Pop music critic Simon Reynolds, in his book Retromania, and style-writer Kurt Andersen, in his “You Say You Want a Devolution” essay, have their finger upon a certain pattern in our contemporary cultural scenes of recyle-ment, repetition, and lack of forward motion.
To be more specific, Andersen holds that from 1992 to 2012, Movies and literature and music have never changed less over a 20-year period. (Pomocon readers, does this sound right?)
Andersen was prompted to this epiphany upon looking at a 1985 fashion spread, and noticing that people from then do not look dated by today’s standards, whereas in 1990 or 1980 or 1970, you’d examine a comparable picture from 27 years earlier—from 1963 and 1953 and 1943, respectively—it would be a glimpse back into an unmistakably different world.
Andersen thus begins from fashion, but goes on to consider nearly all our cultural scenes. In all of these …the modern sensibility [going back into the 19th century] has been defined by brief stylistic shelf lives, our minds trained to register the recent past as old-fashioned. But this normal modern pattern has for some reason ceased.
Reynolds, whose fine book and futurist longings I discussed in the last two Songbook posts, begins with pop music and keeps his analysis within its borders, concluding Retromania with the following description:
‘Entropy’ is not the right word for today’s music scene [ed.--notice the assumption that pop/rock is THE music scene]. What we are witnessing is not ever-decreasing circles but ever-accelerating circles. On a good day, this doesn’t seem such a dismal predicament. At other times, the centrifugal churn of quasi-new microgenres resembles the ‘febrile sterility’ that, for Alain Badiou, characterizes contemporary culture. That feverishness is digiculture’s hallmark: rapid movement within a network of knowledge, as opposed to the outward-bound drive that propelled an entire system into the unknown.
During the writing of this book I came up with my own glass-half-empty concept to describe the conditions that others gesture at with buzzed-up words like ‘atemporality’ or ‘postproduction.’ The term is hyper-stasis. It popped into my head after too many encounters with hotly touted records by new artists that induced a frustrating mix of emotions: feeling impressed by the restless intelligence at work in the music, but missing that sensation of absolute newness, the sorely-craved ‘never heard anything like THIS before.’ Hyper-stasis…describes situations in which potent musical intellects engage in a restless shuttling back and forth within a grid-space of influences and sources, striving frenetically to locate exit routes to the beyond.
How do Reynolds and Andersen explain this stylistic phenomenon? I count four basic causes offered between the two of them.
1. Digiculture’s Total Access: as Reynolds puts it “We’ve become victims of our ever-increasing capacity to store, organize, instantly access, and share vast amounts of cultural data.” Our unprecedented obsession with the past is caused by our unprecedented ability to access it.
2. Style Democratization: this is Andersen’s argument alone. The idea is that we’ve all become amateur stylists, …scrupulously attending, as never before, to the details and meanings of the design and décor of their homes, their clothes, their appliances, their meals, their hobbies, and more.
All this is a quest for signifying authenticity. And the more stylists, the more style recyle-ment. My initial impression is that only a style writer could entertain such an argument seriously, although it has certain parallels with David Brooks’ true-enough notions of the Bourgeois-Bohemians, the Bobos, setting the major cultural patterns of our times.
There are lots of problems here, but the biggest is to explain why style democratization necessarily causes hyper-stasis, as opposed to the old pattern of a mode of fashion dominating several seasons, and then being replaced by another. That mass market dynamic still happens, although with less power than before. So I guess what Andersen really means to describe is Style Individualism, whereby it’s easier for a person to set his or her own fashions—we can imagine someone saying, “Despite what the mainstream was doing, the 90s were the mod era for me, and the aughties were when I went punk.” (Clothes-fashion and music-fashion do tend to blend together like that.) When many persons or cliques of persons do this, there is no main stream. We get a culture of multiple sub-cultures. And yet, does not an elite class of Devils Who Wear Prada still rule the fashion roost in the way that movie showed, setting the options we get to choose from? Overall, the fashion angle seems an unpromising approach to the phenomena we’re trying to understand, for the fashion industry elites, and their counterparts in other art-scenes, will always do what they can to generate a need for the new out of whatever larger cultural currents are at work, regardless of whether those currents are individualistic, conformist, nostalgic, forward-looking, or what-have-you.
3. Nostalgia as Defense Mechanism: as Andersen says, “People have a limited capacity to embrace flux and strangeness…and right now we’re maxed out.” So the present re-jiggering of old styles comes from stability-seeking and nostalgia, the sort of thing George Lucas was denounced for when he made American Graffiti in the early 70s, or which the rock n’ roll revivalist bands were in the early 80s. Reynolds, however, is aware that music-wise, the older sort of retro often had a different spirit than the recycling we’ve got now. Still, he attacks both sorts of “retromania” and blames the older retro scenes for establishing certain practices taken up by the present retro-recyclers. Neither he nor Andersen display any openness to the conservative insight, perhaps most beautifully expressed in a Mark Henrie essay on “Traditional Conservatism” available here, for how nostalgic sentiments can lead towards wisdom.
But even if we were to endorse Andersen’s and Reynolds’ basic hostility to nostalgia, we would admit that “fear of change” doesn’t work to describe what’s presently occurring. There was clearly a lot more socio-economic, political, moral, and ideological flux from the 1910s to the 70s to deal with, so why didn’t the flight into stylistic predictability occur then?
And as Reynolds is aware, the present spirit is not nostalgic in the 70s-thru-90s pattern. As I said in the post on LINK Crystal Castles, that group is more about “playing with the limitations, absurdities, and remaining potentialities of 80s synth, than about championing its qualities.” Moreover, they and other groups are ready to mix the synth style with whatever else, especially any other “ready-made” style that goes well with it. Reynolds must know that these groups are often more about striving to locate exit routes to the beyond than they are about a desire for stability.
4. Post-production: just as we no longer make things, our culture no longer does. Culturally we work with what past production gives us the same way we materially work with what Chinese factories do.
This basic parallel can be made to fit with other economic theories of dubious bent, such as Andersen’s claim that “our massively scaled-up new style industry naturally seeks stability and predictability.” Somehow it’s key to him that automobiles look the same as they did twenty years ago, and that Starbucks doesn’t want to change the way its stores look. I also think of that scholar of “Industrial” rock I linked to last time laboring to explain why the genre takes off in the early 80s just as the West is becoming postindustrial. There’s a stale Marx-like odor to these sorts of theories.
But returning to the basic parallel, there is nothing that suggests it is more than a coincidence. For does it make any sense to say that a key reason why a suburbia-bred college-attender(or drop-out) makes mid-60s/early-80s derivative noise-pop music, as opposed to questing on into original sounds of the future, is because there are no more factories for her lower-class cousin to get a job in? Or because technological development may have slowed down? I don’t see any.
With the exception of the first one, these explanations fail.
To Reynolds’ credit, he doesn’t toy with the second, does not buy into the third as simplistically as Andersen does, and seems ambivalent about the fourth. Tuned to music, he is more astute than fashion-focused Andersen. As Plato knew, music takes you deeper into the character of an age.
My better explanations come next, but I nonetheless thank Andersen and Reynolds for helping us to notice that, whether or not The Revolution or The Singularity ever arrive, The Cul-de-sac is here.