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.
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.
Every ignorant, illiterate rant by every resentful, rageful misanthrope is practically unavoidable on the web. On almost every page are grotesqueries of misshapen faces, bodies digitally contorted to catch our attention to this or that product or service, images that cheapen the human condition. And on YouTube, amidst the cloying, staged “spontaneous” hymns to the phony resilience of the disappearing human spirit, are teenagers grinding, animals defecating, people spitting, screaming, spewing strange hates and perverse loves. As bad as they often were, the old days were better. Is it any wonder that so many of us look back in longing?
Alec Solomita is a writer in Boston.