REVIEW: Retromania: Pop culture’s addiction to its own past

Book by Simon Reynolds

Retromania: Pop culture’s addiction to its own pastGiven all the band reunions, rock biopics, deluxe re-reissues, and whole-album concerts in the past decade, has popular music lost its way? Reynolds thinks so.

A London-born, California-based journalist, Reynolds offers many reasons for the obsessive resurrection of the recent past, among them an aging population’s nostalgia, the flattening out of past and present by YouTube, and the impulse to recapture the fervour of revolutionary musical movements. He plots a history of such revivals, from late-’40s “trad” jazz through “nu-rave” in the mid-2000s, and argues that over time, they lose their original cultural heft.

Reynolds is geekily erudite and sweepingly referential, focusing on music but in a broad cultural context, where Baudrillard rubs shoulders with the Beach Boys, Kim Wilde with Oscar Wilde. His accounts of arcane styles and subcultures such as “hypnagogic pop” and Japanese Shibuya-kei are best appreciated with YouTube, a portal that may, as Reynolds contends, paralyze us through distraction, but also helps make sense of Retromania. His writing is punchy and poetic, as in his depiction of the “ghost dance” of Deadheads, “an endangered, out-of-time people willing a lost world back into existence.”

Reynolds makes so many perceptive points, supported with such strong historical evidence, his book can be exhilarating if you agree with it, fun to spar with if you don’t. He admits his own complicity in recycling the past, as a reviewer of box sets and a “talking head” in rock docs, and yet, he champions the idea of progress in music. Why, he asks, are there no more movements that feel futuristic, that push music “forward,” such as psychedelia, hip hop’s golden age, or rave?

Perhaps the musical “purity” he longs for is illusory. Every style is a palimpsest, every “direction” a circling back and writing over, and now the looming presence of music’s history makes its creators self-aware. Reynolds, for all his future chasing, is nostalgic for the kind of Enlightenment ideal that punk disdained—an old-fashioned way of viewing the world.

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