Retromania Vs. Innovation: An Interview with Simon Reynolds

2011-07-19

Since the ’80s, British-born/American-based writer Simon Reynolds has been showcasing his analytical, articulate, and occasionally quite humorous approach to music criticism in most any major publication one can name, ranging from Melody Maker and Spin to The New York Times and The Guardian. He’s also a notable presence on the music section shelves of book stores due to his authorship of tomes including Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 and Generation Ecstasy: Into the World of Techno and Rave Culture, the former being the definitive and most engaging account of that genre/movement to be found. His newest book is Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (released in the UK on 2 June and due out in the US on 19 July), wherein he takes a broad-based yet more personal look at the 21st century’s increasing obsession with retro sounds and signifiers in lieu of the futurism and stylistic innovation that so motivated pop styles in previous decades.

In this interview, PopMatters and Reynolds not only chat about the origins of and questions posed by Retromania, but touch upon other subjects including the modern state of pop futurism, the changing nature of music criticism in the era of digiculture, and just what exactly one of the music press’ foremost proponents of post-punk and electronica thinks about alternative rock’s retro-adoring standard-bearers from the ’80s.

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What inspired you to write Retromania?

It’s something that’s been at the back of my mind for ages now, but the real trigger was being bemused by an array of retro- and nostalgia-oriented phenomena I noticed around 2006 or so, everything from the “whole album” fad of artists performing their most iconic record in its entirety, to that Beatles remix record Love that George Martin and his son Giles made, to rock reenactments like the recreation at London’s ICA a few years ago of a 1984 concert by members of Einsturzende Neubauten complete with the audience riot triggered by the performance. There was a spate of things and I started thinking, “Wow, this is pretty weird.” I had also been thinking, in a kind of fascinated yet alarmed way, about the file-sharing blog scene and YouTube and how the musical past had become this is massive, ever-expanding online archive: almost like a new world, one in which you could become lost, but also a realm that bands and fans could explore and bring back strange treasure. A space of danger, but also possibility.

Why do you feel this fixation with the past is so pervasive now, as opposed to previous eras? Or is it just more discernible now than ever before?

It’s been building for a while; many of the developments I look at in Retromania can be traced back to the ‘90s, even the ‘80s. But the 2000s was when everything came to a fruition: as the decade proceeded, there was a mounting sense of crisis and deadlock. In some ways Retromania is a history of the Noughties as a “like name, like nature” decade where “nought” happened: there was a bustle of micro-genres, a steady turnover of new artists, but no major new movements in music on a par with punk, hip hop, or rave. Instead, all the real innovative energy was in the way musical data was distributed, stored, shared, archived. From YouTube to file-sharing, it’s simply possible now to drown in the past, without any financial cost, in a way that it never was before. So you get young fans and musicians who have heard a staggering amount of music by the age of 20, the kind of learning that would have once taken a lifetime of listening to absorb and a small fortune to pay for. Knowledge that was once hard to come by, scattered across books that were often obscure or out-of-print, is now out there for everybody to access. The question is whether this generation has been able to process all this music and knowledge, to digest it or even feel it in any kind of meaningful way. Much of this decade it felt like music culture has been shell-shocked by this sudden “affluence”. But perhaps the generation that has grown up knowing nothing else but the digiculture conditions of super-abundance and atemporality, perhaps they’ll be better placed to cope with it and make something out of it?

I do feel it’s inevitable that this and later generations will achieve a sort of “digiculture equilibrium” somewhere down the line–just see how we all take inventions like television or telephones or even recorded sound for granted but when they first arrived they were astonishing developments that totally changed how people had received information for eons prior. Being able to record sound–the ultimate archival development–arguably helped society appreciate music even more than it had before. But you say “like name, like decade”–that’s a rather damning view of music in the last decade, isn’t it? Are there any promising artistic developments from the ’00s you highlight in Retromania, ways out of the backwards-looking rut?

In terms of “Wow, FUTURE!” moments, they tend to be more sporadic for me, rather than genre-bound. In the ‘90s there were whole genres or movements that seemed like giant waves of innovation that sustained themselves over several years, or even a whole decade. So genres like jungle and UK garage, which were arguably really just stages within the same scene/genre. Or R&B, street rap, and dancehall. In the Noughties it felt more the case that genres were fairly static but every so often, amid a welter of fairly unadventurous work, you’d get a flash of something really new. I don’t think R&B was nearly as innovative this past decade as it was in the ‘90s–think of the evolution from from Teddy Riley to Timbaland–but my jaw did drop at Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”.

Dubstep as a whole strikes me as an extension of the ‘90s, but it does regularly produce some really exciting stuff that feels “new-ish” or “new enough”: Zomby’s self-titled EP on Hyperdub, Cooly G’s tracks on the same label, bits by James Blake and Ramadanman. I would actually argue that the pure wobble stuff that connoisseurs nowadays look down [upon] is the element within dubstep that is the genre’s greatest claim to being a New Thing. And despite the disapproval of the scene’s custodians, this new “filthstep” direction is just getting more abjectly gnarly and baroquely bass-warped with producers like Borgore and Stenchman. The Future, maybe, just not one that you’d want to spend too much time in! Elsewhere in electronic music there’s been Villalobos, Actress, certain things by Oneohtrix Point Never and Laurel Halo . . .

One of the main areas throughout the music landscape where something exciting is going on is in the area of voice manipulation: digital texturizing of the voice using overdriven AutoTune, speeding and slowing down of vocals, micro-editing of vocal samples. You get that from the ultra-underground level of Chicago footwork through hiptronica (Burial, Blake) and witch house (Salem, et al) right across into the heart of the pop mainstream with Black Eyed Peas and Ke$ha. That is exciting, although if you think about it, it does trace back to the ‘90s and the vocal science of Todd Edwards and various UK garage and jungle producers. Not forgetting Cher!

Judging by the synopsis of the book, Retromania is less of a general history of backward-looking tendencies in popular culture and more theory-heavy than your previous book of original writing, Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. How did your approach to writing and research differ from that for your previous tome?

It’s not theory-heavy so much as ideas-driven. There is an investigative element, with me going to interview people and check stuff out, but it is much more about ideas, cultural trends, and broad historical developments across late 20th century culture. For Rip It Up, I interviewed about 125 people; for Retromania, it was something like 40.

In a way, Retromania is a more explicitly personal book. Rip It Up is totally personal because it’s a love letter to an era that had a profound formative effect on me. But on a chapter-by-chapter level, I step back and let the voices of the artists and other key figures of the period be heard. In Retromania, I am much more a presence: it’s my take on what happened in the last decade, and there’s a good amount that draws on my life, experience, and memories.

What do you think is more responsible for the presence of retro elements and signifiers in music: the establishment of and reverence for/fetishization of a musical canon (they got it right the first time, so why muck about with it), or plain ordinary lack of imagination?

One factor is simply that rock has been around for over five decades now, so there is just this massive accumulation of musical ideas, along with style and imagery, to draw on. At a certain point in a genre’s history, the odds get increasingly stacked against innovation, because the past starts stacking up.

In Rip It Up and Start Again, you emphasized the futurist spirit of the post-punk movement–that whole rock-is-dead, pushing-creative-boundaries attitude that was enabled for a lot of people by punk rock’s scorched-earth approach. As you touched on earlier, much contemporary electronic music is definitely forward-looking (in large part due to its reliance on cutting-edge technology), but who do you see as the 21st century inheritors of this sensibility in rock music? Or has the genre become too obsessed with rifling through the past for ideas (see: the still-enduring post-punk revival, all these noise pop/C86 wannabes like Vivian Girls and Best Coast) to prevent it from yielding anything truly innovative these days?

What’s interesting is that for so many the innovation issue is not considered urgent. “Is this innovative?” is not a question that people are asking so much. So with Vivian Girls and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, or the Vaccines in the UK, what’s striking is that these groups have their supporters who don’t seem to regard their derivativeness to be a blemish. You couldn’t even talk about apologists for those bands because they’re not in the least apologetic: the absence of innovation doesn’t bother or embarrass them.

For me what’s really startling about those three groups is that they have returned to the same set of mostly ‘60s influences that were already seeming rather obvious and played-out when the C86 bands were deploying them. I lived through C86, it was one of the things I wrote about as a cub reporter at Melody Maker, and although there were interesting things about the scene to do with the clothing and the overall vibe and ethos of “cutie” (as it was also known), the music even in 1986 seemed distinctly backward-looking. Twenty-five [years] later we have groups returning to the exact same stagnant pool of influences, and getting a good amount of journalistic hype.

There’s a bunch of vaguely rock-aligned groups, what you might call post-indie, who are doing interesting things with the archival overload of music history while also keeping their ears tuned to what’s going on with contemporary dance music and black pop, and furthermore in some cases also checking out ideas from outside the Anglo-American rock/pop tradition. Animal Collective would the key group for that in the last decade, they brought a new vibe to alternative music. Gang Gang Dance also. I actually think Vampire Weekend have done some innovative, or at least very fresh, things. Micachu and the Shapes made a really cool record with Jewellery and tUnE-YarDs, who I also like, are in some ways the American Micachu and the Shapes.

Do you feel there are some particularly good or bad approaches to reissuing music?

On the subject of the reissue industry, do you feel there are some particularly good or bad approaches to reissuing music? I’m not just taking about “Deluxe Edition” repressings of classic albums with bonus tracks and remastering jobs, but also archival compilations, the sort labels such as Soul Jazz base their output on.

There are labels who do the job with integrity and take great care to get as good quality sound as they can, to annotate the project with well-researched notes. Soul Jazz, Numero Group, Blood & Fire, LTM, Acute… there’s loads of them. Some of the stuff they are digging up is genuine lost treasure. The difficult question I raise in Retromania is whether the culture can absorb all this salvaged material, especially as the crate-digger labels are increasingly extending their reach into the pasts of foreign countries.

The cult for obscurity also leads to historical distortions: people who know about some private press ‘80s soul album but haven’t actually heard the indispensable ‘80s R&B artists that were actually commercially successful at the time and are about ten times better. This goes on across the board, from minimal synth to psychedelia to you-name-it.

I myself am keenly of these historical distortions you mention–I’ve seen your example manifest in the form of people who are well-acquainted with rather-average R&B obscuros but have no idea who Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are, or folks really into ultra-rare ’80s goth who are unaware of Bauhaus or the Sisters of Mercy. There’s so much music being turned up these days by so many narrowly-focused niches that it’s become very easy to not see the forest from the trees, historically and quality-wise. Going back to the question you raise in Retromania: do you think the culture can absorb this avalanche of unburied material from the past?

At the moment, it seems like the answer would be “no”, the channels are choked, causing a sluggishness to set in. But who knows? The coming generation clearly has the ability to process information and manipulate it a lot faster than those that came before. Perhaps one just has to have faith that the really musical people will find a way to swim in this clogged data ocean and to make meaningful new patterns out of all this stuff once it’s completely lost all anchoring in history and geography.

Your journalistic career began in the 1980s, the age when the British music weeklies (NME, Melody Maker, Sounds) were the prime movers in musical critical discourse. Aside from the obvious game-changing nature of the advent of the Internet and the mass diffusion of critical voices that has resulted, how has the art (so to speak) of music criticism evolved from those days? What ideas and approaches to music writing have come and gone since then?

It would take a small book to track that story. The main change I’ve noticed, partly related to the erosion of the gatekeeper function of music critics, is that the messianic or prophetic mode of rock-writing has faded away. Because the critic is rarely introducing readers to something for the first time, the whole “I have heard the future” approach is no longer called for. But also the idea of “the future” of music has eroded for all the reasons I explore in Retromania. We don’t really think so much anymore of a style of music being more advanced than other music forms, or a particular genre or artist being a herald of how music will be. That idea of an axis extending from the past into the future, and which certain artists, records, genres, are further along than others are–who thinks like that anymore? It’s precisely this linear model of time as having a direction that seems to have collapsed under digiculture.

How has your own approach to music criticism changed due to the advent of digiculture? One thing that’s readily apparent is that the army of blogs you run devoted to various functions including short off-the-cuff thoughts, footnotes to your books, and archives of old print articles–all functioning as a sort of “public notepad”, shall we say–certainly wouldn’t have existed pre-Internet.

I have definitely allowed myself to succumb to the logic of digiculture and its facilitation of everything: the instantaneity and impulsiveness it incites, the sheer volume of material you can put “out there”. I don’t know why it took me several years to realize it but I suddenly realized, having been blogging for a while, that there was no reason why you couldn’t have multiple blogs simultaneously, and from there I just went wild with the idea. I enjoy the way you can write a small book if you want, or a blog post of just a few words. The thing about having a blog is that it is not just providing an outlet for the thoughts you’d otherwise not express. The existence of a blog incites the mind to generate bloggish thoughts. For every post that makes it on to one of my blogs there’s 19 that never leave my head. So there’s a joyous hyper-generative aspect to blogs, but also an element of insidiousness and out-of-controlness. That applies across the board to digiculture. All these platforms have worked their way into our lives and wrapped themselves around our mental and emotional functioning in a slightly alarming way.

Rip It Up and Start Again halts its narrative at 1984, with the waning of post-punk and the coalescence of alternative rock as its successor genre in the underground rock scene. Out of curiosity, which of the main ’80s alt-rock bands do you rate the most? I ask partly because you were pretty harsh to the Jesus and Mary Chain and the C86 bands (unrepentant retro junkies all) in that book’s Afterward section!

I really loved J&MC’s first album Psychocandy. But they lost me with Darklands when they stripped away the feedback. I recoiled when on “Nine Million Rainy Days” they did these “woo woo” backing vocals as this cutesy citation from [the Rolling Stones’] “Sympathy for the Devil”.

The whole back-to-the-‘60s thing in ‘80s indie was something I got totally caught up in. It felt like a logical reaction against what post-punk had become, which was overly schematic and rational. I was a big fan of the first two R.E.M. albums. I worshipped Hüsker Dü and the Meat Puppets. I loved the Replacements. I was into pretty much all the things you would expect from that time. By the late ‘80s, my favorite US and UK bands were pushing into the late ‘60s but adding elements of guitar-reinvention or sonic overload: My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Dinosaur Jr., Loop, Spacemen 3… Looking back, a lot of this was somewhat retro-tinged and as a writer celebrating these bands for Melody Maker I was coming up with quite ingenious ways around this. At the time, it felt like there was a difference between the Butthole Surfers and the pure retro stuff around like Thee Hypnotics or B.A.L.L.. But it’s quite a subtle difference. The Buttholes had songs that were rewrites of [Black] Sabbath or obvious tributes to [Jimi] Hendrix or Donovan.

It’s interesting that you say you had to work around the retro-tendencies of these bands in your writings. Was there a bit of intellectual guilt being an avowed fan of the post-punk vanguard writing about all these artists who gleefully took cues from the past, or is that just your retrospective evaluation of the work you did at the time?

By the second half of the ‘80s, post-punk ideas seemed fairly irrelevant, it seemed like we were in a new phase. That said, a vague idea of the Future as something music should be always looking to certainly hung around like a specter. So on the one hand when I heard acid house for the first time I was really blown away and I did write about it as being like the second coming for “avant-funk” ideas from the post-punk era, comparing producers like Phuture to Cabaret Voltaire. Equally, that sense of retro-shame would also spur me to critique, e.g. Creation Records as Recreation Records. It was hard to pinpoint exactly but there was a borderline between bands who were just trading off the ‘60s and bands who were doing interesting violence to that legacy (My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth reinventing psychedelia and uninventing the guitar). Jesus and Mary Chain, Spacemen 3, and the Buttholes were poised exactly on the borderline. Primal Scream and the Stone Roses were most of the time on the wrong side of it, but would slip into righteousness now and then with some help from collaborators like Andy Weatherall or, in the case of the Roses, thanks to their osmotic influence from house music.

Obviously I don’t reject all music that stays true to a tradition or that has a heavy involvement with rock’s history–I was a big fan of Royal Trux and I’ve even enjoyed the odd White Stripes tune. But I think it’s easier to make allowances for bands that are talented throwbacks if you also have a lot of future-oriented action going at the same time. When the music scene is dominated by reproduction antiques, heritage styles, and pastiche, then I think intolerance is called for. Retromania is an attempt to sow seeds of discontent.

Lastly, I thought I’d mention that in Totally Wired, your supplemental volume to Rip It Up and Start Again that collects interviews conducted for that book and related writings, there’s this humorous part where Andy Gill of Gang of Four is talking about guitar feedback and at a certain point he stops himself because, in his words, “I was going to say something pretentious”. But you tell him, “Oh, go on, I’m a big supporter of pretentiousness in interviews! From the interview subjects as well as the writer!” I suspect that’s true of many critics, but I doubt they’d be willing to admit to it like you!

One of the first things I ever wrote for publication, in this zine Margin that my friends and I started at Oxford, was a defense of pretentiousness. It was inspired by arriving in Oxford expecting it to be full of poets and philosophers but being taken aback by how frequently you came across people who used the word “pretentious” as an insult or who complained about “pseudo-intellectuals”. There was a surprising amount of anti-intellectualism at Oxford. So I wrote this mini-manifesto reclaiming the concept of pretension as a form of aspiration.

Of course, there is such a thing as the genuinely pretentious, people who are posing or writing in a ridiculously affected way. Still, more often than not, “pretentious” is used as a deterrent; it’s mockery that aims to stifle adventurous thinking. You can tell when someone using the term “pseudo” is not likely to be any more welcoming to the genuine-article. It’s not like they’re calling for some “real” intellectuals!

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