Pop Culture Just Can’t Quit Itself: The TFT Review of Simon Reynolds’ Retromania
I was shocked to discover, in an interview he gave last month with A.J. Ramirez at PopMatters.com, that when Simon Reynolds was an undergraduate at Oxford University in the early 1980s, one of the first essays he wrote was a manifesto “in defense of pretentiousness,” published in a ‘zine called Margin he founded with some friends. Shocked, because Reynolds’ lastest book, Retromania (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $18.00), is so un-snarky, down-to-earth, engaging and readable that the only way to make sense of such a comment is to chock it up to overly-earnest college idiocy.
Reynolds, UK-born and LA-residing, author of Rip It Up and Start Again, Totally Wired, as well as countless magazine articles, is deservedly known as one of the finest music writers of his generation. Retromania lives up to that reputation as an exhaustive critique of the evolution of “pop gone loco for retro” in the new millennium, from the premiere of Julien Temple’s Sex Pistols documentary, The Filth and the Fury in 2000; to the peak of the mash-up craze in 2002; to the Doors of the 21st Century, Manzarek and Krieger, playing Wembley Stadium in 2003; to Queen’s world concert tour; Cream’s extravaganza three-night stand at Madison Square Garden; Lou Reed’s 2006 Berlin album performed in entirety; Public Enemy recreating their 1998 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, ten years later; Kraftwerk’s release of their entire discography, 12345678, in November 2009, to…well, you get the idea…
Parallel with this history, Reynolds eases us into the deeper concept of nostalgia and its implications for today’s virtual (omni)present. The “virtual,” he believes, is the accelerant driving our chronic backward gaze. We live in an overstuffed time of continuous partial attention where “nothing seems to wither and die,” which means there is all-too-much to choose from on the inexhaustible Web. Thanks to the digitization of everything, the “residue of the past is [embedded] in the present…Distance and delay have been eroded to nearly nothing,” Reynolds observes.
As a consequence, it becomes ever-easier to recapture documentation of old phenomena, transforming nostalgia into compulsion rather than yearning. If everything is at our fingertips, why not grab and repackage vintage media?
In the course of Retromania Reynolds dips into American, French and continental philosophy, including the work of Jean Baudrillard, Svetlana Boym and Roland Barthes. Do not fear this erudition. Reynolds is so unthreatening, so comfortable and conversant that people who aren’t familiar with these intellectual traditions will be able to follow along fine. The author blends dense complexities into the overall argument and applies different theories to our current cultural situation. In the process, Reynolds makes a convincing case for the regret that accompanies the disappearance of the artifact’s “Aura,” that ineffable, inherent original quality which “a copy of a copy of a copy” can never replace, no matter how high the pixellated or sonic fidelity may be.
Perhaps our unconscious melancholy about the traces of that lost actuality helps explain the fetishistic “reality” wherein everybody can become a curator, or co-conspirator, in the subliming of kitsch— flea-marketing and junk shops are rampant, vintage typewriting groups are getting together to trade poems. While I was reading this book this week, an “all-purpose hangout” café-gallery-tea shop-clothing boutique called Nostylgia opened in Inwood, the New Museum on the Bowery premiered Ostalgia, a massive survey devoted to the art of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics, and TeenNick, part of the Nickelodeon family of cable channels for children, announced it will start broadcasting The 90s Are All That, selected “vintage” series from the 1990s considered “classics” by all of you 18-34 year olds out there.
Reynolds’ final chapter, The Shock of the Old, stands on its own as an elegy for modernism. The author admits there is karmic significance to the fact that he “was born in 1963, The Year That Rock Began.” He mourns the dissipation of the ethos that “art should constantly push forward into new territory, reacting against its own immediate predecessors.” Ezra Pound’s dictum to “make it new,” the gospel of pure originality, seems to have been forgotten in deference to the remix aesthetic, wherein the recombinant “DJ” mentality holds sway.
Soon, very soon, you will stop reading this piece, and turn up the volume on your iPod—be it Lady Gaga or Vampire Weekend or The Rolling Stones—and when you do, think seriously about buying (or, of course, downloading) Retromania. It will cause you to re-enter the instantaneity and ubiquity of the relentless and unavoidable digital present with healthy wonderment about where we are going.
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