Similarly, Reynolds’s critique of the ‘museumification of rock’ is pretty irrefutable. A museum, as Reynolds puts it, is fundamentally ‘opposed to the vital energies of pop and rock … Pop is about the momentary thrill; it can’t be a permanent exhibit’.32 It is, by its very nature fleeting, transient. And therefore fundamentally oriented towards the new and the next. Indeed, Reynolds is quick to note with Theodor Adorno the proximity — both etymological and actual — between the museum and the mausoleum. The British Music Experience, it seems, is a perfect example of a place where music goes to die: an enormous rock museum based out of the onceMillennium Dome since 2009, full of the worst kinds of ephemera, musty cliché and the totally unironic iconisation of iconoclasm itself: life-sized cardboard cutouts of the Jonny Rotten. Reynolds is scathing too about the birth and apparent flourishing of so-called ‘prestige acts’ and their never-ending comeback tours: The Stooges, The Police and The Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, Blur, Dinosaur Jr, Rage Against the Machine. Not even the likes of Throbbing Gristle or the Sex Pistols have proven immune to the lurid lustre of the heritage circuit dollar: their original fans now ‘nostalgic for chaos’ at the same time as being both conveniently moneyed and comfortable in the suburbs.33 Combine this phenomenon with the big-money, mega-box-set re-release, complete with every last alternate take of that little known B-side, and what you get is a music industry whose economic structure is increasingly back-ended. You don’t need to make it big the first time round so long as you make it big enough to warrant a reunion tour and a deluxe vinyl reissue of your debut album. In this sense, as Reynolds seems to suggest but never quite makes explicit, we can think of retro as being inherently capitalistic. Even as the market demands the constant creation of new products — bigger, better, faster — it will do what it can to maximise the profitability of the old: even if that means investing less in the new and innovative. This is a key point because Reynolds’s problem is not simply an overabundance of older acts in the

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contemporary market, it’s the insidious effect that the mainstreaming of retro culture in general has had on the music being made today. I’ve already mentioned The Strokes, Adele and so-called ‘euphoric R&B’, but we could equally add to the mix The White Stripes, Jet, The Libertines, Amy Winehouse, Ladyhawke and Lady Gaga (despite her more interesting visual aesthetic). None of these acts are doing anything remotely innovative in sonic terms, and yet it passes. We don’t just accept it — by and large we applaud it. Partly, no doubt, because they are simply tweaking and rehearsing the sounds that an ageing consumer market grew up with, but partly also because the major players in the music industry these days are increasingly conservative. Again, if you share even the least bit of Reynolds’s modernist sensibility, you’ll most likely to be sympathetic to his critique in this respect. More interesting and controversial is the way he takes aim at less mainstream trends as well. The real problem for Reynolds isn’t so much the fact that your Dad just bought tickets to see Phil Collins, it’s the fact that the music you and your hipster friends are blogging about could easily have been made by him (Washed Out, Gayngs, certain tracks by Bon Iver). As Reynolds puts it,

Consider Ariel Pink, for instance, a soldier for retro if ever there was one. When Pink uses the term ‘retrolicious’ to describe his sound — woven, as Reynolds explains, ‘out of blurry echoes of halcyon radio pop from the sixties and seventies’ — Reynolds is both surprised and concerned that he is able to do so ‘without a trace of embarrassment’.35 After all, ‘what exactly is this music’s contribution? Is it laying down anything that future equivalents of Ariel Pink could rework?’36 It’s not that Reynolds thinks there’s anything wrong with nostalgia per se. ‘Nostalgia is, after all, one of the great pop emotions.’37 The problem is largely one of scale. On the one hand, the fact that Pink is just the tip of the iceberg: a vast glut of ‘hypnagogic’ and ‘chillwave’ drivel that somehow manages to pass for the avant-garde these days. And on the other hand, the fact that so many of the very best artists of our time — Burial, Oneohtrix Point Never, Flying Lotus, The Focus Group, Mordant Music, Maria Minerva, John Maus, James Ferraro, William

Basinski — are, like Pink, ‘making music whose primary emotion is towards other music, earlier music’.38 This is a subtly different critique to the one in relation to The White Stripes et al. or the neo-postpunkers at the end of Rip It Up. This time the point is not so much that the artists in question sound like earlier bands but that their music is in dialogue with earlier music. This is music, in other words, which is overtly genealogical in orientation, or at least extremely historically aware. If you wouldn’t necessarily mistake it for the music of an earlier period, it’s certainly evocative of it. Often presented under a patina of decay and fuzz, the effect of this music is uncanny, suggestive of a past degraded but not quite dead. Hence the term ‘hauntology’, an appropriation from Jacques Derrida in Spectres of Marx, which has been widely taken up since Reynolds himself first proposed it in a blog post back at the start 2006.39 Hauntology, Reynolds explains, ‘is all about memory’s power (to linger, pop up unbidden, prey on your mind) and memory’s fragility (destined to become distorted, to fade, then finally disappear).’40 Either way, its contemporaneity consists precisely in its orientation towards the past: a past, of course, which was itself heavily invested in the future. That is, part of what hauntology is about is a nostalgia for modernism itself. Julian House of The Focus Group calls it ‘looking back to looking forwards’.41 It’s here that Reynolds’s argument in Retromania is both at its most ambivalent and its most contentious. Ambivalent because Reynolds clearly loves so much of the music which troubles him most. Indeed, he has been a veritable champion of much of it on his blog, in the pages of The Wire and elsewhere. Contentious because Reynolds treads dangerously close to a wholesale dismissal of the techniques of the postmodernism that he equates it with: reference, quotation, irony, pastiche. His rejection of ‘mash-up’ in particular is virtually categorical. And because he chooses never to elaborate a fully fledged aesthetic project of his own, he makes it too easy in places for an unsympathetic reader to dismiss him wholesale as an ageing curmudgeon, raining on the kids’ parade. Part of the problem in this respect is a result of the book’s style. Unlike Reynolds’s previous work, Retromania is an extremely personal book. In one sense, that is part of what makes it such a compelling read. Reynolds has a real flair for anecdote and a decade of prolific blogging has clearly served him well in this respect too: there is a casualness to his prose which enables him to hold many of his more theoretically sophisticated points nicely. But so much is dealt with at this level, so much is personalised, that it can be hard to know which points are intended to be generalised and when. This is particularly true in relation to Reynolds’s technophobia. As someone who embraced the mp3 over a decade ago now for its ease and portability, for instance, what am I

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where retro truly reigns as the dominant sensibility and creative paradigm is in hipsterland, pop’s equivalent to highbrow. The very people who you would once have expected to produce (as artists) or champion (as consumers) the non-traditional and the groundbreaking — that’s the group who are most addicted to the past. In demographic terms, it’s the exact same cutting-edge class, but instead of being pioneers and innovators, they’ve switched roles to become curators and archivists. The avantgarde is now an arrière-garde.34

meant to make of a critique offered by someone who claims to have avoided the iPod altogether as an ‘emblem of the poverty of abundance’? For whom ‘the idea of carrying your collection with you wherever you went didn’t seem at all appealing,’ but ‘freakish’?42 It’s a shame, too, that where Reynolds is normally so conscientious and sophisticated theoretically, when it comes to questions of technology he is content to resort to shady pop-psychology and the dubious authority of texts such as Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,43 Steven Levy’s The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture and Coolness44 and Dylan Jones’ iPod, Therefore I Am.45 Why Reynolds is happy to evoke Freud and Derrida for the purposes of his discussion of the archive, for instance, but the one-time editor of GQ for his consideration of the iPod and digiculture is a mystery. It’s certainly not as if there’s a lack of superior texts to choose from: Manuel Castells, Lev Manovich and Jonathan Sterne being just a few of the more obvious examples. This is an important criticism because Reynolds wants to frame so much of the blame for the contemporary predicament in specifically mediological terms. The basic claim is a well-known one: that the biggest innovation in music in the last decade has not been sonic at all, but technical — not The Beatles, but Napster. For Reynolds, we are still waiting for the acoustic equivalent to the so-called ‘digital revolution’ mainly because that revolution has made so much of the music of the past so readily available to us, no more than the click of a button away. In a revealing companion piece to Retromania published in The Wire around the time of the book’s release, Reynolds put it like this. The analogue and digital systems, he argues, ‘created particular kinds of affects, modes of identification and convergences of social energy.’ Under the analogue regime — because it was based around the physical movement of information-containing objects: records, tapes and magazines — time was tilted forward. It was structured around ‘delay, anticipation and the Event’.46 With digiculture, by contrast, ‘time is lateral, recursive, spongiform, riddled with wormholes’. It is marked by ‘a paradoxical combination of instantaneity and permanence, speed and stasis’.47 Digiculture’s ‘a-temporality’ levels the playing field between the old and the new and in this sense, for Reynolds, it is inherently conservative. While Reynolds does admittedly stop short of a fullblown determinism — YouTube, he says, isn’t just a website, or even a technology, ‘but more a whole field of cultural practice’48 — he certainly grants the shift from analogue to digital a large amount of aesthetic agency. So LA based ‘wonky’ artist Flying Lotus, for instance, is a symptomatically ‘webby’ musician. His 2010 opus Cosmogramma is a ‘sprawling, post-Web 2.0

cacophony…like hurtling through the digital darkness of Spotify with everything blaring at once’. Flying Lotus’s music, Reynolds says, ‘seems to contain its own hyperlinks’.49 When, on Before Today, Ariel Pink offered up an instrumental cover of an Ethiopian pop song from the eighties that he’d discovered while surfing YouTube, this was an aesthetic gesture that would have been virtually impossible less than a decade earlier. What hope does the genuinely new have when reviving some ‘exotic’ genre from the depths of the net will do just as well for anyone who wasn’t there — either temporally or geographically — the first time round? Not only that but the web puts so much music and so much writing about it at our fingertips that musicians and critics alike are increasingly informed about it too. We’re all PhDJ’s now, Academicritics. In another piece in The Wire on retro-oriented ‘chill rave’ artist Laurel Halo, Reynolds is amazed at just how self-aware she seems to be about it all: her references to ‘memory asymptotes’ and the ‘vague-ening of memory caused by our brains starting to “mimic our patterns of information retrieval and consumption on the internet – to the point where… we move towards this eternal Present”’.50 ‘Superfuckin’ Intellectual Dance Music’, Reynolds calls it. And again he’s intriguingly ambivalent. At the same time as he professes to being a real fan of Halo, the concern that we’ve somehow managed to rear a whole generation of artists and critics who are more well-informed than they are innovative looms palpably large. ‘That’s what strikes me about the new breed’, he writes elsewhere: ‘they think like critics. They navigate the history of music using a kind of combinatorial logic (Goth + dub = LA Vampires/ Zola Jesus). They frame projects with over-arching concepts or clearly designated reference points…Like certain critics, they’re genremaniacs.’51 The incursion of contemporary musicians into the historical field makes the music critic/historian’s task, along with his tools of genre and influence, inherently more difficult and circular. 3. TOMORROW It boils down to this. Whatever gripes I might have about the precise form of Reynolds’s argument in Retromania, and particularly in relation to his claims about digiculture’s inherent retro-ism, the book is nevertheless basically persuasive. One of the editors of this journal put it to me that Retromania was ‘incremental’. That’s exactly right, I think. Although there’s plenty to take issue with in the specifics of Reynolds’s critique, the overall force of it does at least feel right: it builds and builds and builds and soon enough it’s hard not to hear retromania everywhere. When I try to think of the genuine sonic innovations that have emerged in the last few years, or at least those that are definitively not tainted by the shadow of the

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past — dubstep’s now ubiquitous ‘wobble’, the increasing prevalence and sophistication of so-called ‘vocal science’ (from the T-Painification of pop to J-Dilla and DJ Screw’s massive influence on the treatment of vocal samples across so many genres), the staggering, stuttering, lopsided de-quantization of so much electronica and hip-hop — they all feel desperately small: so little music right now feels momentous, nothing seems to threaten to simply change the terms of the game. One exception to that rule perhaps has been Chicago’s ‘footwork’, which really took off globally in 2011 thanks in part to the very same technologies which Reynolds blames for the spread of retromania. The first time I saw footage of footwork on YouTube, complete with soundtrack from the likes of DJ Rashad, DJ Diamond, Traxman and RP Boo, it induced precisely the sort of ‘future shock’ that Reynolds claims to have felt so rarely since the heyday of rave. Both as a form of dance and as a musical genre, footwork is confronting. To listen to it can be extremely uncomfortable, its velocity and peculiar rhythmic dislocation really difficult to get a handle on. Part of this clearly has something to do with the fact that it was developed in a kind of splendid isolation, by a scene, a community, an underground, before unleashing itself on the ears of the world: just like in the good old days of rave and post-punk. With footwork’s emphasis on the street, the dancefloor and the ‘Real’, it’d be easy to think of it as an ‘analogue’ movement: in other words, proof perfect of Reynolds’s argument. Except that footwork doesn’t just owe its increasing popularity to digiculture, it is itself a product of it too. Amongst its practitioners, footwork is made, performed and distributed digitally. Not only that but, like Flying Lotus, it has a distinctly ‘webby’, digital feel to it too. Footwork is a digimusic in the sense that it is totally concerned with compression: low-bit rates as much as microscopic beats: as many of those frenetic digisnare hits as a bar can possibly take. The point isn’t to herald Footwork as some sort of savior of the Now. It’s to suggest that for anyone who shares Reynolds’s modernist/futurist sensibility, there’s still hope. Even in a period of ‘radical atemporality’, even if YouTube and the dreaded iPod are here to stay, futuremusics are still possible: and not just in spite of digiculture, moreover, but because of it. In other words, what Reynolds calls ‘hyper-stasis’ is not inevitable, and ‘xenomania’ — the term Reynolds uses to describe the increasing exoticisation of the foreign52 — is not retromania’s only alternative. Indeed, Reynolds ends his book on just such a hopeful note: ‘I still believe the future is out there,’53 he writes. The fact that he fails to offer a prospectus to that end may well rile some readers, but that is simply not the level at which the book operates. The best way to understand Retromania, it seems to me, is not

necessarily in terms of the arguments it advances at all, but rather in terms of what it does. Retromania is a provocation. It deals in what Mark Fisher calls ‘negativity’. The term is intended to be less pessimistic than it sounds. ‘Negativity’, for Fisher, is a productive spur: discontent as a call to arms. ‘One of the drivers of popular music in Britain,’ Fisher argued a lecture in Berlin recently ‘was negativity, a sense of I can’t get no satisfaction, No Future etcetera, that has sort of been replaced by — ironically at a time when there really is no future in lots of ways — by this kind of cheery, anodyne positivity.’ And one of the things that hauntology does, for Fisher, is ‘give voice to that sense of disquiet’.54 Rather than simply represent that negativity, however, Reynolds and Fisher would have us respond to it. This is the difference too between the kind of negative politicism expressed during the recent London riots and those camped outside St Paul’s Cathedral and across the world in the name of the Occupy movement. Negativity is obviously not an end in itself, but sometimes it simply has to come first. Ultimately, what Retromania does is to force us — musicians, critics, listeners — to think more carefully about what is at stake in retro, to think twice before we endorse or applaud it, to remember that sometimes, in some contexts, retro is simply not good enough, that we can and sometimes should do better. This is the seed of ‘negativity’ that Retromania plants. And if the book deals in broad brush strokes, that’s because its canvas is necessarily large. Yes, we could talk about the tyranny of generalization if we wanted to: we could point out that no sounds are without a history, that retromania is to some extent a necessary and permanent condition, that we have, in a certain manner of speaking, always been postmodern and that in this sense there is nothing intrinsically novel about the contemporary predicament. And every step of the way Reynolds would agree with us. Despite the rampant and sometimes dewy-eyed modernism with which he has pursued virtually his entire career, he is certainly no fool. Every step of the way, in other words, his provocation would still stand. Yes, I take your point, he would say, but still … can we really not do better? Whatever Retromania’s faults, Reynolds deserves real credit for his ambition alone. Considering the sheer number of music critics around these days, the sophistication of the discourse is not always high. No doubt part of the problem in this respect is structural. Compared with arts writing, for instance, contemporary music criticism yields desperately few opportunities for paid work, and certainly not enough to sustain more than a handful of ‘careers’ without supplementation. And because historically contemporary music criticism also has fewer ties with the Academy, that supplementation has also traditionally been harder to come by. With the rise and rise of the PhDJ, things are

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changing quickly in this respect. But still, there are exceptionally few critics with either the ability or the capacity to offer anything on quite the same scale as Reynolds does here. It is true, of course, that in this respect music criticism is subject to a certain retromanic tendency itself: the same old voices from the heyday of Rolling Stone, Melody Maker and NME taking up the majority of the space in the world’s broadsheets, publishing new collections of old work, and new editions of old collections. Nevertheless, there is a real risk involved in any attempt to take the measure of the zeitgeist, a risk which few if any of Reynolds’s critics have exposed themselves to. And of the few writers who have also attempted to speak in the name of the Now, none has done it anywhere near as successfully as Reynolds. While Dorian Lynskey’s voluminous history of the protest song 33 Revolutions a Minute, for instance, is more than accomplished as a history, when Lynskey starts to lament the relative paucity of such songs in the present, it comes off like a eulogy for the sixties in a way that Reynolds’s work never does. And where Adam Harper’s book Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millenium of Human Music-Making attempts to set out precisely the kind of aesthetic program that Retromania so-conspicuously lacks, the fact that it makes for such a dull read in parts is testament perhaps to Reynolds’s wisdom in refusing to go there himself. In other words, for all its faults, Retromania is totally peerless: an important provocation at a moment when a certain amount of provocation was probably necessary. And if it raises a few rankles, so much the better. You can be certain that’s part of what it was intended to do.

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Retromania and the Atemporality of Contemporary ‘Pop’

Tosh Berman, Artforum, December 2011. Simon Reynolds, ‘How the fanzine refused to die’, The Guardian, 2 February 2009, http:// www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/feb/02/ fanzine-simon-reynolds-blog; accessed 20 February 2012. Reynolds, 2009. Simon Reynolds interviewed by Andrew Gallix, ‘The geist of the zeit’, 3:am magazine, http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/the-geistof-the-zeit/; accessed 20 February 2012. Simon Reynolds, ‘Fanzines’ in Melody Maker, January, 1997; accessed online at http://reynoldsretro.blogspot.com.au/2009/02/fanzinesmelody-maker-january-24th-1987.html, 23 February 2012. Simon Reynolds, Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock, London: Serpent’s Tail, 1990. Reynolds, 1990, p. 12. Reynolds, 1990, p. 13. Simon Reynolds and Joy Press, The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock’n’Roll, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. Simon Reynolds, Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture, London: Picador, 1998. Andrew Mueller, ‘Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture by Simon Reynolds’, New Humanist, Vol. 123, Issue 2, March/April 2008, http://newhumanist.org. uk/1746/energy-flash-a-journey-through-ravemusic-and-dance-culture-by-simon-reynolds; accessed 20 February 2012. Simon Reynolds, ‘Energy Flash Info and Hype’, http://energyflashinfohype.blogspot.com/; accessed 20 February 2012. Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant Than the Sun, 00[-007]. Simon Reynolds, ‘Prologue’ in Javier Blanquez and Omar Morera (eds.), Loops: Una Historia De La Musica Electronica, Historia Electronica, Milan: Monadori, 2002. Reynolds, 2002. Simon Reynolds, ‘Fanzines: The Lost Moment’, Monitor, Issue 1, 1984, http://reynoldsretro. blogspot.com/search?q=monitor; accessed 20 February 2012. Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984, London: Faber, 2005. Reynolds, 2005, p. xiv. Reynolds, 2005, p. xiv. Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addition To Its Own Past, London: Faber and Faber, 2011, p. 428. Alex Ogg, ‘Beyond Rip It Up: Towards a New Definition of Post Punk?’, The Quietus, 1 October 2009, http://thequietus.com/articles/02854looking-beyond-simon-reynolds-rip-it-up-towards-a-new-definition-of-post-punk; accessed 20 February 2012. Ogg, 2009. Ogg, 2009. Reynolds, 2005, p. 527. Reynolds, 2011, p. 176. Reynolds, 2011, pp. x-xi. Simon Reynolds, Blissblog, 13 October 2011, http://blissout.blogspot.com/2011/10/sentences-from-tribute-to-strokess.html; accessed 20 February 2012.


28 Rolling Stone, ‘50 Best Albums of 2011: No 1, Adele, “21”’, http://www.rollingstone.com/ music/lists/50-best-albums-of-2011-20111207/ adele-21-19691231#ixzz1id6PItPi; accessed 20 February 2012. 29 Mark Fisher, ‘Review: Rustie, Glass Swords’, The Wire, Issue 332, October 2011, p. 51. 30 Reynolds, 2011, p. xiii. 31 Reynolds, 2011, p. 192. 32 Reynolds, 2011, p. 3. 33 Reynolds, 2011, p. 10. 34 Reynolds, 2011, p. xx. 35 Reynolds, 2011, p. xxii. 36 Reynolds, 2011, p. 424. 37 Reynolds, 2011, p. xxiii. 38 Reynolds, 2011, p. xxi. 39 Simon Reynolds, Blissblog, 11 January 2006, http://blissout.blogspot.com/2006/01/mikepowell-evocative-and-thought.html; accessed 20 February 2012. 40 Reynolds, 2011, p. 335. 41 Reynolds, 2011, p. 336. 42 Reynolds, 2011, p. 115. 43 Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, New York: WW Norton & Co., 2010. 44 Steven Levy, The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture and Coolness, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006. 45 Dylan Jones, iPod, Therefore I Am, London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2005. 46 Simon Reynolds, ‘Excess All Areas’, The Wire, Issue 328, June 2011, p. 32. 47 Reynolds, June 2011, p. 32. 48 Reynolds, 2011, p. 59. 49 Reynolds, 2011, p. 77. 50 Simon Reynolds, ‘Review: Laurel Halo, Hour Logic’, The Wire, Issue 330, August 2011, p. 53. 51 Simon Reynolds, ‘New Age Outlaws’, The Wire, Issue 327, May 2011, p. 41. 52 Simon Reynolds, ‘Xenomania: Nothing Is Foreign in an Internet Age’, MTV Iggy, 29 November 2011, http://www.mtviggy.com/articles/ xenomania-nothing-is-foreign-in-an-internetage/; accessed 20 February 2012. 53 Reynolds, 2011, p. 428. 54 Mark Fisher, interview with Olaf Karnick, May 2010, quoted in ‘Mark Fisher’, Lux Aeterna: The Transcendence of Music, Berghain Berlin 10.–11.03.2011, http://www.aeternal-music. de/17-1-Mark-Fisher.html; accessed 20 February 2011.

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