Simon Reynolds – Retromania – book review – is music over?

Of course ‘Retromania’ is a really well written book. Simon Reynolds is a proven great writer whose ‘Rip It Up’ book helped to create the post punk genre or at least recast it into a different light.
Retromania continues this exploration of pop’s loose ends and is full of great observation, great writing and pithy little catchphrases, it is a joy to read.

As eloquently as expected Simon Reynolds makes his point that music culture has stopped moving forwards and is now infact collapsing backwards like the universe after reaching it’s post big bang high water mark.

He looks at the the post Internet hyper speed world of media, the everything available all at once surge of modern culture and ponders. He looks at the way ipods mean the future and past is all mixed up and in your pocket, he looks at the way the inferior sound of the mp3 dominates modern music as it transfers swiftly across the internet. He looks at collectors, boxed sets, bands touring their classic albums and YouTube sampling bedroom geeks and wonders if we have run out of ideas, burned out by the machine of modern living.

Of course there could be a lot of truth in this and the argument is so well laid out that you almost find your head nodding in agreement. If only there was not those few nagging doubts. Surely this feeling that everything has been done before is just an eloquent version of the music was better in my day brigade, albeit a well written and superbly documented argument but with the same result. Instead of arguing that you can’t hear the words nowadays it’s now a case of you can’t hear the musical changes!

It’s easy to list the retro pop of our times because it’s everywhere like a warm blanket keeping that nasty old future at bay. But is retro in the eye of the beholder? Are Oasis as retro as the pundits like to believe? Easily slammed for being Beatles lite they would have sounded really out of place and, oddly, quite futuristic in the sixties.

Guitar music always comes in for a battering, critics never forgave everyone for not grabbing a synth in the early eighties and hopping onto disco but guitar music endlessly mutates and moves on, mostly a million miles away from the intense media glare. The microscope is always on indie music leaving heavier and noisier rock to reinvent itself a million times through Emo and Screamo, from black metal to post black metal weird folk, to techno metal, to nu prog, to complex metal, from hardcore to post hardcore to heavy as fuck hardcore to straight edge- it’s a complex and ever shifting landscape that defies analysis and unless you have any interest in it just carries on regardless of the ideas of great writers like Simon Reynolds.

The book, though, is enthralling with plenty of examples of the weird nooks and crannies of modern creative culture that could be presented as very modern music making but are looked on as people dealing with the past, sifting through the rubbish of internet skree and creating their own sounds in digital DIY cut and paste.

It must be nearly a quarter of a century since the great NME writer David Quantick came up with the term Pop Will Eat Itself to say the same thing and it’s a feeling that has niggled at our generation. The great ‘what if’, what if everything has been done? What is the point!

Simon Reynolds basic argument is that pop is now drowned in nostalgia and that there is very little forward movement and whilst this is partially true it really is all in the eye of the beholder.

Is everything now a faithful and knowing copy? Is all music tarnished with the vile taint of irony?

Of course noone wants to get bogged down in the past and as much as I am personally steeped in punk rock culture I am still thrilled by the new. For Simon Reynolds post punk was one of the great periods of the new but that is also weirdly now retro and something that could be copied endlessly. Was it even new then? Or punk going prog withs hipster haircut? a collage kid approved version of punk music that you ‘had to understand? A world where Gang Of Four were brand new and the equally groundbreaking Killing Joke, Crass or Bauhaus dismissed for either wearing too much make up or not being nice to the music press.

And that brings me to another point,the one of instinct and gut reaction. It’s all very well fast forwarding to the future but what if your primal instinct is for primal music that the tastemakers are always trying to suppress believing it to be stupid or dumb or, gasp, retro. Like sex itself the animal basics of great music are unflinching and unchanging, the primal bump and grind can only be varied slightly with a piece of new technology or a slightly new way of letting go of the intensity.

The business likes retro, it can sell it for ever but that doesn’t mean we we are not fast forwarding to the future, the pop cultures and just one key, India and China are versioning music right now and the aforementioned metal and rock scenes are operating by their own rules whilst female fronted pop is staggering in it’s creative hyperdrive. It’s all a case of where you look and what you want to feel about it- were the fab sixties that innovative? Was crisscrossing American blues with what cultural tourism you could afford wrong or right or forward moving? Is that any more visionary than what people do now?

The book is so brilliantly argued and written that I almost believed the game was over but when I listen to the fiercely, fast rush of modern ideas and 21st century soundtracks I’m not so sure. I’m loving the future right now but I’m also comfortable with the past.

Just Confirmed – LTW presents: Simon Reynolds in conversation with John Robb Details Here

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11 comments on “Simon Reynolds – Retromania – book review – is music over?”

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  1. Have to say John, I was quite ready to side with Reynolds tenet but thankfully you’ve won me back over with your ‘animal basics of great music are unflinching and unchanging’ argument.

    You’re right, how can pure energy ever be retro?

  2. I like the idea that post-punk was something that special relevance for “collage kids”. I think you might have meant “college kids” but you know “collage kids” works just as well! The generation of 77-84 patching together influences, fanzines, etc, living in a fragemented society, in a landscape of post-industrial debris. “These fragments I shore against my ruins” as TS Eliot put it. The collage kids. Linder our heroine.

    • Glad someone got the joke.
      Of course I loved the post punk era but is that the only future we are allowed!
      The book is great, makes you argue with yourself.

  3. Simon Reynolds’ writing is amazing, he wasn’t nicknamed ‘The Master’ at Melody maker for nothing…

    You may not always agree with his stance, but the music descriptions and narrative he uses are amazing.

    I can’t wait to get this new book – who’s it published by?

    • I agree on Reynold\’s poetic, eloquent and scholarly descriptions of current nostalgia frenzy in music methodology and materials. Your points on primal function of music are really good too. I do think Reynold\’s myopic music lens means he misses the broader dynamics of this trend though. I think there is a sense we are frozen in the present and reduced to plundering only the aesthetics of the past because of our fear of future oriented politics and humanity\’s historical agency.
      I also think there is a relativist moral stance that complicates everyday use of irony and nostalgia today, arguably ripping out its subversive heart and reducing it to a game where nobody is allowed to call anyone\’s bluff. Julian Baggini has dubbed elements of this phenomena \’post-ironic peverse sincerity\’ (or alternatively how about \’Call My Kitsch\’)? and first spotted it amongst the \’cultural elite\’ at Edinburgh festival:
      \’I met two writers who both claimed to love the much derided film Sex Lives of the Potato Men. One had seen it six times and claimed it was in his top three all-time films. They claimed that they didn\’t enjoy it ironically…So how does one get the sense of cultural superiority one used to get from irony? Consciously or not, I thought these guys were getting it from being sincere about things people would not believe you could be sincere about. Call it post-ironic perverse sincerity…often you get a competitive sense among such people that what you like will say something about you, and you want to make sure it says something at least interesting. It needn\’t even be a matter of what you like, but how you like it.\’ (2007: 200 Welcome to Everytown)

  4. People are too cynical and knowing now.
    In the 50s 60s 70s and 80s it was new ground being broke, inevitably a time will come when everything’s been done to death. Some say that time has already passed. Punk could not happen nowadays, anything too radical really frightens people now. Back then people actually believed they could change the world with music, anyone who still believes that is probably in a padded cell foaming at the mouth as we speak. The primal extremes seem to be being channelled into sexually explicit lyrics, even more explicit than we saw during punk, but only in a more puerile humourless manner that arguably degrades women too.

  5. ‘Retromania’ sounds most interesting John but I think you are right. There must be new music emerging from mega-urban cities that are not mainly white, Christian and rich e.g Mumbai. Anyone know any angry Indian punk bands or Asian cyber-goth groups?

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