The Magazine

Back Beat

Pop music settles comfortably into Oldies idolatry.

Jun 11, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 37 • By ALEC SOLOMITA
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The ability to “access the immediate past so easily and so copiously” resulted in an aesthetic logjam for a whole generation. For Reynolds, the easy availability of the past is stealing the present and future. Young musicians saturated in the work of their predecessors can hardly plunk out an original melody. And worse, they don’t want to. They are happy to hit rewind instead of fast forward: “Too often with new young bands, beneath their taut skin and rosy cheeks you could detect the sagging grey flesh of old ideas.” Young performers mix and match, splice and sample, borrow and steal, even imitating the ambient noises associated with old sound studios, vinyl, cassettes, even eight-track tapes. Past is not just prologue; it is prologue, epilogue, and everything in between.

Reynolds is especially eloquent about the omnipresent iPod, which he dislikes and dubs “an emblem of the poverty of abundance.” Moreover, “Even as it abolishes record collecting in the traditional sense, the iPod represents the ultimate extension of its mindset: the compulsion to hunt, stockpile and endlessly reorganise.” The iPod, which you can program yourself, eliminates surprise and discovery. The ancient joy of sitting on a beach with your transistor radio and hearing “Palisades Park” for the first time has vanished, along with the innocence of the teenage years themselves.

Reynolds is almost childlike in his excitement about music, and this fervor is attractive. But our pleasure in his zeal and insights can distract us from the often troubling content of his discussion. And it is the content that gives us the key to the central dilemma. I fear for the soul of the nation when I read phrases and sentences he tosses off with ease. His nostalgia for the sixties is unwittingly droll: Citing J. G. Ballard, he writes longingly of “assassinations, Vietnam, LSD.” And how he misses the nineties, the ecstasy decade! “The nineties felt like this long, sustained ascent, what with the Internet and the info-tech boom, techno rave and its associated drugs. But the 2000s turned out to be a plateau.” To describe the mind-numbing, night-rallying, frantically technological nineties as an ascent suggests that more than his altimeter is a little off.

Some of Reynolds’s cavalier utterances betray an almost comical benightedness:

The absurdist mysticism that runs through this scene reminds me of the movie Slacker .  .  . and specifically of the character played by Butthole Surfers drummer Teresa Nervosa, who accosts people in the street and tries to sell them what she claims is Madonna’s pap smear (complete with actual Ciccone pube).

There is more to recoil from in this one sentence than in the entire oeuvre of Bret Easton Ellis. 

The real problem, as Reynolds’s nonchalance creepily illustrates, is decadence. He misses this essential point, approaching it only occasionally and glancingly. Pop culture has reached the very bottom of the slippery slope, where most of the country capers in the muck. Retromania is not a looking back but a looking up from whence we have descended. It’s not only the autopsies on TV, The View, sex toy demonstrations in college classrooms, hit songs called “N*****s in Paris.” It’s not only albums like Joyless Pleasure by the Horrorist, one of Reynolds’s “best albums of 2011,” a droning, humorless, compulsively repetitive succession of dirges. Reynolds sees that it is the astonishing ascendancy of the Internet that has accelerated and disseminated pop culture trends. What he stops short of seeing—or saying—is that these trends are too often ugly and destructive, and that the web has, in a decade, toppled us head over heels into ordure.

Marshall McLuhan predicted the global village that the Internet has brought into being. But who could have foreseen the profusion of village idiots? The debasing of our discourse has been as irreversible as a tidal wave. Opinions that used to be pronounced in barbershops and hair salons, whispered in the dark daytime bar on the corner, chuckled over at the water cooler, or kept hidden in the twisted hearts of silent men and women have become our daily bread. The Internet has, before we even knew it, robbed us of innocence, privacy, intimacy, mystery, dignity, and civility.