As a book on pop-music, Simon Reynolds’ Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past earns a high B, but does not rate among my very favorites, being too beholden to Rock attitudes, and too long-winded for its own good. Some of its detail is welcome—I found Reynold’s little histories of the trad-jazz and Northern Soul revivalist movements particularly useful, for example, and I suppose those who didn’t know much about the 80s garage revival or the half-hidden revivalist aspects of punk will find his explorations of those useful as well. Still, a lot of this material feels like encyclopedic filler, because the whole point of it is to prepare the way for his meditations on the present scene of recycling, digimodernism, or as he finally describes it, hyperstasis.
Those thoughts are pretty interesting—take his riffing on Marshall McLuhan’s famous saying, “the medium is the message”:
The content being mediated is unchanging (it’s a mixture of old music and contemporary music that is either “new old” or that tweaks established forms).
…What is unprecedented is the way that the content gets distributed through the new networks and playback devices, which in turn create the “message”: the distinctive sensations and affects of our time, a mesh of connectedness, choice, abundance, speed. That is the “rush” of the 2000s: a frictionless, near-instantaneous transit within networks, archival systems, and so forth, as opposed to the future-rush of the sixties (outward bound, into the unknown).
…cultural critics have made various attempts to get a fix on the zeitgeist…Alan Kirby coined the term “digimodernism” to describe the dawning of a new era that has supersceded postmodernism. …art magazine Frieze developed the concept of “super-hybridity”… [and yet some] wondered if super-hybridity wasn’t just a “more and faster” version of postmodernism.”
As far as this applies to pop music, I’m with Reynolds on two points. First, as I’ve said in a number of posts, since around 1983 or 1993 “Rock”(I’m including all dance music here that talks about itself like Rock, such as Reynolds’ beloved Rave) has lost its ability to justify itself as providing something new. Second, contrary to what one might expect, Reynolds comes out against the groups that have most openly embraced “super-hybridity” or what have you. For example, he doesn’t believe the hype that surrounded Girl Talk and their “mash-up” style a few years ago:
What was “new” about Girl Talk was the sheer number of thefts per minute Gillis pulled off, and the slickness with which all these different grooves and tempos were merged thanks to digital-editing software. …Mash-ups mash the history of pop like potatoes, into indistinct, digital-data-grey pulp…This is a barren genre—nothing will come of it.
I agree and would be harsher yet. But coming from a man otherwise very friendly to electronic music and the cult of the DJ, Simon’s is the more damning judgment. In any case, the current Indie Rock success of styles like beardy “freak folk” and beachy “noise pop” shows us that mash-up didn’t really catch on as the music of this generation. Kids aren’t stupid.
But we can say the basic spirit of Mash-Up is all-too dominant, and this is what Reynolds laments. He would agree with what the style-focused writer Kurt Andersen said in a late-2011 Vanity Fair article:
…now that we have instant universal access to every old image and recorded sound… Our culture’s primary M.O. now consists of promiscuously and sometimes compulsively reviving and rejiggering old forms.
What Andersen and Reynolds don’t quite see, however, is that the passion for mixtery, usually on easy-enough “ornament a pop-song” terms, has been a trademark of Rock from its mid-to-late 60s birth (as I showed with my harpsichord ruminations), and has always been combined with hype about pushing on into the future. And this mindset, given a more radically collage-art-oriented spin, was pretty much adopted by the DJ-centered complex-ifications (and reductions!) of disco that occurred from hip-hop on, arguably culminating in mash-up.
So when Songbook commenter danbk suggested that there hadn’t been anything fundamentally new since 1968, in a hyperbolic way he was onto the truth.
And so? To me, the present obvious lack of newness, while socio-culturally very suggestive, is not that big of a deal musically. If it gives me something I like a bit, like the beachy 60s-pop groups, I’m pleased. And since it makes the dismissive criticism that the great retro rock n’ roll groups received in the 1980s now seem ridiculous, I feel justified.
Not demanding and certainly not expecting great things from Rock-shaped pop music, I can be calm. From a rock n’ roll perspective, after all, Rock was a mistake, and from a broader perspective, one of Rock’s greatest mistakes was its insistence that rock n’ roll was a big deal, and was made a bigger deal yet by morphing into Rock. Two mistakes in one! With the shift from Afro-American pop to Rock we began making far, far too much of music that, formally speaking, was pretty limited, especially when compared to jazz or classical. Not that many classical fans had dared to claim what we would for rock.
Consider the famous rock critic Lester Bangs, who said things like this in the early 70s:
…the Stooges, or any band that challenges its audience, are the answer. Power doesn’t go to the people, it comes from them, and when the people have gotten this passive nothing short of electroshock and personal exorcism will jolt them and rock them into some kind of fiercely healthy interaction.
Bangs displays a kind of desperation that the music matter, have some kind of palpable power that changes society. Adults having a good-time dance in a night club or teens at a sock-hop would not suffice. This expectation is simply wrong, i.e., doomed to be disappointed, and this particular articulation of it in fact encouraged the birth of a very wrong-headed style, punk rock.
For Reynolds, the big meaning of rock, and that of its closely-related musics like rave, was supposed to be its engagement with the future. In this, he is not so unlike his elder British rock critic like Paul Morley, the fellow whose early-80s bloviating about Siouxsie and the Banshee’s music somehow refuting the rules of time, space, and logic I featured in Songbook #14. Today, Reynolds quotes Morley speaking of the “directionless direction” of music—I guess nothing much came of Siouxsie and such overthrowing all the old paradigms… …but at least they claimed to have direction.
Morley and Reynolds try to act cool about the present scene, but the truth is they hate the idea of pop music not having a direction, not containing avant garde elements leading us into the future. They know that this fact makes their impassioned advocacy of harsh musical stances in the 80s and 90s seem pointless. To draw an appropriate analogy to Lenin and co., precious few musical “omlettes” were created out of the “egg-breaking,” out of the reductive violence to musical practices, that they had advocated. The difference is that they desired perpetual advancement into unknown artistic vistas, not arrival at a final paradise. But what are the set of musical platforms, or steps, established by the successive revolutions of 1963-1993 that lead the way forward and upward? They don’t know. And they begin to see that what was actually achieved is an unwelcome hyperstasis that perpetually recycles and re-explores the last hundred years of recorded pop, and most of all from the years ’63-’93. Here’s Reynolds:
In a hideous twist, the sixties became the major generative force behind retro culture. (Its only rival, perhaps…is punk.) Through its hold on our imagination…the decade that constituted the greatest eruption of new-ness in the entire twentieth century turned into its opposite. Hence the endless Beatles/Stones/Dylan covers on magazines like Mojo and Uncut…the steady stream of biopics and rock docs… It’s like we can’t get PAST this past. Neophilia turns to necrophilia.
Historicist Hope is no fun once you find yourself plausibly arrived at an End of History. And when you’re forced to remember the original meaning of the term Revolution, the prospect of it being Perpetual just might make you sick.
More to come.