The pop music critic Simon Reynolds marches to the beat of his own synthesizer. This literate, romantic, clever writer has devoted his career to analyzing post-punk, techno-rave, and ambient electronic music. He deftly deploys a scholar’s tactics (including the occasional dip into affable pedantry and references to Derrida and Walter Benjamin) in order to understand more profoundly musical groups called Throbbing Gristle, the Cramps, and Echo & the Bunnymen.
We’ve had four decades to get used to the tools of literary analysis mobilized to explicate cultural artifacts from pornography to landfills. But it’s still amusing to see in an index “Barnes, Julian” and “Barthes, Roland” sitting comfortably across the binding from “Checker, Chubby.”
Despite his learning and expansive curiosity, Reynolds is not fundamentally a cultural critic, scrutinizing phenomena to illuminate larger societal truths. He is not the anthropologist who resolves cultural hierarchies through the study of lunch menus. He is a critic of music, primarily engaged with the music itself: what it sounds like, what it’s made of, where it comes from, and, especially here, where it’s going (or not going). He and, in fact, millions of others take Echo & the Bunnymen very seriously.
I, too, take seriously the power and glory of popular music, including the stylings of Checker, Chubby; Pickett, Wilson; Slick, Grace; Nelson, Willie; and Ramone, Joey. But when Reynolds laments what he sees as the present aridity of pop music, his preoccupation is almost always with style and almost never with content. He recognizes aesthetic torpor but is blind to moral turpitude. He speaks of decline without seeming to have noticed the saddest change in pop music over the past decades: It’s not for kids anymore. It’s for gangstas and intellectuals and hipster virtuosi like the 48-year-old Reynolds. Here is the decline Reynolds has missed entirely: 1963—“I Want to Hold Your Hand”; 1996—“Put It in Your Mouth.”
In Retromania, Reynolds’s main thesis (and complaint) is that, in the past decade, pop music has become moribund. “Once upon a time, pop’s metabolism buzzed with dynamic energy, creating the surging-into-the-future feel of periods like the psychedelic sixties, the post-punk seventies, the hip-hop eighties, and the rave nineties. The 2000s felt different.” What alarms Reynolds is not that music went nowhere in the 2000s; it’s that it went backwards. “Instead of being the threshold to the future, the first ten years of the twenty-first century turned out to be the ‘Re’ Decade.” Remakes, revivals, reissues, reenactments.
Reynolds acknowledges that these backward-looking phenomena are not new; there have always been crazes for past periods. This time it’s different, though, because this time, as Peggy Lee might say, that’s all there is. Elderly rock bands are not just regrouping, but staging concerts in which they re-enact, song by song, their most famous albums. Tribute and cover albums are not so much homages as painstakingly literal reproductions. But even more curious and (for Reynolds) distressing is the contraction of the time between “then” and “now.”
Nostalgia is at least as old as Adam and Eve, who had more reason than most to yearn for the good old days. Reynolds takes great pains to distinguish between nostalgia and retro-mania. Nostalgia, he explains, “as both word and concept was invented in the seventeenth century by the physician Johannes Hofer to describe a condition afflicting Swiss mercenaries on long tours of military duty.” This “ache of displacement” soon began to refer to temporal rather than physical distance, the result of technologies (trains, planes, automobiles, telephones) that compress physical distance while simultaneously making the past quaint or even alien.
Retromania differs from nostalgia—and is unique to our current age—in that our society is the first in human history “so obsessed with the cultural artifacts of its own immediate past.” Retro-maniacs long not for the good old days but for yesterday—indeed, for this morning: “As the 2000s proceeded, the interval between something happening and its being revisited seemed to shrink insidiously.”
The shrinking of this interval is largely a result, Reynolds argues, of recent, fiercely rapid advances in media technology. The primacy of the Internet with all its roads leading to instant gratification—Facebook, YouTube, Skype, Amazon, iTunes—combined with the development of compressed MP3 files (which allow a tiny iPod to hoard thousands of songs) has transformed the consumer into a glutton. At his fingertips is a promiscuous feast of a half-century of pop culture, especially music.