Retromania, by Simon Reynolds
Why is our popular music--our popular culture, really--so obsessed with old artists, old genres, and old styles? Why did the last decade see so many dramatic innovations in the technology we use to listen to music, and so few in the music most of us listened to? At what point did the past begin to crowd out both the present and the future?
Music critic Simon Reynolds grapples with these questions in Retromania, and the result is one of the most brilliant works of criticism I've read in a long time. Reynolds's work builds on both his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of pop music and his sharp analysis of the material basis of music culture, weighing in on everything from the microeconomies of record collector culture to the eternal memory of YouTube. His style is sprightly and engaging, filled with doubt and self-examination and yet still willing to make bold conclusions. His arguments are authoritative, provocative, and always insightful.
They are also disturbingly familiar to any fan of comics, science fiction, or any other part of that increasingly aggregated set of consumer preferences known as "geek culture."
Take this passage, for example, on how the instant accessibility of the iPod has changed our relationship to music, devaluing it through its own ubiquity:
When I read that I was immediately reminded of this Dorian Wright post on Steven Moffat's Doctor Who:
The shuffle function seems particularly telling: eliminating the need for choice, yet guaranteeing familiarity, it relieves you of the burden of desire itself. And that's what all these digital-era music technologies propose: pop without fandom. This is exactly the kind of consumer - omnivorous, non-partisan, promiscuously eclectic, drifting indolently across the sea of commodified sound - that the music industry prefers.
...the people in charge of the show aren’t interested in people who are Doctor Who fans, they’re interested in people who are fans. Full stop. People who are, essentially fans of…being fans. Who just like to be into…things. Because it’s a thing, and God help you if you’re not into it. They want to please that mercurial, fickle, transitory audience that watches an episode and immediately floods the internet with animated gifs and posts on Twitter and Tumblr about their 'feels' about the show and who communicate with one another entirely in references to pop culture ephemera, like that really shitty Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, only with jokes about bronies and t-shirts mashing up Dexter and Game of Thrones.
...mash-ups almost always work with the well-known, things you already love or at least recognise. There is no creation of surplus value, musically: even at their very best they only add up to the sum of their parts. The bonus element is conceptual: the wit of an incongruous juxtaposition, making musicians from entirely different walks of pop life talk to each other. Mash-ups therefore have the shelf life of a wisecrack.
People came up with all kinds of interpretations of the mash-up fad, mostly modelled on punk ideas: pop consumers fight back by seizing the means of production and doing it themselves; or the mash-up as throw-up, a retaliatory regurgitation of all the pop music force-fed down our throats. Ultimately, though, it all seemed more like pseudo-creativity based on a blend of mild irreverence and simple pop fandom: we like these records, let's try to double our pleasure by sticking them together.
Andrew Hickey, in a post that springboards off Wright's:
The thinking behind it is precisely the same thinking that is used in every shitty image macro you’ve ever seen, a sort of post-postmodernism for cretins. Take two symbols of “awesome” and bash them together, and generate something more “awesome”. It’s the postmodern technique of collaging signifiers divorced from their context, but with the difference that you must show absolutely no interest whatsoever in investigating any ideas that this juxtaposition might inspire.
[...] The logic of surrealism is not that far from the logic of the tumblr meme, after all — put two familiar things, like a lobster and a telephone, together and see what kind of interference pattern results in our mind.
But the choices in this series are from what seems to be a pre-approved list of “awesome” stuff. Film noir detectives and time travel, dinosaurs and spaceships, cyborgs and cowboys, Daleks and ballerinas. The kind of combuination that only the most tediously unimaginative person could ever possibly think was original. No doubt next year we’ll have cats with lasers (inspiring jokes about how now it’s them with the laser pointer), monkeys riding unicorns, pirates eating bacon, and steampunk lesbian sumo wrestlers teaming up with Sherlock Holmes.
Swap out "sumo wrestlers" for "ninjas" and that last one more or less happened. But let's not single out the Doctor Who fans; Andrew and Dorian are describing symptoms, and Reynolds is drilling down to causes. The specific technology that facilitates this endless recombination of influences might vary from medium to medium, but Reynolds's observations apply to any contemporary fandom in any pop culture industry.
Those observations aren't always negative. I can't read his description of the artist as portal ("the way a certain type of band directed their fans to rich sources of brain food, a whole universe of inspiration and ideas beyond music") without thinking of Grant Morrison. Yet neither can I read this...
Musicians glutted with influences and inputs almost inevitably make clotted music: rich and potent on some levels, but ultimately fatiguing and bewildering for most listeners.
...without thinking of Final Crisis. (Feel free to substitute your own least favorite project by Morrison or Alan Moore or any other creator who's become captured by pop culture's bottomless past.)
The last chapter of Retromania is the most ambitious and the most revealing. That's where Reynolds attempts to explain why twenty-first century popular music has been so obsessed with re-creating its own past, and damned if he doesn't pull it off. This chapter reaches outside music culture, and outside culture more broadly, to look at the larger historical and economic trends that fueled retromania. I could quote almost any random page in that chapter and find some passage of penetrating insight--I'm particularly fond of his observation that our musical culture has mirrored the Western economies' shift from the production of goods to the recirculation and manipulation of information, with all of the decadent luxuriating in speculation/signification that implies--but I'll leave you with this one instead, a cautionary tale for any comics critic or scholar:
But it is now pretty clear that pop is living on borrowed time and stolen energy, the deposits laid down in its generative prime. If you look closely at the language used by contemporary critics and fans, or at the rationalisations of the music's creators, you will find a lattice of references to predecessor artists and earlier genres, intricate breakdowns of historical sources and components. [...] In contrast, the telltale sign of genuinely modernist music is the pressure it puts on writers to come up with new language and new concepts.
Reynolds notes that some scholars and critics have tried to coin new phrases and concepts that both describe and defend the culture of the remake. But those terms ("superhybridity," "postproduction") are themselves nothing more than rehashes and mash-ups of older terms, cognates of "postmodernism" that deny they are cognates of postmodernism. The concepts become proof of their own counterarguments,
wishful attempts to see a New Era on the horizon that aren't fully convincing. That said, the emergence of these concepts does suggest that we are quite deep into a phase of anything-goes, guiltless appropriation, a free-for-all of asset-stripping that ranges all over the globe and all across the span of human history.
Where have I heard that before?
Perhaps, Agent Helligan, when a civilization reaches its peak, there comes a time of harvest, let’s say. After the ripening comes inevitable decay. With predictable and grim implications for your own civilization.