Friday, July 20, 2012

100 Books #67 - Simon Reynolds' RETROMANIA

"History must have a dustbin, or History will be a dustbin, a giantic, sprawling garbage heap." - Simon Reynolds in Retromania
Well, Mr. Reynolds, you surprised me. I tucked in to Retromania expecting a nice, long, curmudgeonly rant, about how pop finally has eaten itself, but what I got was a history lesson as much as anything, and a case made for the notion that pop has been eating itself all along.

I must admit I felt as though I was clinging on to the tail end of Reynolds' arguments with my fingernails through much of this book. I've heard of maybe half of the bands he mentions, and have actually heard the music of maybe a third of said bands. This is a book that could have benefitted from the very technology that he somewhat decries; I would have loved to be able to just click on a band name and play some samples. As it was, I found myself throwing down the Kindle and taking up the laptop to hit or YouTube to get an idea of what he was talking about. Which was very educational, but also very inconvenient.

I thought, too, that 496 pages was rather a lot to spend with any writer who was basically telling me something I already kind of knew: that popular music has largely stopped trying for the fresh and new and has instead gone the way of sartorial fashion, raiding its closets and collections for old stuff that can be tweaked and reworked a bit and presented as something hot and new. What I hadn't counted on, though, was Reynolds' thorough and thoughtful approach to figuring out why and how that had come to be.

A lot of the usual culprits come up, of course: the quest to step out of or stand athwart the mainstream (just because the Music Industry says this is what I should like now doesn't mean I have to), the advent of Mp3s and digital music players that mash everything up and level out the playing field (it's fun to hear a brand new Magnetic Fields Track one minute and Cleoma Breaux and Joe Falcon the next; no music ever goes away just because it's old, now), in general the sheer weight of the past of recorded music (the Industry's decades-long strategy of throwing up everything to see what would stick means there is a hell of a lot of old music still around on vinyl, just waiting to see a turntable again), and of course the roots of nostalgia and that longing for times that seemed free and full of possibility instead of fettered with responsibility, infirmity and age.

But of course the music that makes you feel that way again is different for every age group, isn't it? Because that's just an accident of what was popular when you were young -- or, in many later cases, what wasn't popular. I still run screaming from a bar if I hear too many hair metal songs in a row, because to me, that's the music of my oppressors, most often heard from the trunk of a car or the interior of some frasshat upperclassman's locker. I clung to my parents' music, to Andy Williams and Pete Seeger and Johnny Cash and the Kingston Trio, stuff that is now regarded as timeless and classic and is all but revered but in the '80s was considered worse than passe.

Your mileage may vary.

Where Reynolds really gets interesting on this subject, though, is when he takes up the idea of "curation." Curation is a much-used term these days. All the hip kids are doing it. You're probably doing it, if you have a blog or a YouTube page or are a DJ on something like And it's being done at the highest levels by people with real resources, too, of course. The people who plan all those revival and reunion tours, the brain trust behind the "I Love the ___" shows, the issuers of B-side compilations and deep track collections marketed to those who want to think of themselves as real connoisseurs of style X or period Y. It's all very interesting, because, of course, rock 'n' roll started out as deliberately primitive and barbarous, a Whitmanesque yawp, cacophonous and sexy and loud and parent-frightening, the very antithesis of highbrow. But somewhere along the way, the people who loved it weren't satisfied with things as they were and wanted to get highbrow, and by the time that impulse was born, there was plenty of raw material over which to paw and put down or praise, to classify and connect into geneaologies, to resurrect and revive...

...And the thing is, with so much recorded music out there in the world*, still perfectly playable, and with so many would-be experts and appraisers out there, too, for every single that only got pressed one time in a run of a dozen copies that no one originally wanted, there is somewhere a small tribe of people who will, if given a chance, drone on at one for hours about how it is the greatest record ever and how only the elect can appreciate it.

And, as Reynolds points out, some form of this has been going on for pretty much as long as there has been recorded music. People latch on to something and won't let it go, or dig up something old from the dustbin and since it's new to them they don't think it's retro if they borrow from it for something of their own.

That's the key right there, I think: everything, however old, is always new to somebody.** And sometimes that somebody is very brave to stick to his or her original enjoyment and enthusiasm in the face of the many who can't wait to jump in on the party and tell him or her that the music they've just found is stale or used up or just plain bad. And every once in a while, that somebody finds a way to make their old find feel new for other people, usually people who are younger than the ones who yawn and say "been there, done that, bought the tee shirt."

But has pop, or rock'n'roll, ever been for the kind of people who are capable of saying that?

Meanwhile, there is more old music in the world than there ever has been before. Every day there is more. And maybe it's like a teetering stack: to put something new on top, one has to make the effort to climb up past all the old stuff at the bottom, in the middle, near the top. And maybe not everyone has the energy to make that effort.

And then of course there are those who insist that originality is overrated anyway. My parents are kind of like that: both of them still insist on finding it bewildering when we speak of "a Clash song" or "a Cure song" or (my sister, lord love her) "a Quarterflash song". They're just songs, Mom and Dad have told us, again and again. When they were young, singers and bands played each other's songs all the time. If a song was good, lots of people wanted to perform it.

Now people talk about covers and samples, some sneeringly, some adoringly. My parents would just say again, if a song is good, lots of people want to perform it.

If a style is good, lots of people want to get in on it. And in this day and age, doing so is easier than ever. It's almost easier than not doing so. People might not even realize what time machines their iPods, their CD or vinyl or (me!) cassette collections are. It's all music that we like, which is why we have it. And maybe the only thing it all has in common is that we like it.

So is it "retro" or "nostalgia" or is it just the recognition that music is music, whenever it was made?

So yeah, I have some problems with Reynolds, though I lack his staggering erudition on the subject of pop to go toe to toe with him, I am sure. But as you'll see from the second footnote below, I have rather a longer view of musical history than he does. At least I suspect so.

But he does have a point about the fin de siecle nature of the 21st century so far. The petroleum economy is running out of steam, but its impact on our climate and health is only beginning to be felt. A lot of the systems our ancestors built for running the world have proven to be less robust and trustworthy than we thought (though if one insists on kicking all the pins out from under them *cough* Ronald Reagan and Alan Greenspan *cough* should one be surprised when they collapse?). The space program that inspired so much innovation in high and pop culture has also gone into decline, as Reynolds does rather eloquently describe. The future's brightness probably still requires us to wear shades, but that brightness is proving to be glare off the deserts we're creating. In such a time, how innovative do you feel like being?

Especially when there's still all that old music out there that you haven't listened to yet, just a click away...

*There is, too, an elephant in Reynolds' room, I think: the Baby Boomers. Now, Reynolds was born in 1963 (and thinks, not out of narcissism or so he claims, that that's the year that rock'n'roll really got started as something that could be considered art, blah blah blah ma gavta la nata), which makes him one of the early Gen Xers but, well, he's a lot closer to those Boomers than I am. He remembers the Moon Landing, which I only experienced a gleam in Dad's eye (or more likely Mom's), at any rate. And he does go on, Reynolds does, about how much innovation the '60s and '70s saw, musically. Well, of course it did. There were more young people than ever before, then, all wanting to define themselves against their biological and musical ancestors as much as possible. There was a critical mass, then, that may never happen again. And it's just possible that all the possibilities that rock had to offer all got explored at once, then. Every permutation imaginable is on a 45 somewhere. So of course everything afterwords looks derivative. Add to this discussion the fact that the Boomers have categorically refused to let go of popular culture -- it was for them, not my parents, that "oldies radio" became the unstoppable hose truck that it is -- and thus have forced both their immediate successors (us Xers) and their own children to grow up in their musical shadow, listening to their records and constant reminiscences and assertions that we're nothing compared to their greatness and is it any surprise that most musicians today sound a lot like those of decades past?

**I'm as guilty of this as anyone. In the '90s I lived in Boston and jumped into the "third wave" ska revival with both dancing feet. I never went as deep as some of my friends, who were constantly striving to outdo each other with rare finds from flea markets and record stores, where Skatalites 45s seemed to have been seeded just in time to part these new young fans from their money; competing, too, in pedantry about old two-tone bands and how they didn't need the subtitles to understand the dialogue in "The Harder They Come." I got bored with that pretty quickly, though, because at one trip to a cool old record shop that I'm sure no longer exists in the gentrified replacement for Cambridge's Central Square, I found and fell in love with... are you ready for this?

Byzantine secular classical music.

I swear I wasn't trying to outdo anyone, be the most retro or anything like that. I just thought it was the most amazing, haunting, beautiful, sexy and strange music I had ever heard. I still do. I listen to these discs of Christocoulos Halaris' interpretations (oh you should see the liner notes, all about the reconstruction and musicological effort that was undergone to produce these recordings. I've never managed to read all the way through them. I'm not a musicologist. I just want to hear the tunes) all the time, probably more than any other music I own or have access to. In a world where the latter category consists of everything, ever, now, that's saying something.

I'm still waiting for some mad genius to come along and bust some of these moves in something "new" and "fresh." Of course, there's always Arab hip-hop until then.

But see, I've just pretty much proved all of Reynolds' points, haven't I?


  1. Um, you should probably check out this video of my bellydance teacher doing an absolutely extraordinary performance about Mary Magdalene set to a Byzantine hymn. I hope you heart it very much, because I do, and it is, indeed, "amazing, haunting, beautiful, sexy and strange" -- as is the music. Just to let you know you are not the only person in the world who absolutely loves it.

    1. That's entirely lovely. I love the idea of someone dancing an interpretation of the Gnostic gospels, too. Thank you for sharing that!!!!


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