While I was reading Simon Reynolds’s latest book, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, I found myself thinking of the hours I spent as a teenager listening to grunge rock in my best friend’s bedroom. This would have been somewhere between 2001 and 2005, and so about a decade after the heyday of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and those other groups loosely associated with Seattle, plaid shirts and MTV in the early Nineties. My friend is part of a family which was, and remains, extremely close to mine. The two of us are the same age and he has two older brothers and a sister. My own parents’ interest in rock ended, more or less, with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and I’m an eldest child, so I never had a big brother or sister to inherit albums from. But in the other family there was a lineage: what the dad (an amateur jazz agent, among other things) and the older siblings liked would filter down and eventually, almost by diffusion, pass on to me. Grunge wasn’t all we listened to; it wasn’t even the main thing we listened to—that would have been classic rock of one stripe or another—but it’s grunge that comes to mind most vividly now. Grunge was what elder brothers and sisters listened to; it was also the birth of that semi-oxymoronic concept of mainstream “alternative” rock that became the paradigm for so many other guitar bands over the next two decades. Even before I knew much about them I had the idea that Nirvana’s success was an event. Whether or not you even liked the music all that much (and by now the only album from that time that I still have much affection for is Alice in Chains’s Dirt) it felt important and interesting in a way that barely needed to be explained.
Anybody’s taste is an accident, and at all ages the stuff you happen to like is rarely as important as you think it is (although this is emphatically the case when you’re a teenage boy). But preferences are always more than accidents, too, connected as they are to great webs of history and culture—individualized symptoms of forces you might not have the slightest idea of. “Easy to forget just how utterly unexpected Nirvana’s breakthrough was,” writes Reynolds in Bring the Noise (2007), an anthology of his articles about rock and hip-hop:
I remember arriving in New York early in the autumn of 1991 to stay with my girlfriend/wife-to-be, and Joy saying, “There’s this video [‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’] MTV are playing, it’s amazing, you’ve got to see it…” And then being slightly incredulous when she said it was by Nirvana (what, that nothing-special group on Sub-Pop?). And then being totally blown away. Along with the sheer power of the song and the brilliance of the video, the shellshock came from the fact that we’d never thought that sound—which came out of all our 1980s faves, Husker Du and Dinosaur Jr. and the Pixies—had any chance of entering the mainstream, let alone taking it over. The major labels had tried their best, and by 1990 had even signed flagrantly uncommercial underground outfits like Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth. There’d be a very slight sense of critical mass building (Jane’s Addiction’s success and then Lollapalooza in the summer of ’91), of something swarming outside the barricades. But nobody expected the walls to come tumbling down—least of all the bands themselves.
Nirvana arrived like an eruption—a roar in the midst of, and against, the staid mainstream. (“The only explanation is that a lot of people didn’t realize how angry and alienated they really were,” Reynolds observed at the time.) Despite not being particularly innovative, one thing that distinguished Nirvana from older system-shocks like Elvis or Beatlemania or punk was that the music all these kids were suddenly identifying with was an expression of profound self-hatred and impotence. Why this should have struck such a chord in pre-Millennial America is a question that probably admits of a lot of different answers. You can see Nirvana (and grunge in general) as representing the last dregs of the comedown from rock’s utopian high in the Sixties, the point where the liberation mythology of the Baby Boomers fully gave way to the disengagement and damage of Generation X. It must have been disturbing, to say the least, for Cobain to realize what a compelling spectacle he made. Think of the terrible mass of rock clichés that swarmed around him: tortured rebel; weary hedonist; unwilling champion; pure soul lost in a sewer of disillusionment, dirty money and addiction. It didn’t matter which (if any) of these templates were true, only that they could be stuck to him and sold—the bitter irony being that the alienation and rage in Nirvana that people found so powerfully resonant suited the system perfectly. It was all food for MTV. So however forcefully the music’s sentiment was expressed there remained the inescapable suspicion that it was at heart an empty and secretly complicit performance, a protest that attained no distance from what it protested. It was as if a death knell had been rung for the possibility of rock as any kind of subversive or politically transformative form of art. Whatever you did, however desperately you meant to rebel, the system never ceased to profit.
But the content of Nirvana’s particular story, as poignant as it is, isn’t the main thing that’s stuck with me. It was rather the possibility it illuminated: however grim the connotations, here was music that acted as a beacon, alchemizing people’s taste into a kind of mass statement about the world they occupied. I’m not saying these sorts of thoughts were clear in my head when I was younger and getting into grunge. But I would like to think a premonition was already there, and that beyond the basic thrill of the music it was this that gave the experience its weight—the apprehension that I was part of some grand audience, that millions of other people cared about the same thing, had absorbed the same bleak spectacle, and that we could relate. So the impression it left was maybe just that of having been, in however small a way, part of a moment of collective history, or at least within touching distance of it. I’m wondering if it isn’t just misplaced nostalgia that makes it so hard to locate the same feeling in music today.
Simon Reynolds has spent over a quarter of a century writing about pop music for a living.  He began his career at the (now-defunct) London magazine Melody Maker in 1985. His first book, Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock (1990), a collection of articles from the period, is a giddy celebration of late-Eighties underground rock and neo-psychedelia. In 1994 he moved to New York and has lived in the United States ever since, relocating to Los Angeles in 2010. He has co-authored a book about rock music and gender theory, The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion and Rock ’N’ Roll (1995), with his wife Joy Press, and written journalistic histories of the two most important phases of his life in terms of music. Energy Flash (1998) documented the ascent of rave in Britain during the Nineties (a truncated edition has been published in America as Generation Ecstasy) and Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-84 (2005) recounted the supercharged period that followed the rise and fall of punk rock. The latter is supported by a companion volume of interviews with musicians, Totally Wired: Post-Punk Interviews and Overviews (2009). Since 2002, Reynolds has maintained an informal blog, Blissblog, which operates as a fermenting lab and a fragmented running commentary on his ideas.
Retromania is Reynolds’s seventh book. It begins from the premise that the last ten years in popular culture (but specifically pop music) have been fixated on the has-been and the already-done, while being conspicuously barren in terms of distinct, innovative content of their own. Retromania isn’t a systematic study of retro culture so much as an overview of issues relating to this strange sense of ennui that’s been a part of Western pop culture since (at least) the turn of the millennium. These topics include, but aren’t limited to: the impact of the digital revolution on artistic creation and consumption; the death or decline of “modernist” ideology in popular culture; the history of pop-nostalgia; the undying allure of revivalism; and the role of the critic in the digital era. Many, if not all, of these subjects would warrant a book-length study of their own, and Reynolds doesn’t arrive at a lot of firm conclusions—instead offering sketches, speculations and personal impressions of the zeitgeist.
The broad point, however, about the general backwardness of pop since the millennium seems eminently plausible, and to my mind even a cursory sense of the relevant history supports it. “The Nineties felt like this long, sustained ascent, what with the Internet and the info-tech boom, techno rave and its associated drugs,” notes Reynolds. “But the 2000s turned out to be a plateau … it seemed like nothing momentous had happened. Worse, it was a struggle to pinpoint what defined the era as a separate era musically.” An intuitive test for this theory is supplied by the tech-philosopher Jaron Lanier in his excellent You Are Not a Gadget (2010). “Popular music created in the industrialized world in the decade from the late 1990s to the late 2000s doesn’t have a distinct style,” he writes, “that is, one that would provide an identity for the young people who grew up with it.”
I have frequently gone through a conversational sequence along the following lines: Someone in his early twenties will tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about, and then I’ll challenge that person to play me some music that is characteristic of the late 2000s as opposed to the late 1990s. I’ll ask him to play the tracks for his friends. So far, my theory has held: even true fans don’t seem to be able to tell if an indie rock track or a dance mix is from 1998 or 2008, for instance.
As both Reynolds and Lanier acknowledge, it seems incredibly unlikely that nothing has been made in Western pop in the last ten years that couldn’t have been made in some earlier decade. But compared to the quantum leaps in style that used to occur periodically (think about how far away rock ’n’ roll is from acid house) there is a remarkable dearth of what might be called “macro-scale” innovation: cultural explosions such as hip-hop in the 1980s or rave in the 1990s—scenes that not only centered on formally innovative music, but which inspired whole ways of life and distinct subcultures among significant chunks of the population.
The flipside to this phenomenon, in Reynolds’s words, is retromania itself: “the vastly increased presence in our lives of old pop culture: from the availability of back-catalogue records to YouTube’s gigantic collective archive and the massive changes in music consumption engendered by playback devices like the iPod (which often functions like a personal ‘oldies’ radio station).” As well as being more available than ever, the history of pop is lionized through endless parades of reissues, retrospectives, comebacks and commemorative box sets, while classic rock and pop acts ossify into monuments and museum pieces (many of which, nonetheless, continue to tour and record). There “has never been a society in human history so obsessed with the cultural artifacts of its own immediate past. That is what distinguishes retro from antiquarianism or history: the fascination for fashions, fads, sounds and stars that occurred within living memory.” Retro isn’t a trend confined to pop music by any means, but Reynolds is right to say that its presence there is especially jarring given the premium that pop supposedly attaches to freshness and novelty. New acts come and go, but the churn of faces and songs occurs inside a kind of stasis, like a high street where the shops constantly change but the atmosphere is fixed. In one way new things appear all the time. But in another nothing ever happens.
The idea that we live in a nostalgia-soaked culture isn’t new. Historical novels, costume dramas, throwback fashion and Hollywood remakes are all big business and have been for some time. But pop makes an interesting synecdoche for culture at large because the prominence of old content and styles exists in an environment that, in another respect, is one of unprecedented wealth. Thanks to the digital revolution, more people have access to more music than at any point in the past. Likewise, given the relative ease of modern production and distribution, it’s plausible that more content is being brought into the world year-on-year too. The precise causes of retromania are things Reynolds speculates about without fixing on, but clearly he thinks the link between the stall in pop innovation and the spread of digital technology is non-contingent—which seems like a reasonable supposition, if only because it is hard to imagine two such pronounced trends in the same field being unrelated.
What’s novel about retromania isn’t the influence of the past on present music (if that were the case, it would be nearly as old as pop itself) but rather the depth and breadth of the phenomenon, the impression it creates of total immersion and immutability. Bob Dylan aped Woody Guthrie, the Rolling Stones stole from old bluesmen, etc.—but still something vividly distinct was fashioned in the process. It’s this sensation of movement from the inherited to the unfamiliar that seems to have vanished. Pop is no longer premised on forward motion. “I’m not claiming that all the retro music is disappointing,” remarks Lanier. “But this is the first time since electrification that mainstream youth culture in the industrialized world has cloaked itself primarily in nostalgic styles.” I grew up with the idea, for example, that part of what it was to belong to a particular generation was having music that belonged to you, as opposed to previous generations or generations yet to come. But as Lanier says, retro pop seems utterly incapable of providing any distinct identity for the young people who “own” it, because it has none (which perhaps helps to account for a relatively common complaint about modern pop, one that otherwise seems hard to explain considering just how much different stuff there is to listen to—namely that it’s flavorless, forgettable).
The extent of retro’s hold over the cultural imagination is revealed by the very demographic you would expect it to have the least power over: the cutting-edge artistic class—i.e. “hipsterland, pop’s equivalent to highbrow.” As Reynolds observes, the “very people who you would once have expected to produce (as artists) or champion (as consumers) the non-traditional and the groundbreaking—that’s the group who are most addicted to the past.” Retromania points to a striking decline in “irony free” sci-fi imagery in pop compared to the Sixties or even to the Nineties. In the prevailing atmosphere it seems easier or somehow more legitimate for young artists to envision themselves as archaeologists rather than cosmonauts, the dominant modes being those of recycling, remixing and recombination—techniques that might well involve brilliant creativity, but are essentially parasitic.
During the course of a lengthy profile written for The Wire magazine on the Los Angeles independent record label Not Not Fun (run by husband and wife team Britt and Amanda Brown) Reynolds homes in on this point:
Asked if they can delineate the sensibility of their generation, Britt and Amanda’s thoughts converge with my own doubts. “I consider it to be post-creation,” offers Amanda. “Pastiche. We’re all now just pulling and pulling and pulling. Someone like Prince was thinking of people in the past, but it didn’t feel as funnelled and as specific. We’re a bit derivative, unfortunately, and it’s not to our detriment always—but we are direct descendants and there are all these lineages. It’s an interesting time for music because people aren’t trying to create anything brand new.” She points to [Not Not Fun] artist Umberto: “He’s making music that sounds like Goblin, which you’ll have heard of if you’ve watched old Argento movies. But he’s one of the few people making that kind of music today. So that is the choice you make: you go for who is stepping a little bit outside of the box—the box being the demos we get sent everyday. But you can’t say ‘Umberto, he’s so original.’ Originality is not a thing anymore.”
Reynolds is at pains to stress that it is hardly as if retro lacks charm or precludes good music from being made (the profile of Not Not Fun is very positive). Yet the impression lingers that something important has gone missing. “Given that I enjoy so many aspects of retro,” Reynolds asks at the beginning of Retromania, “why do I still feel deep down that it is lame and shameful?” At least part of the answer is that for all its pleasures retro culture seems fundamentally tame. What troubles Reynolds about hipster-retroism isn’t anything viscerally displeasing about the music or the type of person who makes it. It’s more the awareness that the sort of lighthearted, cosmopolitan sensibility it suits also fits rather too well with other forms of safe, tasteful consumerism, “right next to distressed furniture, microbrew beer, artisanal cheese and vintage clothing.” It feels like creativity without any existential urgency. “No longer art as an intervention in the battlefield of culture, but art as ‘décor for life.’”
In an interview with FACT magazine in 2007, Reynolds remarked that his entire critical sensibility—from the more flamboyant prose of his early articles and essays (where he enthusiastically delved into concepts of blissful self-annihilation; jouissance; “re-mystification”) to the mature phase of his writing—could be boiled down to a hunt for “intensity.” That is: “The serious-as-your-life of aesthetic rapture, the seriousness of taking music and the discourse around it intensely seriously, reading a lot into music. Maybe to the point of mania or fanaticism.” Reynolds is not the only one to have connected the dearth of innovation in pop with its “disintensification.” In a piece for n+1 reviewing the first fifteen years of the music website Pitchfork, Richard Beck equated the immobility of contemporary independent rock with its decline into an arena of complacent, cultural-capital driven fashions—a judgment that clearly echoes Reynolds’s worries about underground music becoming a form of niche consumerism. Both arguments seem to interpret the lack of artistic evolution as a sign of impotence, specifically pop’s powerlessness to effect change on the social or political level. The belief that music could invade—and remake—all things public and private is part of the primordial myth of rock. Since at least the Sixties, new art held out the promise of a new life, and reinvention on the personal level could be revolution on the social. “Confronted with performers as appealing and disturbing as Elvis Presley, the Beatles, or the Sex Pistols, with people who raise the possibility of living in a new way,” Greil Marcus wrote, “some respond and some don’t—and this, if only for a moment, becomes a primary social fact.” Indeed, the idea that musical innovation bears a relationship to social upheaval goes back as far as Plato, whose Republic warns us that “the modes of music are never disturbed without unsettling the most fundamental political and social conventions.”
From this angle, what retromania heralds isn’t the death of pop as an area of creativity, but the demise of a certain type of (political) possibility. Genres of music that were once outlets for waves of discontented energy have been subdued and subsumed into the consumerist hegemony—rock, punk, hip-hop and the rest turned into competing leisure options rather than activities with any subversive potential. In the absence of new styles to take their place, pop petrifies as a social force.
Reynolds describes his sensibility as a modernist one. The term “modernist” (like its relation, “postmodernist”) struggles with competing and unsettled definitions. Nevertheless, one comparatively straightforward way of grasping Retromania is to see it as part of a family of Western cultural theory that takes a dim view of the shift from modernism to postmodernism in the arts—associating the former (speaking roughly) with creativity that involves some authentic political and/or ethical investment, and the latter with an aesthetic that takes art as a sort of fun but frivolous mode of play, wherein values of authenticity and commitment are relegated beneath those of diversity, irony and masquerade. Reynolds attributes his modernist ethos to the post-punk scene he immersed himself in as a teenager, the culture he subsequently chronicled in Rip It Up and Start Again—an assembly of artists united less by style than ideology, inspired by punk’s destructive energy but “who saw 1977 not as a return to raw rock ’n’ roll but as a chance to make a break with tradition … who defined punk as an imperative to constant change.” These were the years of PiL, Joy Division, Talking Heads, Pere Ubu, the Slits, Scritti Politti, Gang of Four, Devo and Wire, to name only a few. It was an era filled to the brim with (often comically grandiose) conceptual and aesthetic ambition. The music was “modernist,” in Reynolds’s sense, not only because it invented new styles and involved a conscious commitment to futurity, but because it seemed to demand a level of radical seriousness in its performance—the full-bore conviction that what was being done mattered, that it could change society or lives or both. Post-punk modernism, apart from being a rapturous thrill in itself (“As I recall it now, I never bought any old records. Why would you?”), became the radiant standard for pop for the rest of Reynolds’s career. In Retromania, he reiterates:
When I started taking more than a passing interest in pop, as a teenager in the post-punk seventies, I immediately ingested a strong dose of modernism: 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. It was there already in rock, thanks to The Beatles, psychedelia and progressive rock, but post-punk drastically amped up the belief in constant change and endless innovation. Although by the early eighties modernism was thoroughly eclipsed within art and architecture, and postmodernism was seeping into popular music, this spirit of modernist pop carried on through rave and the experimental fringe of rock. These surges of renewal served as a booster shot for me, reconfirming the modernist credo: art should constantly push forward into new territory, reacting against its own immediate predecessors in violent gestures of severance, jettisoning its superseded stages like a rocket shooting into space.
The import of post-punk (and later rave) for Reynolds is that it turned pop modernism into more than just a theory or an aesthetic preference. There it described a bona fide ethos for living, one which survived and prospered outside the ghettos of the art world. One almost has to think that the commitment these scenes inspired bore a direct relation to their sense of being historically unique, which raises an interesting question about the relationship between the vitality of an artistic movement and its sense of time. Modernist art as Reynolds sketches it—centered on the principle of answering and “surpassing” old culture—depends on the concept of historical continuity: a series of distinct artistic phases, each forming in reaction to their predecessors and, in turn, inspiring their own fresh opposition. This sort of modernism doesn’t hang together without the idea of temporal succession, not only because it depicts a necessary antagonism between old art and new, but because it’s premised on the idea of a deficient present that needs to be broken with in favor of tomorrow. Again, the dominant metaphor is of forward-motion: rushing ahead into the unknown, the New.
My generation can be said to straddle two eras: still in touch with the idea of historical succession in and through music, we arrived at maturity just as the digital revolution took hold and that sense of linearity and temporal definition started to dissolve. “Atemporal” is how Reynolds characterizes the contemporary pop environment—a zone at once engulfed by the debris of the past and yet eerily timeless. “If you are under the age of 25,” he writes, “and have grown up with a relationship to music based around total access and the erosion of a sense of sounds belonging to a historical sequence, thinking about music in terms of development through time becomes alien and unrecoverable.” The term Reynolds coins for the feel of the last decade in pop is “hyper-stasis,” meant to capture the sensation of velocity within closed loops, motion without travel; as if culture now formed an enormous, barely mappable totality within which all possibilities were already contained. For artists, history becomes more than just a burden; it becomes the complete enclosure within which their activity takes place, too huge to escape—perhaps too huge to even recognize as an enclosure. In all of this, the loss of contrast is a recurring motif: either temporally (now/then) or politically (us/them). It is even detectable in the redundancy of certain terms of art redolent of physical journeying (the idea of an avant-garde or of artistic “movements”—concepts made hollow if, creatively, there’s nowhere to go).
Reynolds doesn’t make explicit whether he thinks that, insofar as retromania represents the “defeat” of modernist ambitions in pop, it belongs under the umbrella of postmodernism, but it’s an intuitive thought. “Postmodernism” (like “modernism”) can be used to describe both an artistic style and a historical situation (“the postmodern era”). Think about it in the latter sense and you see retromania in a freshly problematic light. If much of what Reynolds says amounts to hypothesizing a link between progressivism and artistic “intensity,” what makes it troublesome as a prescriptive philosophy—as he must know—is that it isn’t clear it makes sense to think of this as a matter of artistic will, as if someone could simply decide to be original or timely.
Does any of this necessarily make pop less enjoyable? Reynolds never poses the question so directly. Near the end of Retromania, he admits that abandoning his modernist ideals would feel like “settling for less”—and that may be true insofar as “modernism” is simply being used as a byword for especially intense or committed forms of art. But in a way this is only to return to the problem just described, since the concern is whether modernist assumptions still have any application in a culture that appears to have fallen drastically out of sync with them. To put the matter slightly differently, the bedrock issue in Retromania is whether there’s reason to believe that the prevalence of atemporal/post-historical pop actually diminishes the experience of music, even for kids whose expectations of it must be radically different from Reynolds’s. And whatever the trouble might be, it is ridiculous to say that it’s a question of there not being enough good songs to listen to or new records to discover. The sheer volume of music available makes it almost impossible to believe that anyone, with a bit of effort, couldn’t find enough material to like. The problem, such as it is, has to be something more subtle.
The way I’ve been putting it to myself is this: Is music today important or not? On the face of it, the question is absurd. In the most general sense, music seems like such an inarguable good—such a basic fusion of human instinct and achievement—that its goodness isn’t something you can express properly with words. Nietzsche put it beautifully when he said that without music life would be “a mistake.” How could it not be important? And yet I’ve had a feeling for several years now—the best way I can describe it is as a vague sense of cultural weightlessness, the impression that while there’s an overwhelming amount of high-quality art out there to enjoy, there’s also something terribly insubstantial about it, taken in sum. Or if not insubstantial exactly, then contained, settled, offering a type of pleasure that seems to be always and already conscious of its own limits. Pop is only a single case of this, but it’s an exemplary one. It’s as though some trick of perspective were at work: close up, the form is teeming and rich and apparently endlessly interesting, whereas as a whole it feels inconsequential, indistinct and strangely dull—a field of creativity disconnected from history, confused about what it can or ought to aspire to.
Whatever else, Retromania offers some evidence that this isn’t just an ungrateful conceit. The problem it comes out of, I think, is a quintessentially modern one—namely, how much effort it takes to convince yourself that all the cultural paraphernalia decorating your life (the books read, films watched, paintings examined, fashions worn, etc.) aren’t just diversions or toys. Slavoj Zizek once suggested that these days the term “culture” has become a floating signifier for “all those things we practice without really believing in them, without ‘taking them seriously,’”—which is to say, not things (we feel in our heart of hearts) that exercise any genuine power over our lives, and hence not things that can ever quite avoid the stain of frivolity or purposelessness. Accordingly, the abiding problem in modern criticism is how to understand what it is for art to be “serious” or to be worthy of taking seriously (something Reynolds gestures at with his juxtaposition between music as “décor for life” and music as a source of living conviction). Pop is one of the best examples of this problem because of its ubiquity. Over and above the common sense point that people are less likely to invest emotionally in something they can have with minimal effort and at almost no cost, the saturation of waking life with pop (via television, radio, advertisements, the internet, iPods, ringtones, etc.) smothers it beneath the forces of familiarity, habit and banality. For someone like Reynolds, who’s spent his life immersed in pop and its assortments, the question of how to justify all that vanished time will weigh heavier, but the basic anxiety can’t be uncommon. What does all this stuff matter?
Retromania testifies to an unprecedented difficulty in constructing answers to that question—not a failure of enjoyment per se, but something more like a failure of expression, a breakdown in significance. As we’ve seen, the deluge of retro coincides with the decay of all sorts of old dialects (to do with opposition, identity, rebellion, change) that were essential to expressing what pop might stand for. These venerable ways of speaking no longer “fit” in the right manner. But instead of new exchanges coming to take their place we confront a widespread failure-to-impart. You can see this dynamic in microcosm in Reynolds’s observation that the most dispiriting thing about retro-pop isn’t that it belongs to the past but that its period sheen conceals a fundamental lack of attachment. This stuff doesn’t really “belong” anywhere, being more like a pseudo-image of the past than an artifact with any real historical content (but, for that very reason, also something that isn’t quite at home in the present). Likewise, the abstractions and dissolutions involved in the concepts of “post-historical” or “post-geographical” pop create serious obstacles to expression, seeming to herald the unsustainability of old conversations without promising the advent of fresh ones. All of this lends itself to a peculiar type of voicelessness—either because pop signifies much less than it used to or because what it now signifies is extremely difficult to talk about. Tellingly, Reynolds observes that the characteristic sign of modernist art is that it challenges critics to come up with new concepts and terminologies to describe it, whereas under retromania criticism is condemned to rehash old conversations or to drop into listless cycles of self-questioning. What Retromania is “about,” at its core, is a radical loss of things to say. It is in that sense a work of critical mourning, of mourning for the work of criticism, and for a world in which it was self-evident that pop could absorb and reward the critic’s attention.
But it would be a mistake to think of this as representing a problem only for a certain kind of writer. Criticism is, in the end, just the most refined and fully realized way of talking about art, which is to say that where critics have trouble finding things to say it tends to indicate a more common loss of voice. As such, thinking about how retromania affects pop criticism is a good way of thinking about how retromania affects you, because what it illustrates is the sense in which communication (or the possibility of communication) has been stifled, the general impoverishment of the conversation in and around pop music. This dynamic doesn’t make it impossible to enjoy pop, or to be moved by it, or to attach deep personal significance to a piece of music, but nor does it leave those experiences untouched. Most obviously, pop’s ability to act as a vehicle for collective expression and unity is drastically reduced. So whereas formerly the music you liked might give you access to a segment of history (Nirvana could be a source of collective identity as well as the latest manifestation in the continuum of rock), more often today the music you like is simply the music you like. But an excess of privacy ultimately leads to the impression that what you do (or are) doesn’t matter, and even intensely personal responses to art can lose something if they elude communication completely, insidiously feeding the sensation that these things you experience and value so centrally are somehow groundless or insignificant or lonely. The fear it summons is exactly what Zizek latched onto with his remark that “culture” stands for the things we do without really believing in them—that all of these pleasures meant to add excitement and definition to our existence are somehow failures, in reality serving only to protect an illusion of movement and color.
My impression is that a very large part of what distresses Reynolds when he talks about retro and the disintensification of pop is that, in the end, these developments mean that pop gives a person less to show for the passage of time. The diminishment of critical “voice” is one way in which this manifests itself, but hardly the only one. “Music is conventionally regarded as the soundtrack to a life,” Reynolds notes; “the favorite song as a commemoration, a Proustian trigger that sets you adrift on memory bliss.” For the majority of us, music is the art that most thoroughly and powerfully mediates our sense of the past—both historically (the most efficient way of evoking period mood is through music) and personally. Music is a memory-weave: a trigger and a pathway to bygone time. And yet one of the most disconcerting things about retromania is that pop, the dominant music of our society, no longer conveys the movement of time in the same way. Rather than progressing through distinct periodic shifts, hyper-static culture presents an endless, homogenous churn of everything there ever was. So while personal memory and pop might still entwine, in a sense the memories record less, because they’re tied to a medium that doesn’t mark change. Perhaps the most straightforward reading of the various critical banners Reynolds unfurls (in favor of intensity, potency, commitment) is that they embody a desire to disrupt the quotidian, to not let time slip away unmarked or uncolored. Which is another reason why retro feels so fundamentally shameful, even repellent: because it suppresses pop’s capacity to demark and define experience. The anguish Retromania betrays is the anguish of memory loss or oblivion—the fear of time (our life) disappearing without a trace.
As he finishes, Reynolds reaffirms his belief that pop is still capable of the shocks it once supplied. His final line is a declaration of optimism: “I still believe the future is out there.” But it is extremely hard to know what to make of this. How can you maintain a modernist imperative to change in a situation in which change feels unimaginable? What sort of programmatic response could be given to retromania if, as it seems, the phenomenon is bound up with enormous technological and cultural shifts that couldn’t be undone even if we wished them to be? The future Reynolds believes in seems to be just another abstraction—“post-now,” inconceivable in its specifics.
But then maybe the point is just to hold on to the ideal, even in the abstract. Perhaps this is all Retromania can plausibly offer: a defense against a certain type of fatalism, which doubles as an exercise in remembering. Pop really did do these things: possessed, inspired, ignited and transformed on a mass scale. To maintain a belief in the (artistic) future—even just as an empty category—is a means of preserving the memory of desire, of reminding oneself what pop could be, because it once was. The principle then is not to reverse time but to make it reappear, as a past that had substance and a tomorrow with possibility. To resist, in other words, retro’s anaesthetic.
The viability of this mission is an open question and the impasses it seems to run into are formidable. Nonetheless it has the virtue of illuminating something valuable, which is simply the importance of not mistaking what’s apparent now for what’s possible. That may appear to be rather a thin substitute for the brilliant bursts of modernist enthusiasm Reynolds evokes. Yet insofar as that old excitement still holds an allure for us today, surely a huge part of the reason is that such music took itself to be more than just art; that it seemed to require itself to be more in order to qualify as art at all. (Compare that to the malaise of “culture” in Zizek’s sense: art that lacks affect precisely because we can’t see it as anything else.) If there is a route through the conceptual deadlock with which Retromania concludes, it may well be that this is the kind of question we should ask: In what ways can we imagine music—or any art—exceeding itself today? What is so imposing is the sense one sometimes has that we would need to re-equip or retrain our imaginations before we could answer.
- 1 Note: what counts as “pop music” isn’t clearly defined and needn’t correspond to music that’s actually popular. For the purposes of this essay I have a very catholic sense of the term in mind: pop as comprising roughly (but not exclusively) any sort of electrified, rhythm-heavy music from the last sixty years or so that includes some element of mass appeal (e.g. rock, disco, reggae, heavy metal, dance, hip-hop, electronica, etc.). It might be best to define pop music negatively—as not-jazz, not-classical, not-traditional—although inevitably those boundaries are themselves imprecise. Essentially, I’m trusting you to know the sort of thing I mean.↵
- 2 In an interview with The A.V. Club, Reynolds commented: “You can date the beginning of the non-appearance of [new musical] movements almost precisely to when the internet becomes a major force in music culture. As soon as that really starts to take hold as being the major means through which fans talk to each other and everything else that came with the internet, it’s almost from that point onwards that there’ve been no movements on the scale of hip-hop and rave.” Lanier offers more of a theory for this connection. The problem as he conceives it is a combination of technological “lock-in” (MIDI, a tool invented in the Eighties to represent musical notes in software, is now an almost universal and practically unavoidable component of digital music technology—the trouble being that this confines digitized music to a certain range of pre-established possibilities) and more generally the fact that digital aesthetic technology is predisposed to fragmentation and copying, meaning that as digitization has spread so too has derivative, “second-order” culture.↵
- 3 This quote is from “Excess All Areas,” a sister-essay to Retromania published in The Wire #328.↵
- 4 Two terms that occur over and over in conversations about culture in the last decade are “post-historical” and “post-geographical.” For example, Reynolds cites the concept of “Fifth World Music” as a possible name for the mash of transworld/time-hopping pop made using modern digital tools (the term itself is derivative, an exaggeration of Jon Hassell’s concept of “Fourth World Music,” which described a similarly omnivorous, if less generalized, style in the Eighties). It denotes an aesthetic of maximalist indeterminacy that perhaps comes closest to passing for a distinct strain in recent pop—a style that is really just the clearest manifestation of the dissolve-and-merge effects of the internet. But even if you were prepared to call this hyper-blend a genuinely unique form of modern pop, it is worth noting how it’s defined by a lack of particulars, a blankness-at-heart. Indeed, the notion of “post-geographical” or “post-historical” categories of art remains in some essential ways hard to credit, since (surely) artists and audiences alike must still be located somewhere in time and space, no matter how far the internet allows their attention to travel. Like “postmodernism” itself, the concepts seem at once apt and rather empty. Certainly they indicate something real, but they’re also principally words for non-states (ones “beyond” modernism, history, geography), curiously mute about what contemporary culture is in the positive sense. It’s a linguistic failing that perhaps indicates something oddly void about the present—as if describing our moment in history required thoughts we are not quite capable of forming.↵