Monday, November 14, 2011

Retromania-Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past by Simon Reynold

"Be cruel to those who would keep you chained to your past."-Ken Knabb
"The problem isn't an in ability to innovate; it's an incapacity to come up with visionary goals to aim for."-Simon Reynolds
" (The 2000s may be)the first decade of pop music to be remembered by history more for its musical technology rather than the actual music itself." - Pitchfork writer Eric Harvey
"Once you want to place it in a museum,  rock n' roll's over." Steve Jones (Sex Pistols/Professionals guitarist and online dj during an NPR interview).

I'm the first renegade Time Lord  (not all of us are passing off as British "eccentrics"),  drunk on Earth's past and present enlightened troublemakers  (the situationists,  punks,  unruly workers,  Diggers,  radical hackers,  ranters,  pirates,  !Kung!Bushmen,  etc.) and their inspiration and innovation,  to review one of the more provocative tomes of the 21st century. I'm currently 300 years old, and in better shape than the ruling fossils I left behind on Galifrey thank you, and reading Simon Reynold's Retromania brings up nagging questions I've encountered in previous travels to places and times where pop culture flourished: if pop music is all about right now, what happens when the past refuses to go quietly? Is the present, well Earth's present, collapsing into the past and is obsessive nostalgia killing originality and distinctiveness needed for present efforts? Is retromania here to stay or will it too prove to be a historical phase?
I've seen some nasty results from these conundrums before (ex. Sauntarans seizing planets just to raid the rare record collections of intergalactic funkateers). However, I find I'm like many 21st century humans in my capacity to love both the immediate past (and older) and present in terms of pop music. In fact,  I tend to favor say 60s soul or 90s gabber over the majority of 2011 indie rock bands,  most of which are rehashing late 60s to 90s elements (ex. 90s shoe gazing,  80s house,  late 60s "beardism" i.e. noveau hippies doing folk and country, etc.); Reynolds says that it wasn't necessarily the failure of new movements and genres to emerge or the sluggishness of established ones in the 2000s that brought on the current stasis but"the way that recycling and recursion became structural features of the music scene,  substituting novelty (difference from what immediately preceded) for genuine innovation."
Reynolds, music critic and author of invigorating and incisive books such as Rip It Up and Start Again:  Post Punk 1978-1984, Energy Flash:  A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture,  and Bring The Noise: 20 Years of Writing About Rock and Hip Hop is one of the few people questioning the contradictions of hyper digitization and information overload through studying the fun
house mirror reflections of music producers and consumers. Effective criticism involves both the critic's personal feelings and precision surgery that cuts away layers of public emotional defenses that are actually miserable responses to the current organization of life's external misery. One of Reynold's main strengths is this ability to connect his life to the mass effects of high technology and retromania especially in chapters Total Recall:  Music and Memory In The Time of You Tube and Record Collecting and the Twilight of Music As Object.
Before we venture further, some concepts and definitions to note:  A. Where mass culture and personal memory meet is where retro is spawn. B. Retro focuses on stuff that happened in living memory. C. Retro involves an element of exact recall for the precise replication of an old style (ex. the Internet,  photos,  videos,  etc.)rather than marvelous mutated interpretations. D. Retro is strictly about pop culture as opposed to classical culture. E.Retro allows for playfulness with the past as hip material to recombine and recycle; it downplays scholarship and purism for irony and eclecticism.
Reynolds mentions that people he interviewed for this book made itexplicit that they had nothing to do with retro even if they were against all modern pop culture; he found a parallel to their serious commitment vs. trendy ironic retro in recent hipster bashing critiques, meta critiques of hipster bashing, and the journalistic subgenre that asks,  "Whatever happened to innovation?"
Reynolds divides Retromania into Now, Then, and Tomorrow sections. Some of the more absurd moments of the Now section include re-enactments (artists painstakingly re-staging unique musical events such as the Cramps 1978 Napa State Mental Institute concert and Einsturzende Neubauten's 1984 Concerto for Voice and Machinery at the English Institute of Contemporary Art which included attempted drilling through the auditorium floor)and the "museum-ification" of rock's history. The former,  the art world trend of re-enactments,  was an out growth of the tribute band. Neubauten's original concert was also a confrontation with authority literally over low level destruction and violence that resulted from their performance (it is still questionable to whether a band member or audience member attempted drilling)and symbolically as their drilling was to get at subterranean tunnels provided for royalty in case of nuclear attack. Reynold's asks "what does it mean to make that clash happen 'again', this time with the permission of the authority in question?" He concludes that re-enactments are "doomed to be an absurd ghost,  a travesty of the original...yet the reenactment may still have the power to remind the audience that Events (philosopher Alain Badiou's term for dramatic historical breaks such as political revolutions and scientific and cultural breakthroughs that also irrupt newness)are still possible." The museum-ification of rock n' roll history sucks the life out of the music as museums are the final resting place of "objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying." Reynolds also wonders, "when Huyssen asks rhetorically, 'Why are we building museums as if there is no tomorrow?, 'if the answer is that we can no longer imagine tomorrow."
The hardest hitting Now sections, the Total Recall and Lost In The Shuffle chapters,  re-examine vices I share with millions of 21st century Earthlings. After saving the universe and cleaning up messes that other Time Lords,  renegades or not,  made,  I end up spending VAST amounts of time in You Tube land and adjunct portals SUCKING IT ALL IN like the bio-cyber jungle plants of  X-003 that live off satellite transmissions and videohydrate a toxic yet sweet smelling atmosphere. Reynold's calculates that since the summer of 2010,  You Tube attracts two billion views per day with every minute another 24 hours of worth of video is uploaded and it would take an individual 1, 700 years to watch all of them! Even a Time Lord would have difficulty enduring that amount of time despite the relative strength of our regenerations. You Tube exists neither as passive diversion nor illicit drug but as a field of practice; You Tube allows remediation, people re-post mass media entertainment and news in excerpted form,  and "post" broadcasting,  leaving behind the dominance of big tv networks and entering consumer driven narrowcasting as well as being post modern (cut and paste collage like expression with citations). You Tube practice,  the time display at the bottom of the You Tube videos allowing you to drag it to jump to the "good parts",  and the sheer tidal wave of up to the minute news and persistent nostalgic junk piles on the Web in general "make us restless,  erodes our ability to focus and be in the moment. We are always interrupting ourselves,  disrupting the flow of experience."
Two noxious effects of rampant digital restoration and redistribution of what once existed in its own specific past zones,  trapped in specific objects,  and locations include loss of "cultural appetite" (ex. stockpiling large volumes of  retro blogs' rare recordings only to find yourself burnt out before consuming half of them taking up lots of space in your computer) and the cultural paradox of simultaneous high tech speed acceleration and standstill or what Reynolds calls hyperstasis- individual and cultural paralysis from too many choices and skipping and skimming.
The Lost In The Shuffle section tackles the impact of mp3s on people, business (especially the Long Tail theory that basically says the Internet makes it easier for cheaper retail operations without the need for space records require and the need to turnover lots of new product for shelf space so they can delve deeper into back catalog products that cost effectively outweigh new releases),  and the act of record collecting. The i-Pod also gets taken apart for its role in shifting music as a social activity to a more private one and ironically as being used more by rock listeners as a classic rock radio station or oldies station that you lug around avoiding radio's surprises, connection with people you might have nothing else in common with,  and strange social alliances.
The Then section encounters five of my favorite loves (I can't speak for my other two regenerations):  60s mod revival, the Northern Soul scene,  70s punk (and reactionary roots),  70s pub rock,  70s 50s rockabilly revivals,  & 70s glam (the "atavistic-futuristic brutalism" that spiritually drew from 50s rock n' roll but was a new sound for the 70s and also the first post modernist rock n' roll moment). He gets SPIRITED interviews from Roctober friends/fave raves Miriam Linna of the The A-Bones and Norton Records,  Tim Warren of Crypt Records,  Billy Childish of The Pop Rivets,  Thee Headcoats, The Milkshakes,  and numerous other bands,  books,  and artwork as well as a co-founder of the Stuckism art movement (read the No Future chapter for more on it),  and the late great Lux Interior of The Cramps. In contrast, the Tomorrow section deals with, among other things,  post and post post modernist  dj oriented subgenres as British Hauntology and mash ups as well as American cousins of sorts the purveyors of what is known simultaneously as chill wave,  glo-fi,  and hypnagogic pop. Hauntology and hypnagogic pop share a common approach for finding strangeness as well as elements discarded by other generations' "hipness" (New Age music and 80s cop show music for example). The clash of views on the immediate past and uses of it shows the nuances and generational differences of how retromania manifests itself; the older rock n' roll devotees refuse to deal with culture after the mid 60s and the younger ones tend to make artier uses of 70s and 80s material.
Of course culture is also political in its functions. After all cultural spectacles,  whether mainstream or co opted from more radical and subversive elements,  can be used to get you to buy all the other spectacles of capitalism (i.e. endless wars,  political campaigns, corporate crime,  national [in]security,  etc.). Yet as I compose this review,  the planet is experiencing an upsurge in collective direct action against aspects of capitalism,  against the rich minority and their schemes of grabbing more money and political power at the expense of human needs and accountability. The #Occupy movement is globally drawing on a wide range of people,  surpassing the 60s US movement,  and its strength comes from grass roots autonomy and direct democracy in general assemblies.
My old friend Sigmund (yes I met the young Freud, he helped me save the world from horny huge space worms trying to mate and colonize,  and our experience drove him to his cocaine habit and some of his famous theories)might say that the two main cultural opposites Reynolds addresses,  the retromania boom and the drive towards uncritical mainstream assimilation of what is popular and "safe" are both driven,  in part, by insecurities with dealing with the present; my other friend Karl,  yes that Marx Brother who was a drinking partner for a week during the Paris Commune,  would say these tendencies are both sides of the same coin of  bourgeois consumerism even though retro is largely amiddle class phenomena and hard mainstream assimilation is largely poor and working class including immigrants and/or ethnic groups historically excluded from big government and business decision making. I say that
while these are bitter truths these drives are subject to the historical moment's global effects. The longer and deeper the #Occupy movement continues the more optimism,  already felt by participants and increasing supporters momentarily outside of it,  will spread due to the power in direct action that contains more potential than the clunky armoring of cynicism and complacency (compare what is happening now with the hopelessness felt last year...this has been a year of awakening for the international proletariat).When optimism shines more the more the confidence and enthusiasm to innovate,  first as a necessity in the streets and then in culture,  become revitalized. The visionary goals Reynolds opines for are being worked out in direct democratic (democracy is direct not the bourgeois/corporate dumbocracy the majority of Earthlings historically tolerate) experiments and "strange alliances" of direct action participants and music producers will continue creating conscious,  confrontational,  and innovative music to make up for a long period of  relative absence in popular culture. Reynold's book , although focused on music,  might ultimately serve its purpose better as a tool examining excess,  limits,  perceptual hierarchies,  high technology,  and consciousness to add to the discussions and debates over what the future can be by making things happen NOW!

1 comment:

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