Don’t Look Back In Anger: Thoughts On Simon Reynolds’ “Retromania”

Simon Reynold’s Retromania came out a few months ago, but since the book is about the back-looking nature of contemporary culture, it seems fitting to review it as an item from the past … And, even with this excuse for laziness put to one side, it’s a large and densely-packed book that does take some unpacking. The early reviewers seem to have been overwhelmed by it’s sheer density of information and struggled to find a critical response.

The book’s basic argument is that the arrival of the digital age has meant that music from the past is more accessible than ever and that rather than striving for new sounds, contemporary musicians are addicted to finding inspiration in previous eras. In the eighties, if you wanted to hear an obscure song from the past then you’d have to search through second-hand record stores and garage sales trying to find a copy of it, but now it just takes a few minutes of tunnelling down the rabbit holes of the internet to unearth it. Reynolds takes this as a symptom of wider cultural phenomenon that sees people looking backward – scanning YouTube for old television clips or reading history-sifting magazines like Mojo and Uncut. The surfeit of ideas also reaches up to the major movie studios, who seem addicted to making movies based on old television programs (Charlie’s Angels), comic books (Tintin), or even successful movies from the past (Arthur).

At the same time, Reynolds is to careful to cover his back by looking at a covering the wider history of popular retro movements – one example being the Northern Soul music in Britain during the 70s, which was based around unearthing soul singles from the early 60s that hadn’t received their due. He’s also admits that no new cultural movement arrives in isolation to what preceded it, so that you can see elements of rock’n’roll history influencing punk music even if its leading proponents did see themselves as a year zero for music style. Reynold’s overall argument is simply that this retro element of culture has grown to such a degree that it now stifles the creation of anything new.

To make his case, Reynolds points at the last decade (2000-2010), in which very few original genres of music have arisen – the only ones he can name are grime and dubstep, but he sees them as rather limited forms. Compare this to the 70s, which gave us prog, disco, punk, and glam. Or the 80s, which saw the rise of hip hop, post-punk, new wave, and early electronica. The exact timing of when these musical styles came into the popular conscious could be up for debate, but his general point seems to have some merit … Or does it? It actually seems possible to turn this argument back on itself. Hasn’t it always been a cliché to hear musicians complaining that they don’t want to be put in the box of a particular genre? Groundbreaking artists have always decried being asked what type of music they play and usually argued that genre is an unnecessary straitjacket. So the decline of genre could actually be seen as a positive step for music, which allows musicians the freedom to make use of whatever approach they deem necessary.

For example, Reynolds admits to finding something fresh in the last few albums by Radiohead, but they didn’t create a new genre. Their talent has actually involved breaking down genre distinctions and moving their rock music into the traditional realms of electronica and hip hop. Part of the problem with Reynold’s viewpoint is that he seems to be looking for a new saviour to emerge from within underground electronica (James Blake) or indie rock (Radiohead), but this is misguided (especially in the latter case). In actual fact, modern pop/hip hop music is taking an axe to genre distinctions and this seems to have caused indie rock to reach backward to ground itself in old traditions (causing a revival of folkies like the Fleet Foxes and retro-throwbacks like Cults and Lana Del Ray). Turn on pop radio and you’ll hear hip hop tracks backed by techno beats, rock tracks with auto-tune or a pop starlet singing a refrain that could be lifted from a 60s girl group. It’s only once all this genre-mixing starts to sound bland that the underground music producers will start to react against it. Equally striking is the sound of new underground hip hop music – it may not be enough to mark a new genre, but the beats you’ll hear behind Tyler, The Creator, Shabaaz Palaces, or the new Das Racist album aren’t anything like the backing tracks you would’ve heard in hip hop from the previous two decades.

Getting obsessed with the arrival of new genres means that Reynolds also makes the typical past-his-prime-music-journalist mistake of valuing old genres more than new ones. Rock and electronica were unarguably new genres because they relied on new technologies (electric guitars and electronic music programming, respectively). Most of the other genres that Reynolds cites could just as easily be seen as throwbacks if you had no respect for them – punk ripping off early rock’n’roll, glam even more so, ditto with grunge, disco ripping off funk, etc, etc. I’m sure the kids who like emo or screamcore probably feel that their musical movements were just as fresh and vital, even if Reynolds is happy to write them off as nothing new.

And there’s plenty of places still to go. There’s thousands of instruments in the world apart from guitars, bass, and drums (whether traditionally played or just sampled). And there’s plenty of untapped potential in alternate time signatures – a road not taken after the crossover success of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ or after Pink Floyd scored a hit with ‘Money’ (combining the dominant styles of 3/4 and 4/4 in one song could be another approach). Nor is wider culture trapped by retromania – television has never seen a show like The Wire before and the digital effects on Avatar and Lord of the Rings can hardly be written off as retro throwbacks. Even if musicians respond to climate change/peak oil by returning to non-electronic musical instruments, it surely won’t be a sign from lack of imagination and any new limitations are bound to inspire new approaches to get beyond them. So, sorry Mr. Reynolds, your book provides some good provocations, but in reality you’re the only one that’s stuck in the past.

12 Comments

  1. I don’t know if your defence of emo and screamcore as genres does much for your case (isn’t it “screamo?, though what would I know about it). Plus, the idea that pop bands are going to suddenly start writing in different time signatures seems a bit unlikely. I don’t think there’s ever going to be a movement of “math pop”, though it’d be interesting to hear it.

    All that said, pretty interesting argument. Must dig that book out and have a look. I hear “Rip It Up and Start Again” is good too?

    • Dirty Projectors = Math Pop
      To a lesser extent also Battles.

      “Rip It Up And Start Again” is excellent, really highlights the innovative and conceptual nature of post-punk approaches. I’m currently reading it now. Also have the companion book “Totally Wired” with all the extra interviews.

  2. Tim Tim says:

    I think the problem (if there is one) goes further back than Reynolds is willing to admit. There was a period in the sixties where musicians started to incoporate tabla, sitar, melotron, early synthesisers, etc, into their music, but slowly they all gave up and went back to guitar, bass, and drums, which is still the standard. It’s only the emergence of electronica/hip hop that saved us from the standard rock line-up just going on and on and on. Whenever I see a rock three-piece these days, I just immediately turn off, so boring!

  3. While I totally agree that music today looks back more than it did before, because I guess it’s become more of an acceptable artistic thing in that post modern kind of way, and with unlimited access to the history of music it means that bands have the curse of TOO MUCH KNOWLEDGE. although obviously that isn’t really a curse.

    And if he wants to call prog, disco, punk, and glam all separate distinct genres, that’s fine, but they all use guitars and have rock and roll roots so they’re not exactly that different. if the standard he holds modern originality to is so high that he can only identify grime and dubstep as “new” genres, then it seems rich to call prog, disco, punk, and glam different genres, because surely he’s out of touch on modern music or just holding different decades to different standards. The different subsets of emo, witch-house, various new forms of dance music, grindcore, whatever you wanna call TV On The Radio, or Battles, Radiohead and Animal Collective, (I hate to say it but…) Britpop, grunge, post-rock etc etc.

    I think he’s hampered by his own generational prejudices, the fact that it’s harder to put recent music into perspective, and also maybe the fact that genres can be such a media-construct, with bands and people around music not really considering their music to be a separate genre at the time, but with the history books saying otherwise due to our love of putting music into categories.

    and I guess the emergence of new instruments at some stage in the future will probably come with their own musical rebellions and more striking genre differences.

  4. I haven’t read Retromania, mostly because the idea seemed such a soul-deadeningly dull one. Like the point where a guy like Simon Reynolds starts saying we’re done with the new is exactly the point when the new tends to rear up and bite your face off. I say this as someone who adored and devoured Rip It Up… and Energy Flash, and who hasn’t heard something which I was genuinely floored by from a ‘new’-ness perspective since, I don’t know, ‘Crank Dat’ or something. But it just seems like when have white dudes in their 30s-60s ever recognised the new thing at birth?
    And on hip hop – it just seems INSANE ON EVERY FUCKING LEVEL to me that you’d say that MBDTF or Mississippi: The Album or whatever are just natural developments from ‘The Message’. Just because hip hop/R&B hasn’t felt the need to endlessly re-name itself (a la indie) doesn’t mean that it’s stayed still, or that its growth patterns haven’t been mostly extremely radical for 30 years or so – and there still seems heaps of uncharted territory.

  5. endsongs says:

    I am still finding new sounds from old forms of music – the guitar, bass and drums is still a valid and exciting way to make music. The notion that everything worth hearing has already been made/ released is cultural imperialist nonsense.

    I think if you focus all your energy on mainstream music and mainstream indie then of course you will hear the familar patterns repeating. It’s not surprising when you think how even most alternative music is released – mainstream labels and mainstream indie labels are only signing/ releasing music by people who sound like other people who are selling well. It’s a self-perpetuating conservatism dictated by how many facebook page “likes” or MySpace page views or song-listens a band has or how many people attend shows… your listening is dictated by the taste (or lack of adventure) of others.

    Only the seriously non-industry labels seem to have the courage (or non-commercial madness) to release stuff that does not come with a guarrantee of instant sales gratification. If you look/ listen hard enough in any genre there is always exciting stuff going on.

    I haven’t read the book in question -the conceit of it depresses me. But I have read Totaly Wired and the accompanying interviews book and rate them highly. I suspect Reynolds is reflecting the music as he perceives it through it’s mainstream commodified face and not as it really is – in the heads of its myriad creators in bedrooms, garages, studios and venus around the world.

    There is a fascinating interview with Frank Zappa on Youtube somewhere in which he makes the observation that a lot of the leftfield music in the 60s and early 70s came about because label A&R guys were so unhip and out of touch that they would sign anything that looked different on the basis of “I have no idea what the kids today are ito and I have no idea if this is any good but it sure looks interesting and different so let’s give it a go”. Times were different, labels could afford to sign 20 acts in the hope that 1 would be a hit and another 9 would make money. He reckoned that’s how the Mothers of Invention were released, Captian Beefheart, etc. Same applied in Germany to bands like Faust and Slapp Happy signed by Polydor and who didn’t sell much at the time but still endure as cult favourites across generations. Anyway Zappa reckoned it all went wrong when the hipsters – those who KNEW what the kids wanted to hear – took over in A&R in the 70s. Punk and the no wave period 78-82 restored a bit of balance and allowed something new to escape before the industry closed ranks and bred out those wild strains and focused on the money-making ones… and so it goes on and on with any genre you care to think about.

    There are bands/ artists out there who are knowingly trying to emulate particular sounds and creating retro-pastiche music as a result (our own Lawrence Arabia and his US counterpart Girls for example). But there are also plenty of young bands who may “sound like” stuff those of us with a bit of music history knowledge may recognise but they have never heard of. Why curse them with the put down of “retromania” when they are just doing what any kids throughout the past 60 years have been doing and trying to get the sounds they hear in their heads out in a way that expresses something relevant for them? I think the more bands (and listeners) focus on music as an art form and not as a commercial entertainment commodity the better the creative future of music will be.

    • Gareth Shute says:

      Hmm, I think your case needs some examples to go along with it. At the moment, you’ve only listed two old bands (Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart) that you like and two new bands (Lawrence Arabia and Girls) that you don’t like, which kinda ends up going along with Reynolds’ original point, doesn’t it?

      And I’m not totally discounting the possibility of someone making new music with guitar, bass, and drums (Wire magazine is full of them, whether I want to listen to most of it or not is another question). But in the piece, I was simply giving a couple of examples of how easy it would be if a band really wanted to cut themselves off from the past of popular music.

      At the end of the day, it seems that both of us are disagreeing with Retromania in any case. Though I suppose I’d argue that I have slightly more authority on the matter since I’ve actually read the book…

      • endsongs says:

        You are right, we are both disagreeing on Retromania Gareth. I’m not disagreeing with your review of it, or with your authority on it, having actually read it. I was merely writing an impassioned comment off the top of my head on a blog posting. I wasn’t attempting to write a properly researched and footnoted critical essay. I’m allowed to be arbitary and incomplete in arguing my case (or trying to explain Zappa’s hypothesis from a distant memory) and people can agree or disagree with my views.

        But I do think that arguing that you can’t make “new” music with familiar instruments like guitar, bass and drums is about as silly as arguing you can’t make “new” art with paintbrushes. Music is far more than the instruments it’s played on. There is plenty yet to be done with guitar, bass and drums.

      • endsongs says:

        Here’s the interview: http://youtu.be/GowCEiZkU70

  6. Dan Taipua says:

    whoa

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