Simon Reynolds is a music critic whose seventh book, Retromania, was published in 2011. Reynolds’s first book, Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock (1990), celebrated late-Eighties underground rock and neo-psychedelia. He has since 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; 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. Since 2002, Reynolds has also maintained an informal blog, Blissblog.
This interview, conducted over email by Point contributor Ben Jeffery, grew out of Ben’s essay for issue 6 on Reynolds, retromania and music criticism. A short excerpt from “Out with the New: Simon Reynolds’s Retromania” can be read here. To read the rest, please subscribe to issue 6 or look for The Point at your local independent bookstore.
Ben Jeffery: In the introduction to Rip It Up and Start Again (2005) you write: “As a rock critic, when you reach a certain age, you begin to wonder if all this mental and emotional energy you’ve invested in this music thing was really such a shrewd move.” That book—a chronicle of the post-punk scene that inspired you to take pop so seriously in the first place—also ended on a note of profound doubt: “All this looking to music for answers … was all that just a waste of energy that could and should have been spent on something ‘worthwhile’? I still don’t know.”
Although you never return to those doubts explicitly in Retromania, while I was reading the book I had the strong impression that, in latent form, the same kinds of thoughts are running through the entire thing—an anxiety that’s partly personal but that also encompasses more general concerns about what the work of music writing can accomplish. I wanted to ask to what extent you thought that impression was correct.
Simon Reynolds: I’m going to take an indirect route to answering that.
Re whether taking rock so seriously was a waste of time, or a diversion of an energy …. as well as what was going on in my own life and reaching a certain age, I was probably influenced here by the debates taking place during the 2000s concerning the role and purpose of music criticism, and the right way of doing it. I’m referring here to the rockism debate, most of which went on in the early 2000s (so maybe you missed it) but it stretched far and wide, going from blogs and places like ILM right through the pages of the New York Times and the New Yorker.
Underlying these debates I think was a loss of faith in concepts like “importance,” “significance,” “relevance,” and the question of how do we proceed without those concepts. Consciously or not, people seemed to be trying to work out whether such metrics for valuing music were still sustainable. Some believed that we’d all be better off abandoning such concepts altogether, along with the pomposity and bombast that often accompanied the claims made in their name.
Various other approaches have taken over from the “big claims” approach, while still retaining a vague aura of seriousness. One that has become widespread is a formalist, close description mode that is scrupulous and takes a lot of care but shies away from claims of big and wide significance (wide meaning here an assumption that it’s of interest to the general public). A critic using this approach will discuss the piece of music as a unit of pleasure, or in terms of its success or achievement within the terms of its genre; but it won’t judge the terms themselves, or move to a larger argument about what music is worth or what its purpose is. You’re not supposed to dismiss whole genres of music, or be overly partisan and patriotic about one in particular. You might prefer certain genres but you don’t assume there’s significance to that preference. Ideally you’d be open to the competing pleasures and formal achievement of as many genres as you can. You avoid the first person plural, the “we” of rockist discourse, and see the breakdown of the monoculture (which increasingly is felt never to have existed, to have been a myth) as a positive development.
That kind of omnivorous listener model shades into a more official, “responsible” mode, sometimes known as “generalism.” A professionalized open-mindedness that’s the default setting of the chief reviewer of pop releases at newspapers. This is really a kind of weak rockism, a muted rockism: importance still exists in a sort of faint, non-urgent way, but not such that it could be the source of belief or partisanship (at least not for the generalist reviewer, who must levitate above the fray). The mode is judicious but not judgmental. There’s often some quasi-sociological second-guessing of what a music might be signifying to its particular audience/taste market (who are presumed to be believers, prejudiced in the genre’s favor and against other genres).
“Important” is a drab, stodgy word, but the basic idea is that something is going on here that is more than just enjoyment or entertainment. The function of these concepts (importance, significance, relevance) is to create a sense of urgency and consequentiality. It’s a rhetorical tool: wielding those kinds of words, those kinds of arguments, enables the critic to insist that a.) you must pay attention to this and b.) you should ignore this other stuff (it’s trivial, inane, fails against a given metric, etc).
This slow and steady fading of “importance” as a property that can be imputed to music has led to hemorrhaging of rhetorical and suasional power from music writing. Rarely do you read a piece where you get the sense that the writer is urgently trying to persuade/dissuade. Writers want to impress, for sure, to be clever and stylish and in some sense accurate (in terms of description or of situating the music in the scheme of things, or of music history). You might get a sense that something is “interesting” but rarely a sense of belief that any of this really matters, and that you’d be missing out on something crucial if you ignored it.
In your essay, you talk about cultural weightlessness and that does seem to be a feeling with a lot of the pastiche music around: meta-music, music about other music, music that is a conscientious replica of music from periods when music was embedded in History and society. As a broad cultural condition, “retromania” seems to be eroding the bases upon which seriousness has hitherto been sustained. If music is becoming just-music—units of enjoyment and pleasure in a landscape overflowing with abundance and choice—then criticism as a discourse of truth, as a mode of judgment that has an ethical charge, no longer makes sense.
BJ: Do you feel as if your ideas about your work have changed much between starting Rip it Up and finishing Retromania?
SR: Not particularly. My early writing in Blissed Out and Energy Flash often has rhetoric aimed against rockthink (in Blissed Out I’m critiquing an approach to rock that’s overly focused on lyrical meaning, statements, songs as quasi-literature, or the idea that music should have redeeming social value; in Energy Flash, I take issue with various rock misunderstandings of how dance cultures work). But when I was writing Rip It Up I was feeling my way back to a rapprochement with rockism, basically through seeing what the implications of the anti-rockist arguments ultimately were (music as entertainment). Doing Rip It Up I began to realize that postpunk, while it was the era that invented the concept of rockism as a thing to be critiqued and resisted, ultimately had far more in common with Sixties values than it did with today’s celebrant-apologists for a “like rock never happened” world. And the things I’ve really believed in since postpunk—like rave—again had a lot in common with Sixties notions like innovation, “underground,” etc. Retromania is partly a requiem for the Analogue System, and the kind of affects and intensities and convergences of energy that were possible under that system, along with a particular sense of time. The Digital System has taken over now, it has different possibilities and different problems; we’re still waiting to see what emerges from the wreckage of the analogue era.
BJ: But in the more personal sense—do you think you came any closer to answering the question that finished Rip It Up?
SR: I’ll try and keep it short this time. In a word, no.
And I expect I’ll be wrestling with this question of belief—whether rock and the discourse around it (which encompasses a lot more things than rock as a style of music) is something that can still sustain belief. Or should ever have sustained it.
A lot of people seem to feel it ought to be jettisoned, and jettisoned retroactively too, so that even the mythic periods of history (the Sixties, punk, etc) get revealed as illusions. The mobilizations of faith and allegiance and hope they set in motion are increasingly seen as setting up excessive expectations of what music can do or be.
Getting rid of this whole idea of music as a movement, a cause, as more than just music, would free us up to just enjoy music. That’s something that the technology we use—iPod shuffle, Spotify, satellite radio, regular radio even—is accomplishing for us anyway, whether we like it or not.
BJ: It’s funny, though, how ineradicable that impulse to believe seems to be in practice, even when, as you say, there isn’t a great deal in the culture that encourages it. James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem and DFA Records is someone you’ve interviewed a few times. He strikes me as one of the closest things there’s been to a true zeitgeist figure in pop music in the last decade (although, obviously, on nothing like the scale of a Hendrix or a Bowie). Here’s a guy whose music is very, very finely balanced between the desire to just forget everything and have fun and the fear of being completely paralyzed by historical consciousness. He’s also an emblem of something else you’ve written about before: the “critic-ization” of musicians—where increasingly we find artists taking it upon themselves to theorize, interpret and classify their own music almost as fast as they produce it (a phenomenon in the arts that’s not confined to pop music by any means).
But anyway, what’s remarkable to me about Murphy and LCD Soundsystem is how much “old-fashioned” faith and affection they inspired all the same. I recently caught Shut Up and Play the Hits (2012), the film of their final show in Madison Square Garden. It’s not a great movie in some respects, but what is great about it is how much uncomplicated enthusiasm you can see communicated between the band and the audience. Pitchfork dedicated an entire week of coverage to LCD Soundsystem in the run up to that show (a unique occurrence in the site’s history, as far as I know). So what emerges is that this music, which in so many ways is the very embodiment of irony and self-consciousness and the after-the-gold-rush feeling in pop, has nonetheless been made into a sincere object of love for a lot of people. It’s a strange thing.
Yes, LCD Soundsystem did become a real phenomenon, you’re right.
I’ve only seen the group live once. It was quite early on: they had only done one or two singles, and I’m not even sure why I went—I found “Losing My Edge” amusing but it seemed like a novelty song. Anyway I went to see them at the Bowery Ballroom in New York, with no expectations at all, and I was totally blown away. There was a seriousness of intent that was palpable, and an attack to the sound that I hadn’t expected. It felt like it was coming from the same place as the Stooges or the Sex Pistols, that “we mean it, maaaaan” place. Then later I did a profile of DFA for the Village Voice and wrote up a longer version of it with some extra interview chat with James Murphy added for a German magazine. And when I brought up Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, I was startled because Murphy got very excited and was like, “I talk about this shit all the time.” So totally the artist-as-critic.
So maybe what people respond to, as you say, is Murphy’s conflictedness: the combination of this desire to signify and to make real waves versus the unavoidable irony imposed by all this accumulated historical knowledge, something that you’d really like to shed but is too deeply entwined into the fabric of your sensibility, and too enjoyable really, as well, to give up, as a mode of processing culture. It’s like a retro-era version of something age-old, which is the intellectual who would like to be stupid, or at least thoughtless, unselfconscious. (The kind of relationship Bowie had towards Iggy Pop, “I wish I could be that primal.”)
You get a similar kind of conflicted thing with Ariel Pink actually. I saw him play the Fonda Theater here in LA a few months ago and it was in some ways quite an unpleasant gig: the sound seemed deliberately off and harsh, except that every so often they’d do a perfectly clear, pretty version of one song or another, and Ariel came over real tetchy, almost having these hissy fits with the audience. He was putting all these effects on his vocals and every so often would literally hiss and snarl at us like a cat arching its back. Like he genuinely disliked the audience, even the fact of having an audience at all, yet he needed one. Anyway the burden of accumulated historical knowledge aspect was that at one point near the end he says, “This is Winterland, 1978. Throbbing Gristle at Kezar Pavilion, 1981.” In other words, this is the last ever Ariel Pink and the Haunted Graffiti show. But who knows, maybe he just wanted to create, or get back from the audience, the sense of event, as opposed to just another show. But what a rock historical scholarly way of indicating it! But the sour edge to the sound and the performance definitely made it more memorable than if it had been just a well-executed version of the new album plus some oldies.
But going back to LCD and James Murphy, I have to say, it’s only the first album that means anything to me. Whereas the cult following seems even more about the next two records and especially “All My Friends.” I’m not sure I even listened to the last one. Really it was the first album and especially songs like “Movement” that really connected with me. In fact now I think about it, writing about LCD Soundsystem is one of the things that paved the way for Retromania. That and loving Ariel Pink’s The Doldrums and Worn Copy and trying to work out why it wasn’t mere pastiche.
I’ve just now been listening to Lonerism, that Tame Impala album that everyone thinks is one of the best records of the year. And it is a glorious sounding record. But I think one of the big problems in music is when you get major talent, serious ability, that is applied in these throwback directions. I really enjoyed it but I have a suspicion that it will ultimately fall for me just on the wrong side of whatever line Ariel Pink’s Mature Themes is just on the right side of.
BJ: So in practice what do you find yourself hoping for now when you’re scanning new records?
SR: I’m looking to be surprised. Which is not any different from before, really. Surprised, or to have some difficulty in explaining why I like something. Some difficulty in placing it.
BJ: Do you feel more constrained as a critic—has pop become a less satisfying or expressive thing to write about, for you?
SR: Not exactly, but there is a sense of wariness in terms of what can be claimed for anything. Inconsequentiality of some degree or other seems to be the probable destiny for most things I’d be checking out. Which means that however good or amazing they are, there’s a limit to how much they can go into the world and shake things up. Perhaps that kind of effect is not something you should expect from music, most of the time.
BJ: Perhaps. And yet as you’ve said yourself in an odd way it can seem as if pop depends on just that misperception if it’s ever to transcend “just-music.” Meaning it’s only through the belief that what you’re doing can change the world that you ever get something that feels as if it might. But you’re also right that it seems harder and harder to see how that kind of conviction could be sustained now. I think in a way, when you take a big-picture view of pop right now, a big part of what you find is a culture working through the consequences of having an increasingly realistic view of what it can achieve. There is SO MUCH music out there and pop is such a settled component of the leisure industry in so many respects that it would be crazy for an artist to think they can be consequential in any really substantive way. But then the problem is that if you get too fixed in that mindset it’s hard not to start feeling as if what you’re doing is fundamentally anemic.
So it’s like the culture traps you in a double bind: on the one hand there’s this desire for a kind of mad faith in art that seems psychologically untenable in reality, but on the other too much common sense is completely suffocating. And it seems to me that simply part of what it is to be a self-aware pop musician at the moment is to struggle with that dilemma—to know that you can’t expect to be consequential but to also know that something about fully accepting that thought would be fatal. It’s a sort of denial, maybe.
SR: Quite. In some ways the point of anti-rockism is to free the musician from the burden of these excessive expectations. Things that would be a deterrent to actually doing anything.
Postmodernism too has been characterized by Fredric Jameson as a kind of great relaxing—the release of all the tension and anxiety of the modernist project, a massive freeing up of production (yes we can just make stuff without worrying too much about whether it’s original or a bold stride “forward”).
But then making stuff isn’t any kind of absolute good in itself. The world doesn’t need more stuff. Probably content-providers could afford to be discouraged a bit. In some ways these kinds of debates and to-and-fro’s have been part of my mental universe for almost as long as I’ve been thinking about music, an obsessed fanatic for music. When I first started reading the UK music press, punk had already transitioned to post-punk, and within a year post-punk was transitioning to New Pop. And some of the debates at that time, led by people like Paul Morley, concerned this idea of celebrating “the little things”. In other words, throwing off this crippling burden of waiting for “the next Clash,” or “the next Joy Division,” and instead enjoying the multiplicity of pleasures available, including groups that were intentionally much lighter and more trivial, such as Altered Images. (No diss on Altered Images, who I loved.) Morley and his allies were identified with New Pop and Anti-Rockism. But then you had your diehard rockists who still wanted a politically engaged, militant rock music (in the mold of the Clash or new-improved-model-Clash the Gang of Four). And you also had what I think of as anti-Anti-Rockists, like Barney Hoskyns, whose stance was “pop is fine, indeed it can be glorious,” but music can be so much more than entertainment: it can be a belief system; it can inspire religious fervor; it can shake things up. So the model for that was the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Stooges (albeit a failure at taking the Dionysian thing to the mass level, but still a world-historical force), and, at that time, modern equivalents in the eyes of these critics would have been the Birthday Party, etc.
At the time I would have been equally persuaded by both viewpoints, but overall, as a writer subsequently, I’ve leaned much more to the “more than entertainment” view.
BJ: What gives you hope for the future in that regard?
SR: I’m encouraged by the unexpected mass popularity of dubstep, or a bastardized form of it (Skrillex). (Hasten to add that “bastardized” is not a negative term in my lexicon, in fact bastardization can be a dynamic that leads to music becoming more intense, extreme, strange, slamming.) There is a sense that there’s been a convergence of popular energy behind Skrillex-type music (and EDM in general) and that it is also a youth-identity-formation phenomenon, a generational thing. So unexpectedly there are signs of life in that very old dog. Although it’s also true that there doesn’t appear to be much content to that energy convergence, beyond a celebration of noise and nowness and “this is our thing.”
And of course pop music still generates mass phenomena. Ke$ha is, or was (the verdict of the populace is still pending on her new one, Warrior) a phenomenon. Lady Gaga assuredly was. I don’t know if Rihanna is but she certainly blankets the entire surface of the pop world. (She seems to want to signify like a Gaga but doesn’t quite get there.)
However the big difference is that pop phenomenon—even when they resonate with the people and encapsulate what they’re feeling in some way (which is what Ke$ha did)—they don’t come from the “people” in the same way that popular styles in the past (hip hop, rave, reggae … rock’n’roll originally) did. A machine exists that develops them and places them in front of the populace and the populace chooses among what has been placed before it. Like the blockbuster movies that are presented every season by Hollywood, some of which take off, and some of which don’t.
As compelling as these mass pop phenomena can sometimes be, they’ve always felt to me to be coming from “outside” and above, whereas the things I’ve been drawn to as a writer in the past have more often felt like I was much more inside and on the same level. A participant, maybe even contributing in some way. The hope was that the phenomenon would take off, or even take over.