Author: Doll, Christopher
Date published: June 1, 2012
JAZZ AND POPULAR Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past. By Simon Reynolds. New York: Faber and Faber, 2011. [xxxvi, 458 p. ISBN 9780865479944. $18.] Bibliography, index.
Simon Reynolds is a prominent journalist of popular music with a substantial record of publication to his name. Retromania, his most recent book, explores one of the most important facets of contemporary popular culture: the ongoing "uses and abuses of the pop past" (p. xiii). Reynolds touches on this trend as manifested in various cultural forms-fashion, television, movies, theater-but the spotlight is squarely on music. In this way, the book's rather general subtitle and front cover illustration (on the American version, the upper half of a person decked out in assorted bygone clothes and accessories, each accompanied by decade-specifying markers) are a bit misleading.
Retromania largely deals with popular music since the millennium, although it also offers a good amount of commentary on music dating back to the 1960s. (Reynolds dates the point in time at which musical retro began-" 'the Rift of Retro' "-to the mid-sixties, p. 185.) "Retro," according to the author, describes "pretty much anything that relates to the relatively recent past of popular culture" (p. xiii). Working under such a broad definition, the book has a lot of ground to cover, and at nearly five hundred pages, Retromania seems to want to tackle absolutely everything relevant to the central theme. One could easily criticize the author for failing to reach this unattainable goal, or, conversely, for not focusing on fewer issues in the interest of succinctness. Yet Reynolds does an admirable job of engaging a slew of intricate issues, even if the text reads like a long series of short articles on a dozen or so related topics, without a strong sense of linear flow. The text's serial quality is exacerbated by the presence of sixteen subsections printed at the bottom of certain pages throughout the book; set off by smaller, darker font, these subsections function as extremely long explanatory footnotes, elaborating on points brought up in the main passages. The book features no actual footnotes or endnotes; "footnotes and additional mate - rial" are said to be found at a web address (http://retromaniafootnotes.blogspot .com) given in the table of contents (p. viii), yet as of the writing of this review (December 2011) no footnotes were to be found at this site (the book was published in July).
The various issues explored include those of musical style (e.g., sample-based music, fifties-nostalgic pop-rock from the seventies), recreations (e.g., reenactments of celebrated concerts, Japanese bands covering all manner of Western popular genres), collections (e.g., rock'n'roll museums, compact disc box sets), and digital technology (e.g., MP3s, YouTube). By way of these and other topics, the book surveys backward-looking tendencies from the past few decades in an attempt to show how music from 2000 onward hasn't been retro in the right way. Compared with previous eras, the twenty-first century has so far produced music that lacks the proper "mixture of anguish [over] and reverence [for]" its predecessors; recent retro has managed only to drain the past of its "mystery and magic" (p. 425). Mash-ups, one of the most notable musical genres to emerge from the last decade, are derided by Reynolds for "mash[ing] the history of pop like potatoes, into indistinct, digital-data-grey pulp, a blood-sugar blast of empty carbohydrate energy, flava-less and devoid of nutritional value. . . . This is a barren genre-nothing will come from it" (p. 360).
It's not just the music itself that disgruntles Reynolds. An unapologetic Luddite (although he never self-identifies as one), the author accepts contemporary methods of musical consumption only reluctantly. Online archives of music (e.g., YouTube) are "a barely navigable disorder of datadebris and memory-trash" (p. 27); the iPod is "freakish," "an emblem of the poverty of abundance" (p. 115). Current technologies make us less-good listeners, although Reynolds believes this sad state of affairs has been a couple of decades in the making: "[the] depreciation of the value of music . . . can ultimately be traced back to the shift from analogue to digital" (p. 122).
In general, the author sees the presence of the past in popular musical culture as "insidious" (p. 57), but for his own favorite music, especially punk (including "postpunk," a term the author loves to use), exceptions can be made. For instance, Reynolds generally scorns the phenomenon of bands' reviving their older material, but when that band is The Sex Pistols, a redo "could be seen as bracingly cynical, even an extension of the Pistols' original demystification of the music industry" (p. 11). Likewise, Gang of Four's rerecording of their earlier songs is "consistent with the group's demystification of capitalism in their lyrics" (p. 40). Reynolds' preference for punk comes across in even more explicit ways: the advent of the style is portrayed as "a giant fissure in rock history" (p. 257), "a genuinely transformative, world-historical force" (p. 240). A reader of Retromania could easily get the impression that all before-punk music was leading up to punk, and that all after-punk music was a response to it (or at least a departure from it).
Such passionate advocacy is common among music journalists, and Retromania is indeed a work of journalism, not disinterested scholarship. What Reynolds lacks in objectivity with regard to his musical preferences, he tries to make up for with honesty: "as a teenager in the post-punk seventies, I immediately ingested . . . the belief that art has some kind of evolutionary destiny, a teleology that manifests itself through genius artists and masterpieces that are monuments to the future" (p. 403). But selfawareness doesn't offset Reynolds' somewhat slanted vision of music-historical development; his narrative occasionally is inconsistent with the facts, and even with himself. For example, there is no justification for statements such as the following:
In the sixties, cover versions had generally been of contemporary songs, a way for a performer or group to fill up an album. In other words, the cover version was not particularly freighted with significance. That began to change in the postpunk era, when covers were often chosen to express a group's sensibility or make an argument about pop history. (p. 134)
This statement is not even remotely true. If by "significance" Reynolds means artistic valuableness to the performers themselves, he is dismissing, among the most famous examples, the blues and rhythm and blues covers by The Rolling Stones and the girlgroup and early rock'n'roll covers by The Beatles; these rerecordings weren't mere throwaways-they represented tributes to crucial musical influences. If by "significance" Reynolds means artistic valuableness to audiences, he is ignoring Janis Joplin's renderings of "Summertime," "Piece of My Heart," and "Me and Bobby McGee," and Jimi Hendrix's reworkings of "Hey Joe," "Wild Thing," and "All Along the Watch - tower," all of which are absolutely central to their respective artists' legacies. If by "significance" Reynolds means commercial impact, he is forgetting that pre-"postpunk" covers were often singles; in fact, many of the most successful versions of sixties (and early seventies) singles were covers: "The Twist," "Blue Moon," "Louie Louie," "Respect," "I'm a Believer," "Dedicated to the One I Love," "I Heard It through the Grapevine," "One" (by Three Dog Night), "Black Magic Woman," "Without You," "I Shot the Sheriff"-the list is endless. The phenomenon of covering didn't start in the sixties, of course; covers were a staple of the market going back to the earliest days of rock'n'roll ("Blueberry Hill," "Hound Dog," "Shake, Rattle, and Roll," "Fever"), and indeed back to the beginnings of the record industry itself. It is true that albums were once merely a means to resell singles (and contained much filler, including halfhearted covers of contemporary songs), but the move away from this practice began in the sixties (with The Beatles), not the late seventies. Reynolds exaggerates terribly in moments such as this, but what's worse is that this particular false statement doesn't even quite jibe with his preceding two paragraphs, which discuss the significance of some cover-filled albums from the pre-"post-punk era"-Todd Rundgren's Faithful (Bearsville Records BR 6963 ), David Bowie's Pin Ups (RCA Victor APL 10291 ), and Bryan Ferry's These Foolish Things (Atlantic SD 7304 ) and Another Time, Another Place (Atlantic SD 18113 ). The contradiction between what the author knows and what the author feels is palpable here and elsewhere. His irrepressible desire to position punk as the reference point for the entirety of popular music history confuses his otherwise reliable account.
The book presents a sizeable bibliography, featuring work by such heavy hitters as Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Jean Baudrillard, Fredric Jame - son, and Harold Bloom. A major lacuna here is scholarship on intertextuality: mention of Julia Kristeva's original work on this subject, and the mass of other articles and books that her writings spawned, is completely missing. This is a real shame, because some of Reynolds' topics have as much-if not more-to do with intertextuality than with retro. Sampling, for instance, is not necessarily retro (take John Oswald's decidedly contemporary mash-up album Plexure [Disk Union R-340188, 1993], p. 319), but by nature it is intertextual. Even with the very broad definition employed by Reynolds, "retro" could be viewed as a specific intertextual subcategory.
As a piece of music journalism, Retro - mania is as much about the writing itself as it is about the actual content, and Reynolds' oratory is excellent. (We get only the rare flub: e.g., the idiom "to beg the question" is misused a few times, pp. 65, 229, 343). This is not to say the content is anything less than absorbing and informative; readers will likely learn a great deal and have an enjoyable time in the process. Retromania reflects on an overabundance of interesting issues, its opinionated message at once fun, frustrating, and thoughtprovoking. Reynolds is the first writer to offer a book-length treatment of this timely topic; he will certainly not be the last.