One of the most respected music critics working today, Simon Reynolds has been an expert chronicler of trends and movements in post-punk and electronic music since the ’80s, writing definitive historical overviews like 1998’s Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music And Dance Culture and 2005’s Rip It Up And Start Again: Post Punk 1978-1984. For his latest book, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction To Its Own Past, Reynolds goes searching for the future, and wonders why there don’t seem to be any traces of it in a contemporary landscape choked with remnants of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.
Reynolds makes an obvious though still startling conclusion: In an era when aging bands endlessly reissue old albums and younger artists regurgitate their parents’ record collections, nobody seems to be coming up with anything new. While artists kept making great music in the ’00s, the sort of game-changing movements associated with past decades—like punk, hip-hop, or rave—never appeared. One of the central questions of Retromania is whether we’ve simply given up on the “new” in favor of exploring the past, over and over again, via a series of never-ending revivals.
Though mainly concerned with music, Retromania looks at culture on the whole, finding a similarly backward-looking sensibility inherent in fashion, film, TV, and everywhere else in pop culture. The A.V. Club spoke with Reynolds about the book, his definition of “originality,” the irrelevance of time to younger music fans, and whether unplugging from the Internet is the best way to uncover the future.
The A.V. Club: How are people reacting to the book? Are they skeptical, or have you articulated something that they were already feeling?
Simon Reynolds: There’s a whole range of reactions. People I speak to in interviews tend to be more or less on the same page. In some ways, it’s interesting just to put this idea out and see how people react, because some people have got this idea, which I think is actually symptomatic of the very thing I’m talking about, that recycling has always been a part of music. My favorite thing that people bring up is, “The Beatles were influenced by music hall.” They’re talking about a handful of songs, really. That doesn’t quite cancel out “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Rain,” “A Day In The Life”—I could go on and on listing songs the likes of which had really never had been heard in popular music before. People have convinced themselves it’s always been like this, and it hasn’t. The point of the book is to de-familiarize “retro,” and actually remind people that there have been times when music has pretty much come out of the blue. As I say at the end of the book, something new under the sun has happened.
I think it’s amazing that people have convinced themselves that derivativeness and leaning on influences in a really obvious and simple way has always been the norm. It just hasn’t. I actually made a list the other day, decade by decade, listing innovators. And it’s abundantly provable. Some people seem really affronted that I would dare to suggest that the ’60s was maybe a bit more fast-moving and forward-looking and innovative than the last decade has been. They just find it really offensive. Some people deny the evidence. Then there are other people who say, “Well, it’s true, but why does it upset you? Why are you bothered by it?” There’s a bit of blaming the messenger going on, which I find kind of funny. But quite a lot of people are like, “You’ve articulated what I was thinking,” so it varies.
AVC: When people say that music has always been recycled, do they really mean that new music has always had influences?
SR: I think so. I think they’re quite rightly pointing out that music usually comes from somewhere. I mean, there are examples of music that literally came out of nowhere. If you want to, look up musique concrète, the electronic music of post-war vanguard, and some things in techno and acid house and various other points where music literally comes almost without any precedent whatsoever. But usually music has some kind of pre-existing tradition that it’s either developing or reacting against. We all agree on the fact that The Stones listened to Robert Johnson. But to me, what the Stones did to blues is completely different from what The White Stripes did, which was folding back on rock’s own tradition and largely photocopying it. Which is not to say they aren’t a talented group, but it’s different, isn’t it? It’s completely different, what the Stones did with the blues, and the trajectory that lead them to “Sympathy For The Devil” and “Moonlight Mile” and various other pieces of music that are really valuable developments of blues music. That’s quite different from what Interpol does, in their relationship to Joy Division. It’s a whole different order of influence and derivativeness, I think.
AVC: But did The White Stripes really “photocopy” blues greats? I think you can make the case that artists like Sharon Jones and Raphael Saadiq are deliberately trying to make “classic”-sounding records that duplicate a ’60s soul template. With the White Stripes, you can hear the influence of Son House and Led Zeppelin, but I don’t think Jack White was trying to make his records sound like their records.
SR: I quite like The White Stripes, I don’t hate them at all. But I think The White Stripes, their whole shtick is, “We are going back to when music was good and proper.” They are like The Black Crowes in that respect. I don’t think the Stones were ever like, “We are going back to Robert Johnson.” It was more like, “We’re excited by these records,” but they were totally enmeshed in the ’60s. I don’t think that nostalgia and harkening back to rock’s glory days was a part of it, because rock didn’t have any glory days. They were right at the start of it. Groups like The White Stripes or The Black Keys are partly a function of rock having reached a certain age, where it does have glory days. And it’s partly a function of the fact that, like that Springsteen song, magazines are full of boring stories of glory days. Mojo magazine, if you’ve ever looked at it, or Uncut, those two magazines in Britain, it’s almost like Dylan, the Stones, and the Beatles are on this rotation. They have to have four Beatles covers every year, and three Dylan—endless retellings of the same stories. Every year there’s half a dozen Dylan books. When younger groups are exposed to all this stuff, and it’s still on the radio, I think it’s probably inevitable that they’re doing this wistful harkening back.
AVC: Jack White would probably argue that he’s continuing a tradition that he respects, whether it’s a blues tradition or a rock tradition, and that carrying on tradition is a big part of blues and certainly folk music. Do you see any credibility in that?
SR: I think so. I think there’s a defensibility there. But then, if you define yourself as doing that, you’re more or less arguing that rock music is a finished form, and that it arrived at itself at some sort of state of perfection and that there’s nowhere left for it to go. You’re just a custodian. It’s kind of a depressing way to view it. In the book I interview people who have these kinds of opinions. I have an extremely interesting conversation with Billy Childish. I knew I had to speak with him because he’s one of the most articulate thinkers on this whole idea. He has this whole thing where he says, “Originality is overrated.” He defines originality as “closeness to the origin”; primality is what he believes in. Some kind of raw, as unselfconscious as possible, expression. But at the same time, the very idea of unselfconscious expression is actually a consciously thought-out ideology that he has. He has these manifestos that are very funny and articulate, decrying conceptualism in art, and the Marcel Duchamp legacy. Playing the same kind of music for 30 years, honing it and improving it in incremental ways, that seems fairly valorous. It’s more the very empty pastiches of the past that I find troubling.
AVC: You talk a lot about derivative culture in Retromania, but you never define what “originality” is. What makes something original?
SR: It’s difficult. In the book, I don’t actually ever define originality and innovation because it’s such a tangled, endlessly complex area. There are gradations of innovation and gradations of originality. It’s probably easier just to define non-originality and non-innovation. You can sort of just tell it. For instance, one nuance that I don’t address in the book, one of those things that only occurred to me later, is that there are quite a lot of performers in the history of music who aren’t innovative musically. I don’t particularly think P.J. Harvey is an innovator musically, but where she’s an innovator is lyrics, persona, the games she plays with identity. And someone like Elvis Costello is kind of a composite of all these things that existed before—there’s Dylan in there, there’s Lennon, there’s that album that was in the style of Motown and Stax, Get Happy!, he did a country covers album. But what make Costello quite original are his lyrics and his persona.
That’s just one of the roots of troubles with originality and innovation—there’s no definitive formula that you can come up with. A lot of good innovation in pop music is context. If you were to juxtapose the innovations of pop music with avant-garde music, they’re either lagging behind them, or they’re not as extreme. But they’re still, within the context of popular, commercial music, they’re really imaginative. Like Giorgio Moroder’s sound on “I Feel Love” was really imaginative. People in the ’60s avant-garde were doing electronic pulses before him, but he took that idea and made it into something that people could dance to. It was like Morton Subotnick with a disco beat.
AVC: How much of this is a rhetorical issue? Does it bother you that artists are no longer explicitly saying, “We reject the past,” like they’ve often done in classic rock, punk, hip-hop, or rave music?
SR: I don’t think it’s a problem; it’s more a symptom of what they’re doing. It’s more like, the way people represent what they’re doing is usually related to what their practice is, and if their practice is much more archaeological or archivist. I think for a lot of musicians now, the past has almost literally displaced the future in their imagination. The idea that there are genres of music that have been unexplored or maligned, that there are good things in them, that seems to be what gets people going. There’s a whole array of things across the culture that relate to being an adventurer exploring the past, and the past being sort of like a gigantic flea market you sift through. It’s fascinating. I’m totally in love with it. I spend a lot of time sifting through old stuff myself—it’s a big pleasure activity of mine, so I totally understand this. You find these strange things, old pamphlets and books with weird graphics and stuff. I totally dig all that, but it is a significant cultural shift, I think. If you think about it in a really crass way, in the ’60s, people might have had a lava lamp in their living room. Now the exact same group of people is likely to have a vintage manual typewriter. Maybe in 30 years, the vintage manual typewriter will seem as much a cliché of this time as the lava lamp seems like an absurd cliché of whenever it was.
Part of it is that so much happened in the 20th century and things moved so fast, and you had this enormous capitalist engine generating all these toys and gadgets and things that became rapidly obsolescent. It’s all piled up, hasn’t it? And you think of the sheer amount of recording that went on. It always blows my mind whenever I go record shopping how many records I’ve never seen before. I’ve been in record stores forever, decades I’ve been looking through them, and I still see things I’ve never seen, artists I’ve never heard of. The sheer amount of recording that was done, it is almost like this universe of music. Daniel Lopatin in the book actually says it’s a period of digestion, we’re digesting and processing all this stuff that happened musically and in other senses in this really runaway, fast period of time of production. And perhaps that’s fine. Perhaps that’s what we need.
AVC: As you’ve said, music from all eras is equally accessible now. Have we reached the point in music where there is no such thing as a past, a present, or a future, that it’s more about genres now than eras?
SR: It’s hard for me to say, because obviously I still have quite a strong sense of history, having lived through all of it, then researched it, and read it. How old are you?
AVC: I’m 33.
SR: Then you probably do, too, because a lot of your formative experience of music would have been the ’90s, maybe the late ’80s. So you’ve lived in history, when there wasn’t constant news coverage—not about music anyway—and there wasn’t this massive, super-available archive. You probably remember how hard it was to find out about stuff, and how you’d have to look in rock books and encyclopedias. But I think people who only know these conditions of being able to access everything, regardless of when it came out, almost instantly, they’re bound of have a completely different sense of time. Even someone like me, who grew up with a very strong historical sense from my own life and also from my job, I can feel it weakening. I can feel a sense of it weakening a bit, just through the lived, everyday experience of using the Internet. It does have that weird effect where the sequence of things gets jumbled. I can remember periods of time when there was a very strong sense of each year being different from the next year. But I don’t have that sense with the last decade. I’m sure if somebody played me a record, I wouldn’t be able to assign it to 2008 or 2002. It would be quite hard to do.
There’s a piece I came across on the Internet. I can’t remember where it was, but it was done by a sociologist, but in an informal way. She was looking at the music habits of young people, college students and high-school students as well. It seems like they listened to a lot of old music. They didn’t have any sense of not wanting to listen to their parents’ music at all. They were quite happy to be into it. A really large chunk of their listening was The Beatles and ’60s and ’70s music. It probably does feel contemporary to them, in a way.
AVC: How much does this have to do with the declining cultural supremacy of music? Do you think music has become more backward-looking as it’s become less central in culture? Or is it the other way around?
SR: It’s odd, because music seems to be much more omnipresent in lots of ways than ever, really. Because it’s in everything. It’s in movies, it’s in games, there are things like Glee and American Idol and Pop Idol, people carrying music around with them much more. They’ve got more choice. It’s staggering the amount of music you can access, different kinds of music. And I think there’s also more coverage of music. The coverage of music is enormously detailed and instant in a way that it really wasn’t when I was growing up. There were a few music papers and every newspaper would have one person writing about pop, but it wouldn’t get much space. TV was always very sporadic in covering it. There wasn’t that much radio. In the U.S. there was, I guess, but in Britain only one or two stations would cover it. You almost had to sort of seek it out more when I was growing up. Now it seems to be omnipresent, but it seems also to have declined a bit. It seems like people use it more to fill up space in their lives, backdrops to other activities a lot of times.
AVC: You write in the book about how there wasn’t a new music movement on par with punk or hip-hop in the ’00s. Does that reflect a lack of inspiration, or are we just so spread out attention-wise as listeners that it’s hard to band behind one thing?
SR: You can date the beginning of the non-appearance of those movements almost precisely to when the Internet becomes a major force in music culture. As soon as that really starts to take hold as being the major means through which fans talk to each other and everything else that came with the Internet, it’s almost from that point onwards that there’ve been no movements on the scale of hip-hop and rave. And perhaps part of that is because coverage is so instant, there’s no lag for something to grow and develop into a movement. There was a period with rave, before the very early days of acid house in Britain, when it was not really being covered or heard about. It was a good eight, nine months when it was happening in darkness and forming into something. Then it was discovered. And same thing with hip-hop. Hip-hop had several years when it was just this thing going on in the Bronx where it developed. That sort of hatching time doesn’t seem to exist any more.
So there’s that. And I think you’re right, part of the thing about the Internet is that it caters to niche-ification and subdivision, narrowing of focus. Those things were already happening in music. You were already getting a fragmentation of dance music, a fragmentation of metal—I’m always staggered by how many flavors and sub-subgenres of metal there are. And that seems to be an across-the-board thing with most music culture, and that was already happening before the Internet. I think the Internet was the fruition of tendencies of something, it was almost like the things people wanted to do anyway, and they affected them, and enabled them to take them too far, and then they realized that that’s the downside, which is becoming more clear now. With file-sharing: You’re growing up in a scarcity economy of music and then suddenly it’s like they’ve just given you a key to a candy shop. Because you’re still thinking in the scarcity mindset, you start hoarding.
AVC: We’ve talked about how access to this massive archive of music has affected artists, but what’s the impact on listeners? Has it made us more jaded?
SR: I have to be wary about using the word “we.” Some people have called me out on that. I have to take care to not be too presumptuous and conflating my own experience with everybody else. But I do think that this is basic common sense in life, that when you get too much of something for no cost and minimal effort, it’s bound to have less value. I’m basically left-wing, and vaguely anti-capitalist, and it’s strange to realize that the decommodification of music has been a bit of a disaster, and that actually paying for stuff has weirdly added emotional value to it. For most people, money is something that they work hard for in exploitative conditions, and if you pay for something, it’s bound to make you give more of an effort to get out and listen to it. If you’ve got something for nothing, it’s basic common sense that you’re more inclined to not listen to it all the way through, listen to it distractedly, download it but then forget you download it.
And I was just observing my own habits, and I think broadly critics are already on that list, but now everyone is on the freebie list. I wrote a piece a long time ago talking about music-overload, and this is long before the Internet, talking about how having too much music essentially made it hard to feel it, or experience it properly, and how a way of getting that was to be a fanatic. And that’s what I was, a fanatic for jungle music. I think that everyone has that vision of radio DJs and journalists, which is that they can get all this music for nothing, and I think there are very, very few people who can really maintain their enthusiasm for music when they’re that bombarded by it. One of those people was the DJ John Peel. He never lost his enthusiasm. He was always excited to open a new package every morning.
AVC: If the “retromania” problem is rooted in having access to this bottomless online archive, is the solution to simply unplug?
SR: The idea of something existing offline seems inconceivable. It would be like existing without electricity. But those kinds of things are perhaps already happening, perhaps that’s where the hemorrhaging of energy is going. There seems to be some murmurings and grumbling and discontent with the Internet on a whole lot of levels. One of the supreme cultural values is the idea of convenience being a supreme idea or goal. So deliberately embracing the most inconvenient formats that have some sort of delay to them, that seems to have some—I dare not call it a resistance—but some element of recalcitrance in the face of digital culture. Digital culture is about sensations, and making everything easy and frictionless and instant. Perhaps there’s some inherent feeling about getting things exactly how you want it and when you want that isn’t actually that satisfying.
AVC: Maybe that’s the only way to escape the past, to get off the Internet and not have access to it. If you look at the big movements like hip-hop or rave culture, as you said, they existed outside the mainstream media for a long time.
SR: Yeah, I think so. Whether you can really brave those conditions now is a moot point, but those things took a while to hatch and come together. They weren’t based around the latest technology. A lot of what rave is based around is power radio, which is a really old-fashioned technology. A friend of mine just wrote a piece about how important the Internet was in the early phase of American rave culture, but it wasn’t in Britain. It was done very much with fliers in record stores. It wasn’t a really high-tech operation, strangely, because it was all about the future.
I’m pretty interested to see what’s going to happen next. I just wonder what is going to happen next in music. Something has to break in this pattern, I think.