In his latest book, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction To Its Own Past, veteran music journalist Simon Reynolds doesn’t limit his field of inquiry as neatly as he did in previous histories like Rip It Up And Start Again (post-punk) and Generation Ecstasy (raves). Reynolds’ big question is whether pop music has backed itself into a corner of sterile self-recycling from which nothing more than ’80s drum pads, stale Beatles-aping riffs, and and intensely self-conscious music can emerge. To that end, he visits Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, considers how fashion’s self-recycling trends are “a grotesque, ecologically unsound parody of Nature’s cycles,” offers a brief argument about how punk’s roots were fundamentally reactionary, and much more.
Retromania is a fascinating and frustrating read in equal measures. Reynolds is an inquiring, patient writer with a wide, sometimes surprising frame of reference. The book often feels like a series of wide-ranging essays riffing far afield from the central question, but it’s never boring. Still, it isn’t particularly organized: The vagueness of its three sections (“Now,” “Then,” “Tomorrow”) underscores the fact that Reynolds is kicking around a lot of ideas and hoping they build up to a coherent thesis. With small tangents presented as bottom-of-the-page extended asides, it’s a woolly ride, one that never coheres at an endpoint.
Music lovers will want to grapple with Reynolds’ ideas, scattered though they often are. He isn’t afraid to contradict himself, decrying the museum-ification of rock history while bolstering his arguments with a wide range of theoretical texts, or decrying obsessive record-collector digging for potentially banal obscurities while admitting he’s beholden to the same impulse. His distinctions often seem arbitrary: A querulous aside about a show of post-No Wave bands put together by Thurston Moore in 1981 notes that he “organised” the show; Reynolds then complains “nobody would have used the word ‘curated’ back then,” as if he were objecting to word choices rather than artistic tendencies.
All that messiness can be invigorating. Whether Reynolds is getting the infinitely quotable Billy Childish to rail against pretty much all developments in pop music after 1967, or connecting the decline of experimental electronic music to the end of the space race, his restless tumble of ideas and interviews compels attention in spite of the sprawl. Reynolds concludes, unsurprisingly, that the future is still somewhere out there, though it’s unclear why he thinks pop music as he examines it (essentially 1963 to the present) should be able to regenerate and recreate itself any faster than classical music, literature, or any other medium prone to 80-year periods of relative uniformity. Still, Retromania is a conversation-starter, and a valuable consideration of the wave of retro-fetishes and musical curatorship saturating the current landscape.