10 July 2011

On 'Retromania' by Simon Reynolds

Simon Reynolds’s “Retromania” has really got to me. Its thesis is that we’ve entered a stage of pop music where nothing new really happens. The period of pop’s primary production is over: we’re just pick and mixing from the vast repository of old music. Now, its an argument that’s been made before, but up until now its force hadn’t really hit me.

I’ve always had a split head & heart approach to pop music. My head is always looking for the spark of the new, and values singularity. My head loved My Bloody Valentine for sounding like nothing on earth prior to it. When I first heard Paid in Full by Eric B and Rakim, or the various Colourbox and MARRs records, I thought: blimey, where did that come from? My heart doesn’t really care about newness & singularity, it is looking for an emotional connection wherever it can find it. Sometimes my head & my heart are in agreement – but I can only actually think of Bjork’s best work (e.g. Pagan Poetry) as examples of music where innovation and emotion get blissfully conjoined.

Reynolds briefly mentions the old Harold Bloom literary criticism thesis: that each generation of poets must triumph in a Freudian battle with their key predecessor in order to find their own distinctive voice, and, unlike the weaker new poets, stop ventriloquising their ancestors. As Reynolds’s excellent book on post-punk points out, that generation could define itself against punk, its key predecessor, and rebel against the old rebellion (by ditching guitars or wearing suits, or adopting complex intellectual positions). Trouble is, with contemporary music makers, there is no key predecessor. The whole of popular music is resting on their shoulders, the vast internet archive of wonderful and terrible and just plain ordinary music. Who do you react against, in this cacophony of music. Like the weak poet of Bloom’s theory, there appears to be little option but to ventriloquise.

Its probably the political implications of retromania that are most disconcerting. Here we are, a generation of passive consumers, kept contented by access to a vast museum of musical memories that used to signify, among other things, rebellion and invention.
I’m now looking at all the music I love at the moment, and trying to detect in it the spark of something new. Joanna Newsome is definitely singular (too singular for me some of the time), and there’s clearly a kind of innovation at work – but there is also a deliberate refusal of modernity, a harking back to an earlier, unsullied version of America. Same with Bill Callahan – singular indeed, but musically he’s consolidating old ground. Metronomy: ah, now they’re interesting. Packed with echoes of past electronic music (from Kraftwerk to Japan to drum n’bass), the Metronomy album still pulls off the trick of sounding like it could only have been recorded in 2011. So maybe there is some faint hope of escaping or transcending the gravity-like pull of the past.

And it may be that Reynolds, like me, is just missing something. We’ve grown up with pop music as something that develops in a linear way. We expect things to keep changing. Probably, we were just lucky to grown up when we did. And we may just be the latest generational incarnation of the old codger: sections of Retromania have the same codgerist tendencies as some of my own posts. We both look back fondly to the appalling musical diet of old-style Radio One as the Second World War generation looked back to rationing.
I guess for the bulk of human history, musical innovation has not been a constant. Technological innovation has always driven popular music on (the electric guitar, the synthesiser, the sampler), as has migration. Seems to me that the implications of the globalisation of music haven’t been fully realised – that process may homogenise the music of the world, or it may produce unexpected hybridisation, or both. Something thrilling will emerge eventually. Perhaps the grand narratives of pop music are over. Maybe the changes will be incremental, almost imperceptible. And maybe I’m getting too old to notice.. Now, do I listen to Tim Buckley, or the Human League? Decisions, decisions…