BY Dan Fox in Interviews | 01 JUN 11
Featured in
Issue 140

Music

To coincide with the publication of his new book Retromania, Simon Reynolds talks about pop’s obsession with its immediate past

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BY Dan Fox in Interviews | 01 JUN 11

Charanjit Singh, Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat, 2010. Courtesy: Bombay Connection, Amsterdam.

Dan Fox At the start of your new book, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past, is ‘The Retroscape’, a huge list of bands that have reformed, albums that have been re-issued, books, films and rockumentaries made about pop music history, and so on, since 2000. At what point did you first start to notice pop’s past catching up with itself?

Simon Reynolds Looking back through my old writing I noticed that it had cropped up as a theme as far back as the 1980s, as if I was warding off the spectre of retro. I was coming up with quite convoluted justifications for bands that I liked, such as The Jesus and Mary Chain, Spacemen 3 and The Stone Roses, who could be seen as being very retro and indebted to the 1960s, and all kinds of ingenious and convoluted arguments for why they weren’t. But you can find lots of examples that predate the ’80s: 1970s glam rock is an interesting combination of outlandish, futuristic imagery with evocations of 1950s rock’n’roll, but 1968 is when rock first starts to double back on itself with The Beatles’ Chuck Berry homage ‘Back in the u.s.s.r.’ on The White Album and Frank Zappa’s doo-wop pastiche Cruising With Reuben & The Jets. It’s really bizarre to think that you have people that early on harking back to the good old days. You can’t really map Modernism and Postmodernism onto pop, since it was always both at the same time, or at least had that potential.

DF In Retromania you discuss how the idea that pop music has an innovative, linear, Modernist direction is hard to shake. Is retro a sign that pop is growing up? Will the idea of constant innovation one day seem quaint?

SR There’s an emphasis on continuity in many music histories now – for instance, there’s an interest in ‘pre-punk’ at the moment. Kris Needs compiled an album called Dirty Water: The Birth of Punk Attitude (2010), featuring music that predates punk but has a punk aesthetic, including stuff that goes back to the 1950s. I think it’s interesting but it removes all the drama from history. It’s also historically incorrect in that what actually happened was that punk seemed to come completely out of the blue. Another example is Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat by Charanjit Singh, which was re-issued last year. It’s interesting that it existed in India in 1982, and pre-dates some of the sounds of acid house with its use of a Roland TB-303 synthesizer, but historically it didn’t lead into it, and that precedence masks the truth that acid house blew people’s minds when it came into Britain from the US in the mid-’80s.

DF Did a particular generational shift occur that might be responsible for retro? One in which the first consumers of pop culture in the 1960s started to get into positions of power in the media?

SR There’s definitely a sense that at a certain point the baby boomers started controlling the media, and had a lot of investment in upholding the 1960s myths, but I couldn’t pinpoint a time. I don’t like those baby boomer types, putting out books with titles like Bruce Pollock’s Hipper Than Our Kids (1993).

DF There’s a very palpable nostalgia in New York for its subcultural past: the downtown scene, and the ‘bad old days’ when the city was bankrupt and crime-ridden but artists and musicians could live here cheaply. I recently saw Blank City (2010), a documentary about the early 1980s No Wave scene, and the mantra of downtown mythology that was repeated throughout – it was crazy and dangerous but everything was up-for-grabs and much cooler back then – was quite overbearing. Do you think this sort of nostalgia can be inhibiting for younger people?

SR It can be, but the landscape is always changing. Certain possibilities from the past have been closed off, but others have emerged, such as online social networking. For instance, a large rave was recently pulled off in the centre of London using Twitter and Facebook as mobilization techniques. However, the thing for me is that it was a rave, it wasn’t a whole new phenomenon, it was like what happened in a big warehouse or abandoned offices in London in the late ’80s, but they used new techniques to make it happen.

DF Retro, as opposed to other forms of cultural revivalism, is about obsessing over the cultural artefacts of pop’s immediate past. You talk about the fast turnover ‘metabolic rate’ of fashion having been absorbed in music. Do you think there’s a difference between the retro impulse of today, and that of earlier retro style tribes, such as Northern Soul aficionados, Mod revivalists, or 1980s enthusiasts of ’60s garage punk?

SR It was very serious for them. For Northern Soul or garage punk fans, it was like a permanent contract they made with a style: this is it, this is who I am, this is what I believe is the ultimate moment, and I’m going to stay true. I recently wrote an article for The Wire on the Los Angeles record label Not Not Fun, trying to pin down a particular generational sensibility right now. One of the things that we discussed was how people no longer have that bonding with one style; they might be involved in a lot of recombinant activity but that doesn’t prevent them doing another project at the same time based on another past style. This has a lot to do with the technology, having home studios, and releasing stuff in a diy way, but it’s also a generational thing. There’s also a fashion element in discovering increasingly obscure things. That said, increasingly the new frontier is not obscure things: in the 1980s when bands like Spacemen 3 were taking things from the past, it was from obscure groups that had failed in the marketplace, but now the new retro orientation is towards mainstream music that was omnipresent in the ’80s, like Hall & Oates. Amanda Brown of Not Not Fun goes on about Sade a lot, which is a power move in the hipster game. This game is great fun, but there is a sense in which sounding like Hall & Oates are very hip now but none of these groups are going to be making Hall & Oates-sounding records in five years time because their affiliations to these sounds are much more fleeting. I’m quite optimistic about this, because it’s a generation that has a non-reverential attitude to the past and they are pushed onwards by curiosity and play.

DF Technology has made access to imagery and sound so much easier now than it was, say, in the 1990s when I was a teenager. I grew up in the country, but I was really into style magazines such as The Face, i-D, and the music weeklies. Often, the descriptions and photographs in them were my only source of information about the latest music or fashion. There might be a photo of some impossibly cool kids at a gig in London, but if it was just of their heads and shoulders, you could see how they cut their hair but had to imagine what sort of trousers they might wear. I wonder if a lack of access was itself an innovating catalyst in pop music; producing something original by dint of not having a copybook to work from, not knowing the whole picture?

SR That’s funny, and I think it’s very true. A classic example would be Talking Heads’ track ‘The Overload’ (1980). It’s based on the band reading about Joy Division, and being fascinated by the idea of them, but not being able to track down the records, so they made this amazing song inspired by an idea of Joy Division. One of the things I’m still puzzling over is how things are changing from a scarcity economy, one of distance and delay in your cultural relationships, to one where it’s instant, total and you can find out everything about the record. That seems to me, as a creature of an earlier generation, to be suffocating, but I’m guardedly optimistic; people are very ingenious and will find a way to swim in all that. I don’t think the problem is about a deficit of musical talent – there’s as much as ever – but it’s as if we’ve been in a phase where people have been overwhelmed by abundance.

DF In Retromania you talk about the changing economy, from ‘primary production’ music made in the 30 years after World War II, which you describe as being blue collar, to ‘postproduction’ music, which is more white collar in terms of skill sets used. This reflects changes in the broader economy: wealth generation via manufacture versus wealth generation via signification in entertainment and media.

SR Fredric Jameson wrote about how the culture of late capitalism reflects this increasingly gaseous, ungrounded nature of the economy. It struck me that many of the most innovative periods of pop music come from a time when the people making it grew up around industry or agriculture. There’s something about a culture that’s based around making stuff that’s bound to affect music making in some way. Now, increasingly music making is done with computers, and it’s about knowledge games, which is a level of abstraction up from just making things. ‘Over-accumulation’ seems like a good way of describing how all this music history has built up. What we’re living in is a salvage economy, like a flea market: there’s this mound of stuff accumulated and people are going through it like rag pickers, looking for elements that could be reused.

DF Pop music has always been tied up with fashion, but its retro impulse has now become deeply enmeshed in lifestyle choices. Retro has become a surface indicator of urban gentrification; drinking in coffee shops or bars with a certain aesthetic, such as the pseudo-1920s speakeasy thing that’s popular in New York. A recent hipster look here for men has been a sort of American Victoriana style: moustaches or huge beards, plain white shirts and trousers held up with braces. Although it perhaps evolved from the freak folk music scene, and the bucolic homesteader look of Will Oldham et al, it also seems strongly associated with an interest in locavore food culture and fascination with artisanal manufacture. It seems less about affinity to musical style tribes, and more about lifestyle affinities.

SR There is something about old stuff and its relationship to class and it’s funny to see a younger generation of middle-class culture replicating similar things to their parents; instead of collecting antiques they collect things like, say, manual typewriters, to use as a decorative item in their living room. I recently watched a documentary that involved the late artist Margaret Kilgallen, who talked about using old artwork and fonts associated with bygone advertising and commercial signs. She said she was interested in this stuff as soon as she felt it wasn’t selling anything to her; as soon as something ceases to be related to commerce in the present, it becomes more charming. Same with the hipsters who are interested in mainstream ’80s music; as soon as it stops being the stuff sold through mainstream radio, it starts to seem exotic. The whole idea of ‘vintage’ is about how something once associated with mass-production later gets used as a way of identifying yourself as a discerning and sophisticated individual.

DF You also get complex semiotic games that start to happen with revivals of revivals. For instance, there’s a certain kind of hipster men’s haircut over the last few years that’s been popular, which is the Hitler Youth-meets-post-punk look; very short back-and-sides, severe side-parting. It looks like the haircut of 1970s Joy Division or A Certain Ratio, but also a 1940s functional haircut. The meaning of ‘vintage’ looks start to signify multiple periods.

SR A pop example of that is that big hit from last year by Cee Lo Green called ‘Fuck You’ which reminds me simultaneously of 1970s soul and also ’80s groups from the whole Culture Club, Style Council retro soul boom. The record could’ve been made in the original soul days, or during a subsequent revival. But there’s relatively little about that record that seems to say ‘2011’.

DF Why do you think there are so few quantum leaps forward in music at the moment?

SR What seems to have happened, and this sounds almost mystical, is that the axis of time has flipped, culturally speaking. The structural position occupied by the future in pop is now occupied by the past. The way people see what they’re doing now is not like it was in the ’60s, or in ’90s electronic music; the quest for the unknown, beyond the horizon. Now people formulate their impulses through archaeology and the quest for the lost. This is where the romance of things is generated; not for the future, but for the past. It’s the same kind of Utopianism, except one located in history. I think the people operating now are the same kind of people who were once cosmonauts of music going out into the beyond, but working with a different cultural predicament. It’s to do with technology, the Internet and the past that’s put everything out there like an archival universe. Towards the end of Retromania there’s a sort of faint hope in so far as the post-historical is producing some interesting things, they just don’t resemble that shock of the new thing that ageing Modernists like myself crave. There’s no shortage of interesting records coming out, but there’s something eerie about the fact that you hardly ever get that sense that you’ve never actually heard a sound before; there’s always an element of artful rearrangement of the known. That unnerves me, as I’m able to remember when things did seem to come out of nowhere. But I’m probably more optimistic now than when I finished the book. Who knows what’s going to happen next.

Simon Reynolds is a writer based in Los Angeles. His latest book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past is published in June by Faber & Faber.

Dan Fox is a writer who lives in New York, USA. His latest book is Limbo (2018).

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