Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past by Simon Reynolds

Folks, I can’t ever remember being this pissed off at a book without knowing exactly what I’m mad about. Reynolds is doing a lot of different things here, and a lot of them are WRONG, and I don’t even know why he felt like this was an argument worth making.

Honestly, I’m not sure if he does either? He wrote the introduction before the body of the book, and it had a lot of questions he was going to poke at, and I don’t think he ever reached a satisfying conclusion. That doesn’t mean the project was a waste of time — he brought up a lot of interesting ideas throughout. But the whole argument is so incredibly flawed I want to chuck the book across the room, or maybe through the screen from my seventh floor window, but it’s a library book, so I’ll stop myself.

I really respect Reynolds as a writer. His book on post-punk is an exhaustive guide to a scattered genre. His book on rave is similarly in depth, to the point where I still haven’t finished it because I kept on finding three new songs I loved and then putting it down for a while. It’s sitting on the floor in my parents house in Minneapolis, and I’ll finish it at some point, I’m sure. I bring up these two books not just to explain why I started reading a book that upset me, but also because I think the movements covered in these books say a lot about Reynold’s perspective as a critic. He grew up listening to post-punk, which responded to punk’s incitement by going in about ten thousand different weird direction. And then he was into rave, which moved very fast, always onto the next thing, always moving. And now he thinks that there isn’t anything new.

That’s WRONG.

There are new things.

I realize this book came out in 2011, and some of my examples are later than that, but not all of them, and the point stands. There are lots of new things.

He doesn’t seem to finds newness in rap music, which is baffling. I guess Kanye West’s more expansive albums came out after this book, but he was still around. Kendrick wasn’t around then, but like. The possibility for him was.

One of my favorite corners of hip-hop is the corner where rap music mixes with indie rock. Reynolds would probably say this isn’t new, because it’s just blending two different genres, but I’d disagree. At their best like Why? or Buck 65 becomes more than the sum of influences, into something new and stunning. I heard “The Hollows” for the first time at an all ages show at a cafe in Hopkins when I was fourteen, and I’d never heard anything quite like it, and it still sounds fresh.

He mentions grime, but dismisses it for not being big enough? Which is a bad reason to dismiss something. Maybe it’s because I’m American, but how can you not think grime sounds new? It takes the basic idea of rap music but transports it into a different culture.

Newness for him seems to be all about sound, not about the people making it, which is the kind of thing a straight white man would say. Perfume Genius sounds fresh to my ears, but also the thoroughly queer perspective makes feels revolutionary. Against Me! are making close to the same kind of punk rock they were making ten years ago, and it wasn’t all that revolutionary then, but having Laura Jane Grace on stage shouting about her journey as a trans woman feels huge.

He doesn’t seem captured by the way music is becoming more global. M.I.A. doesn’t count because she samples things he recognizes? Which seems like bullshit. I don’t know what he’d make of Swet Shop boys, whose last album was one of the freshest things I heard in 2016.

Was there really nothing new like this in 2011? I doubt it.

My major critique of his post-punk book would be the omission of American hardcore, and he seems to still not get that it was a thing, or think that it was all subsumed into college rock that became mainstream after grunge, or mellowed into indie, or something. Or maybe he just doesn’t find it interesting, but the newest sounding rock music I’ve listened to lately has been like, Bomb! The Music Industry and Jeff Rosenstock’s solo stuff, which does expand punk’s palate in certain ways, and also has ideas about how the music business itself should change. That sort of revolutionary spirit stays new.

Reynolds doesn’t understand the scale of fragmentation of culture by the internet. He’s looking for a new mass movement. I’m not sure that’s possible. The internet is full of all these different corners where people are doing new weird little things. There might not be another huge new thing. And honestly that’s fine? I’m a punk, I’m prone to assuming that mass culture is mostly boring. More specifically, I’m an American punk, and punk was never really successfully here, not like it was in England. Sure, it kind of broke through with grunge, and after that Green Day and emo and stuff got big, but punk was not a pivotal split in American music the way he seems to understand it. Maybe it was in England, but not here.

(There is an argument to be made, about whether emo, by taking the bones of pop punk and shining them to a high gloss, is something new. I’d find this particularly intriguing with Panic! at the Disco, and how their first album drew in both dance music and burlesque, but Reynolds would probably disagree.)

This is the kind of book a man writes when he enters middle age and is disappointed by the world not catering to his expectations. Which yes, that can be a very disappointing sensation, all my ships are rare pair ships, and there are not nearly enough space adventures about lesbians. But most people wouldn’t write a four hundred page book complaining about it. (To be fair, maybe a quarter of it is whining, the rest of it a very interesting look at people looking at the past. I liked a lot of the book. Just not the central thesis.)

He just wants to hear something new. It’s all about him. I think that’s a tremendously dull way to think about music.

Everything is new to someone. Simon Reynolds is a music critic, who spends all his time listening to stuff, who has a professional responsibility to be familiar with the classics and keep up with the latest releases. He gets to dedicate a lot of time and money and energy into this. Most people, even people who like music a lot, are not that way. Have a bit of chill dude. Sorry that what people are putting out now are not exciting and future looking enough for you. That’s rough.

The whole book makes him come off as an old curmudgeon who’s disappointed by what young people are doing. He’s also an audiophile, which is a terrible thing to be. Yes, I agree, records sound great, but in giving up sound and presence for accessing all the music I could possibly want a moment’s notice because I have spotify on my phone is a great deal.

I’m trying to come up with a conclusion here, but I’m just so frustrated. This is not a good argument, and it doesn’t even seem like he’s completely convinced himself, and really, I feel bad for the dude. I wish he could enjoy things that aren’t super innovative and futuristic without getting all conflicted and having to write 400 page long books. Like, yeah, the Strokes sound a lot like the Velvet Underground, but they’re good, alright? I enjoy them. Enjoying things that are obviously in debt to the past is not the danger Reynolds seems to be making it into. Not a good argument. I’m just so tired.

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