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Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to…

Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past

by Simon Reynolds

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169570,359 (3.74)5
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I imagine that if you are a fan of the rock music of some (or all) of the last six decades then there will be plenty for you in this book. Reynolds has clearly devoured huge chunks of the music and displays an encyclopaedic knowledge of the background of those who made it. His central theme, that rock music has been constantly casting back to the primal rock and roll of the 50s. The theory has some merit, but it often seems that he is happier riffing (or perhaps even rehashing) on the bits of rock history that he knows a lot about (particularly late 70s and early 80s). Your enthusiasm for the book will come down to whether this kind of meandering is interesting or whether (like me), you felt if the book was cut in half, it would have been a tighter and compelling read. ( )
  xander_paul | Oct 7, 2014 |
Superb. Thoughtful and wears its learning lightly ( )
  mcpinker | Jun 22, 2014 |
Reynolds shows in much detail how pop music, from its intense initial stages in the late 50ies and especially the 60ies, successively moves away from its innovative and original character and turns into variaton, self-citation and mere repitition. It's intriguing how he works out references, were you wouldn't have suspected them, like when he demonstrates hidden citations in punk.
If it weren't for lengthy passages spreading out detail over detail from a vast archivarian's knowledge this book would be a perfect read.
It still contains really great passages, expecially where it goes beyond musical styles talk, embedding music in a broader context of culture, society and technology.
The culminating chapter is on the lost conception of future, which not only does affect music, but pop culture and even western culture as a whole.

Of course the book doesn't provide an alternative, other than that of vague optimism. It is still an intriguing piece of cultural analysis.

Personally i liked the book as - not being a audio crack - it stirred up my curiosity, making me actively listen to music again which I hadn't done for quite a long time. ( )
  conceptskip | Jan 4, 2013 |
I found this recommended on Warren Ellis' blog; I think I'm glad I read it, though it left me with a temporary doom-and-gloom feeling about popular music. Reynolds's contentends that (practically) all pop music since the 60s is a desperate rehash of the decades that come before it - that artists have been mulching rock'n'roll down into a fine paste of irony and derivation. Yeah, kinda.

Reynolds is most interesting when he gets off on a sidebar (and I don't mean the actual sidebars in the text, which I found distracting. I don't think the book's structure was so tight that they couldn't have been incorporated into the main text). I enjoyed his discussions of record collecting and the Northern Soul scene, for example.

On the other hand, the interesting passages were hard to find among the sheer accumulation of detail. Page after mournful page describing how each 'new' thing was simply a reworking of an older style. I agree with him in many cases, but I don't share his feeling of gloom. So what if punk was inspired by earlier, stripped-down rock'n'roll? It still produced some great music. Sometimes he gets so wrapped up in proving that a new style was a reinvention of an earlier sound that the music's quality doesn't count for anything.

I would also have appreciated more discussion of rap, hip-hop and R&B; while it's only natural that Reynolds should gravitate towards his preferred genres, and while he does discuss soul, funk, and (to a lesser extent) reggae in detail, I thought we drifted into white middle-class ground for the '90s and '00s.

While I agree that the inventiveness of white western pop music has stalled in the last few decades (including the time when I was in high school), I think this book was too long for Reynolds' ideas. Eventually, the piling-up of detail made me feel rebellious about his conclusions. While I also wish that pop music would get a real Next Big Thing, a dose of inventiveness and strange, I started to feel that Reynolds was prizing the new over the good.
2 vote Cynara | Jan 2, 2012 |
Fittingly, there's a lot in "Retromania" that will strike many readers as pretty familiar. Reynolds engages in some righteous boomer-hating, asking if we'll ever be free of sixties-era musicians and their needless, endless nostalgia tours. He also goes neo-Luddite for a while, bitching about newer technologies' reduced fidelity and disregard for the album format. Though Reynolds presents his arguments well, you can get this stuff elsewhere. "Retromania" really gets interesting – perhaps even vital – when Reynolds posits that artifacts and music of the past function as a species of cultural capital and examines how rock scenes look to both their own pasts and society's collective future for inspiration. In doing so, he neatly turns some well-worn rock narratives on their heads. He's not afraid of the obscure, either, examining the role that vintage clothing and record shops played in the development of both the punk and hippie subcultures and delving deep into the history of Northern Soul, a scene I'd only heard about in passing. The problem – as Reynolds sees it – is that the technological and stylistic obsolescence that drove this economy is, thanks to YouTube, MP3s and torrents, now itself a thing of the past. Are new things, or even fresh takes on old things, a possibility in a world where the entirety of the past is available to all of us?

Reynolds doesn't really have an answer, of course, and I think he might have done well to include a clearer definition of what constitutes "newness." It doesn't seem that Reynolds is himself a musician, so much of his discussion, like so much rock criticism, seems to be a discussion of musical style rather than content. His arguments seem to chase each other around the text, too, perhaps even contradicting each other, but that is part of the book's appeal: the past, as Reynolds sees it, can either trap musicians in a permanent yesterday or provide inspiration for forward-thinking projects. In the last chapters of the book, he examines how some retrophiliac acts like Broadcast and Boards of Canada have used the twentieth century's own ideas of the future to create hauntingly personal music that takes advantage of modern technology's ability to preserve large chunks of the recent past more or less indiscriminately. He also seems to argue that pop culture, and perhaps people in general, have lost faith in the future: while we get excited about techno gadgetry, most of us no longer believe that the future will be better, or substantially different, than the present. Still, when he examines the astonishing quantity of bravely experimental electronic music that followed the launching of Sputnik in the late fifties and the nineties' explosively creative, ruthlessly futuristic rave scene, he seems to conclude that a link exists between creativity and the belief that our tomorrows will be better than our yesterdays. I can't say that I always found the author's case entirely convincing – indeed, I found myself arguing with him throughout the book – but he's provided some genuinely fresh ideas about pop music's relationship to its past and future that people who take their music collections as seriously as their mortgage payments won't want to miss. Recommended. ( )
2 vote TheAmpersand | Aug 28, 2011 |
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We live in a pop age gone loco for retro and crazy for commemoration, band re-formations and reunion tours, expanded reissues of classic albums and outtake-crammed box sets, remakes and sequels, tribute albums and mash-ups. But what happens when we run out of past? Are we heading toward a sort of cultural-ecological catastrophe where the archival stream of pop history has been exhausted? Simon Reynolds, one of the finest music writers of his generation, argues that we have indeed reached a tipping point, and that although earlier eras had their own obsessions with antiquity the Renaissance with its admiration for Roman and Greek classicism, the Gothic movement's invocations of medievalism never has there been a society so obsessed with the cultural artifacts of its own immediate past. Retromania is the first book to examine the retro industry and ask the question: Is this retromania a death knell for any originality and distinctiveness of our own?… (more)

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