Saturday, 22 October 2011

Pop Has Eaten Itself - Retromania by Simon Reynolds

Retromania feels like an immensely important piece of work - given Reynolds' track record, it almost couldn't be anything else. I'd go so far as to say it feels like a book his career's been building up to, and given the quality of his work to date I mean that as a high compliment. This isn't a simple genre history a la Rip It Up... or Energy Flash, it's a sustained piece of critical thinking drawing on his lifetime of listening to music and attempting to take stock, deliver a verdict on where we are, why we're there and where we might go next. A description of it as a 'state of the musical nation' is pretty close, though I'd argue that it does in places attempt to go even wider and talk about the state of the cultural nation in general. Hell, Ian Levine gets a whole boxout to himself here and not just in relation to his Northern Soul activities.

It's that attempt to address the entire state of pop music that's the book's big flaw. Reynolds admits in his introduction that this time the book is essentially being made up as he goes along, hence changing his usual working practice of writing the introduction last in an attempt to find some focus to his theory. It means the books a little looser than his previous work, flitting between ideas but essentially lacking a true narrative drive to present a bigger picture. I don't mind that though, to me that allows Reynolds' theories to be explored without imposing an ideology - I admire him for allowing himself to muse on whether his theories are correct or whether it's the product of advancing age and musical saturation. Lesser writers wouldn't have dared acknowledge that in fear that their ideas might be undermined.

Where I might draw issue with Reynolds (aside from him possibly looking in the wrong places) is in his view of music. I'm open to correction but up til recently Reynolds seems to have viewed music as an ever advancing wave of progress, moving inexorably forward. I couldn't shake the feeling that Retromania was him reaching the natural limits of that view. Maybe we are reaching an edge and instead of going forwards we have to look back and expand on the nooks and crevices we might have missed first time round. Or maybe we're waiting for a second coming of punk* so that we can, to wear out a phrase, rip it up and start again. Perhaps we need that energy of going back to basics so we can strike out in a completely different direction to the one we've been going in. Or hey, maybe we're all just getting old and haven't the innocence to hear music in a fresh way any more.

Do I agree with his thesis? I certainly wouldn't disagree on the general thrust of the book regarding auto-cannibalisation of the past. But then perhaps it's simply influences are more obvious than they used to be. It is, after all, near impossible to be completely original, every musical movement has grown from or in reaction to another. Complete originality is a difficult concept to quantify and I think perhaps the point Reynolds makes regarding the greater access to culture leading paradoxically to a shrinking pool of influences is more key than it appears. Perhaps pop culture's subsiding into a distinct set of niche ecologies with genres or aspects being thoroughly explored rather than interacting with each other in unexpected ways. Perhaps the future lies in twisting old ideas to new uses, retooling them so they're relevant rather than drive ourselves mad trying to think entirely outside the notional box of our cultural reference points.

I think it gives an important critical focus to this issue though - certainly if the number of music journalists who were tweeting or writing about it is anything to go by it's likely to prove a very influential piece of thinking simply by the way it'll feed into their writing. There's a certain irony about the possibility of a book about the fetishisation of the old seeding new ideas.

* by which I mean an ideological second coming, not simply borrowing the outfits and sounds of previous generations once more.

(originally posted as part of the Retromania thread on GallifreyBase, thoroughly recommended along with the thread about The Strokes' Is This It)

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