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Some thoughts about Simon Reynolds' "Retromania"

Last week I attempted to jumpstart my brain after yet another mind numbing day pushing paper around an office, and attended a talk at the ICA, “Over and Over and Over and Over”, which was essentially a launch for the new book by Simon Reynolds, “Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction To Its Own Past”.

The panel consisted of Reynolds; artists Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard; former member of Throbbing Gristle/current member of Chris and Cosey, Cosey Fanni Tutti; Professor of fashion history and theory, Caroline Evans, and was hosted by Rob Young, music writer.

I haven’t read Reynolds’ book yet, but from what I have gathered via the talk, and blurbs on his website, it seems his premise is that current music is obsessed with the past and wanting to replicate it, and is failing to offer anything new or original, and though the history of popular music harking back to bygone eras actually extends back a fair way, these days, the “past” seems so much more recent, folding back in on itself in closer and closer intervals.

He has written on his Retromania blog: “Is it a dearth of innovation that inspires the chronic nostalgia for the lost golden ages of rock’s youth? Or have we become victims of our ever-expanding capacity to store, share and instantly access cultural data, a historically unprecedented phenomenon symbolized by the rise of the iPod and YouTube?”.

I left the talk feeling irritated by the way Reynolds came across – he seemed to have a very whitebread way of thinking. He practically dismissed a member of the audience who mentioned grime as a challenge to his premise that there’s nothing new, and when someone else suggested that maybe he’s just not going to the right places to find new music, he seemed incredulous that there could be types of music not found on the internet that he wouldn’t have access to.

Since the talk, I’ve read a few interviews with him, notably this one at the Quietus, and it seems that maybe he was just not making himself quite clear at the ICA – either that, or he’s had a few epiphanies since last Thursday, because in this interview he does acknowledge other forms of music outside of the indie bubble as being innovative, and his focus seems to be less narrow.

One of the points that was brought up at the talk at the ICA but not very well explored, was made by fashion professor Caroline Evans. She seemed rather bemused by Simon Reynolds theory, and questioned his belief in time being so linear. Reynolds lamented that music should be much further ahead than it is, given that it’s 2011. He contended that past genres had the power to shock, that new music used to be able to shake up the status quo in profound ways, but these days we seem to have slowed right down, content to repeat and regurgitate.

But as Evans pointed out, whose past is he talking about? Aren’t different things happening for different groups of people at any one time? The idea that the past and future continues along one long line which can fold back directly upon itself smacks of only seeing the world through the eyepiece of the dominant culture, and it’s a viewpoint that just doesn’t make sense if you aren’t Simon Reynolds (i.e if you’re not a white, English, straight male music journalist – big assumption on my part regarding his identity obviously, but what I’m trying to say is that he has a certain viewpoint that seems to be reflected by the majority of music journalism at the moment, but does not necessarily resonate with everyone who reads this stuff).

Reynolds seemed fixated on the idea that everyone cares about a so-called “golden age of rock”, that they all share the same feelings of nostalgia about it, but whose golden age is this? For a lot of people (I’m thinking of my own youth in the suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand, and the people I knew), the kind of music that Reynolds is referring to possibly was not an experience everyone had growing up, even in a collective cultural consciousness way, therefore hearing it, or utilizing it “again” in current music, (I’m thinking, for example, of hip hop sampling), doesn’t actually create a sense of nostalgia at all. It’s almost more like using “found sound”.

This all may sound a bit po-mo-there-are-multiple-realities-and-lived experiences…But well, it’s actually true, and it gets slightly tedious when the same kinds of people who espouse these kinds of theories based on their own lives, privileged as they are to be living the dream of being a “regular guy”, are held up as the gurus. I wouldn’t have minded so much if the others on the panel vehemently disagreed with him (Caroline Evans seemed to disagree, but she couldn’t quite articulate why), or if people (i.e music media) would stop with the veneration of Simon Reynolds.

For example the audience tittered somewhat at Caroline Evans’ frustrated outburst that she didn’t “get it”, referring to Reynolds premise that there was a crisis in music. But I agreed. One of the problems I had with the talk is that it began with this premise already decided upon, that what he said was true…there was a crisis in music. By the end of the talk I was of the opinion that even if there was a crisis in current popular music (whatever we have decided that term could mean), it’s quite obvious that this crisis isn’t occuring for everyone, but we are all expected to agree with Reynolds’ theory.

Host Rob Young brought up one of the examples of meta-music which is apparently mentioned in “Retromania” – Kanye West’s “Stronger”, which samples Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”, a song which in turn samples Edwin Birdsong’s “Cola Bottle Baby”. While the phenomena of this song could be viewed as some crraaazzy kind of layering, folding, retro-origami thing, I couldn’t help but think, but hasn’t hip hop sampled forever? It’s not a new nostalgia trip that this genre is on, unless you see the whole genre as being stuck in this groove forever, but I’m pretty sure even Reynolds doesn’t regard the birth of hip hop as something derivative. So whose crisis is this?

I’m not saying that Reynolds’ theories don’t make sense, they do, and is depressing to see old bands reform and millions of box sets come out in different kinds of packaging (and here I sit typing this wearing a Joy Division tshirt) but what I take umbrage to is the kind of universality that is being afforded this so called “crisis”.

One member of the audience suggested that Reynolds was just feeling sore because his generation are no longer the economic power pushing the music industry along…suggesting he was maybe a bit past it, and should move over and make way for the kids.

Given that I do acknowledge that there is a bit of a retro approach going on in some areas of music today, I think it’s important to point out that there are other positive reasons why this might be happening, that don’t have anything to do with a lack of creativity, or even the financial imperative to shift units and therefore appeal to people’s nostalgia. If you listen to a band like Trash Kit for example, you’ll be able to hear a raft of queer/feminist post punk influences from the 70s and 80s. However, rather than making you yawn, Trash Kit (and other bands like them) inspire you to research this history which is less than obvious and yes, thanks to youtube etc it is now more accessible. This is not nostalgia, it’s a friggen public service to the rest of us. This so-called timeline that Reynolds is saying can so easily drawn through current alternative/mainstream indie music is only just starting to be done with Trash Kit and their contemporaries and predecessors, and it’s a privilege to be sick of this so called looking-back.

Reynolds does accede that there is good new music out there, (an idea that Cosey Fanny Tutti outright shat on, calling much current music a pointless assault, unlike Trobbing Gristle which she presumably considers assault with a point), and I do realise that he has stated he has no problem with music being influenced by and building on the past. But I was just struck at how many different angles this issue of so-called “retromania” can be looked at from, and feel annoyed that angles don’t generally present for “good clear music journalism” and aren’t presented as the norm. I think a comment that a woman in the audience made kind of sums up how I feel: at one point Reynolds’ mused that perhaps he is asking too much, that perhaps music is music and if it ain’t broke, why fix it, citing a comment someone he knew made about a chair being a chair, so why reinvent it…But the woman in the audience said that she knew someone who was growing a chair out of the ground, who grew their own clothes…The chair & the clothes still function the same, but it’s the angle that you look at them from that makes the difference, the way in which you approach the idea.

Will there be a time when male music critics are no longer upheld as the last word on music criticism? No doubt. While you’re holding your breath, check out my latest blog discovery Feminist Music Geek. Her most recent blog entry is a review of a new book Vinyl Deeps collecting writing by Ellen Willis, pop critic.

Trash Kit – Cadets

Posted 1292 days ago | By Melissa |
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