Monday, May 28, 2012


Things that we think of as "classic" today almost always were innovative in their own time (Dickens being a good example). 

To reproduce or imitate or model oneself on the classic is necessarily to forego for oneself the very quality of newness that led to the object of admiration/emulation ever having acquired the status of classic.

Being "classic" in the present  requires having once been insistently not-classic...  perhaps even opposed to the classic. 

Some people get the idea that Retromania is saying “don’t listen to old music” (or by extension, old culture in any genre). Not at all – there’s nothing wrong with listening to or reading or watching classics,  why would you deprive yourself of the greatness of past artistic achievement?  So to me there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a festival of classic movies, and something like TCM is a great service to the public, as is a well-stocked video store like the one we have here in South Pasadena.  What “retro” is about is people making “new” music that is in the style of, imitative of, derivative of , etc  old music . Retro is about repetition, reiteration, reeanactment, recycling.

I had a discussion with someone via  email the other day, he had come away with this idea that Retromania is saying “you must only listen to new music”.   And after pointing out that I myself spend at least half my time listening to old music, I argued that what people forget is that nearly everything that comes down to us as “classic” was in its own time, new.  That is almost the definition, or prerequisite, to becoming a classic in the future – to be an innovator in your own time. Jane Austen – innovator. Shakespeare – innovator. (He used old plots from earlier dramas and legends, true,  but in terms of characterization, psychology, human motivation, interiority, and language invention -  one hell of an innovator!)   Same with music – classic rock on the radio largely comprises bands and artists who were innovators or made significant advances within a genre.

Most innovators, in fact, are deeply steeped in the classics; you need to know your history, in order to break with or take it forward.

But going back to films, looking at Citizen Kane, or even a less Canonical Great film like some genre western or noir film of a period – it’s not necessarily nostalgia driven, on the one hand you’re responding to its enduring artistic qualities;  on the other hand you are learning about a different historical period (or at least, the stories they liked to tell about themselves, the self-image of an era and a society, the myths it believed).

But if you were to make a new movie that went to great trouble to replicate the formal conventions and technical limitations that a much earlier film was based around...   that would seem to have something to do with nostalgia.  And arguably about artistic bankruptcy.

So, The Artist, or those grindhouse movies that Tarantino and the other fellow made a few years ago – that’s retrocinema.

Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with nostalgia, either. Everybody has it, part of human condition. The stuff that bothers me, especially in music, is that sort of empty pastiche, where it’s like, okay, you’ve very cleverly replicated this period style in all its details – but why?

Pop is neither modernist nor postmodernist – but both at the same time. A battle zone across which those impulses struggle. Pop has an in-built tendency to self-reflexively fold back on its own history, something which manifested as early as 1968. Because of the art school input into rock, it is susceptible both to modernist / avant-gardist ideology and to postmodern / ironic / camp sensibility.  

And because of its lack of rigour, its intellectual laxness,  rock artists can hold both sets of values simultaneously, without feeling any sense of contradiction.

The hallmark of modernism is 1/ an anxiety, a dread even, of repeating oneself  2/ an anxiety, a dread even of repeating what somebody else already did. This was felt strongly by figures like Picasso, Duchamp etc

This fear of repeating (oneself / a precusor) has been a strong force in pop music, particularly in certain zones/eras (Sixties; prog and art rock; postpunk; hip hop to varying degrees; techno). But it waxes and wanes, and it is also counterbalanced by equally strong tendencies towards pastiche, copyism, parody, mockery of the form, impersonation.

The presence of really strong original, individual, distinctive voices, or new breakthrough styles, engenders copyism, almost as an inevitable byproduct of its originality / innovations. When this copyism is immediate and present-tense, it is more often than not a positive force, because it changes the sound of the radio (or the dancefloor). Bands copying the Beatles psychedelisms; the Mentasm sound; Timbaland beats being bitten by other R&B producers, etc etc. All this contributes to the overall dialectic of music, its advance.

When this copyism becomes archival and retroactive, it is much less productive - in fact it can be a form of individual abstention from the Now, a self-disconnection from the dialectic. You step aside the common direction, and step backwards.  When a lot of people start doing this, you get entropy, aka hyperstasis.

On seemingly related but actually barely connected tangent: one of the mysteries about pop is its repeatability.  The way that repetition of a song doesn't dim its power, or only at extreme degrees of repetition (absolute blanket radio coverage causing you to get temporarily get sick of a song, for its power to get stale).   A great song is that seemingly contradictory thing: the repeatable surprise. The classic pop single as a radio drama that never wears out.

(This degree of repeatability is not unheard of in other forms, but is much rare. There are some few films that can be watched over and over; a few books, likewise. But wherever plot as such is involved, the ability to repeat-view or repeat-read is severely diminished. Whereas the pop song is plotless, it offers drama without narrative.  (Okay there are some story-songs but most pop songs do not involve a punchline or a narrative pay-off or resolution; they don't "go" anywhere; the capture a state or a moment; they are dramas of energy).


Did my generational cohort pin all its hopes for changes on music, in a fatal displacement, a terrible evasion?  Music became indexed in an intense libidinal way with all those impulses and desires for progress, the Future, upheaval, revolution, etc.  There was a moment when the music seemed able to support that heavy load of hope, indeed it actually seemed to be an agent of change, actively driving the progressive directions and energies. Music seemed to be a social vanguard, ahead of society in some way. But now music has stablilised, normalized: it is just as muddled and static and deadlocked as society is.

If society is stagnant, how can music hope to keep on moving forward and fast?

Convenience as a consumer ideology is over-rated. What is happening now is the conscious embrace of inconvenience, delays, obstacles --- because in that gap likes the possibility of desire, of longing, anticipation.

Retro culture is “non-history”, because its meaning is derived through reference to past history.   

Retroactive culture – especially the reenactment – takes up space in the present in which history could happen. It is the non-time of repetition and redundancy. A reenactment or a reunion is a non-event, an anti-event.

“The Beatles were derivative too” argument is an attempt to cut the past down to the present’s size.

The argument is symptomatic of an inability to even conceive of a time when recycling, revivalism, derivativeness etc were NOT dominant in pop culture.  The argument is further proof then, of retro’s hegemony.

My goal: to make the Noughties as interesting-seeming as possible. A decade where a lot of major stuff happened. Unfortunately the most interesting aspects of Noughties were negative.

To write a phenomenology of digital life.

It’s official! Wikipedia entry on Decades: “Music styles during the 2000s changed very little from how they were at the end of the 1990s”. (The source cited is Alex Petridis, The Guardian)

In what sense do places like Camden Market or Afflecks Palace prefigure in their spatial organization both the Internet and Retro Culture (what Steven Brown calls the retroscape, although we might amend that to the vintagescape). Savage uses Camden Market as his trope for Saint Etienne’s methodology in his sleevenotes to Foxbase Alpha.  In Afflecks Palace, next to a store selling ‘Retro Sweets’ I saw a clothes boutique whose T-shirts include “Fashion Will Eat Itself” and that Jim Jarmusch text about steal everything.  Downstairs though was the frozen future: Cyberdog with its psy-trance clothes.

Of course it goes back further to Benjamin and browsing, the junk shop and the flea market with their incongruous juxtapositions inspiring the Surrealists...  consumerism's afterlife, the compost heap out of which germinates new culture

I should have had a chapter on steampunk, shouldn’t I.

DJs are like aggregation sites, in a way. Accruing surplus value to themselves

Midlife crisis? Actually I was a curmudgeon in the mid-Eighties, in my early 20s.  Most of Monitor consisted of diatribes and gloomy overviews of the state of pop.  I have a bi-polar perspective on music.  Dramatic mood swings. Either the best of times or the worst of times.

Not interested in injecting Botox into my prose. Becoming like the Botox writers who cover music on a weekly basis for the newspapers. The forced / false good cheer, the level sustained state of moderate disengaged enthusiasm.

Old guys usually complain of new music that it’s too fast, too noisy, where’s the melody, it’s all beat – basically, that it’s incomprehensible to them. My complaint: that the new music is too comprehensible to me, too easily placed and sourced and mapped out. My complaint: that music isn’t moving fast enough, that it’s too familiar and easy to cope with.   

Harper on “retro is always meaningful and meaningful music is always retro”. No, retro is often utterly empty, a time and space filling simulacrum.  Music that is absolute new and unretro has often been meaningful (musique concrete, acid house, electro etc).   But yes, there’s a large zone in between where the old is transformed into the new. And it is true that often the best music, the most enjoyable music, involves a play between traditional and futuristic elements – residual and emergent to use Raymond Williams’ formulation. Roots n’ future, to use Phuture Assassins.

The discourse of decline, deterioration, regression, etc is accepted within the realms of economics, politics, environmental and ecological study, etc. Why not then with cultural forms?  It is harder to measure for sure, it is a matter of opinion – and then there is the patriotism and parochialism of an era, a generation, the wound to its ego of saying that its era is lesser or can’t compare to its predecessors.  Every generation likes to think its time is the best time, in some sense the only time.  But this is just generational narcissism.

There are plenty of examples of art forms and fields of creativity and culture that have gone into recession.  Long periods of undistinguished activity, overshadowed by the golden era, imitative of it. Decadence may not be a provable state in the etiology of culture, but it is  historically verifiable as a perception that a culture  adheres to – a self-assessment.

The discourse of the End, the exhaustion of a genre or art form – in literature (John Barth’s “the literature of exhaustion”, not at all depressive or gloomy as a view), arthur Danto’s  The End of Art, Donald Kuspit’s the End of Art.

Personally I always used to enjoy The End of... or The Death Of... type essays.

Something happened, a freezing of the idea of the Contemporary.  You can see it with trap / ratchet, or with the club-house based music on the radio. It’s more or less, at the level of fundamental structure, the same as what future-now music was in the Nineties. It does sound contemporary, still, somehow, but the idea of what contemporary equals has stayed stuck.  It’s as if, back in the Nineties, that music was saying “this is what the future will sound like” – and now we’ve got there, and hey, this is the future and they were right. It still sounds like the future.

Noughties – like name, like nature. The decade where “nought” happened.

The problem of the perfected style, the finished style – to convolute or stretch or avant-ify them is to disable the very things that made them work and give pleasure – dismantling the toy makes it unfun to play with

They say that a copy is never exactly the same as the thing it is copying (Borges said that, but also Gertrude Stein, I think.)


1/ a lot of copies get pretty darn close to the thing they are copying. It’s not for lack of trying

2/ in the digital era, exact replication is a lot easier to achieve.

3/ if the not-same is actually your goal, there are easier ways to achieve that than by copying and hoping for inadvertent difference to emerge. You can consciously pursue not-sameness, by a variety of modernistic strategies.

The 2000s saw no revolution in music, but a revolution in listening habits.

Poptimism was an attempt to herald and hail those changes, a positive spin on these developments (the cloudification of culture). Poptimism is a consumer based view of pop, looking at the expansion of the ways in which you can navigate the pop present and pop history as an unqualified boon, remapping the past and creating your own trajectory through history.  

Retromania is the negative spin on the 2000s.  It looks at the negatives from both the producer (auteur) level and from the consumer aspect (overload, disorientation, fading of affect, erosion of cathexis, the phenomelogy of digital existence) but also from the social aspect too (fragmentation, nanoculture as dissipation and nonconvergence, disappearance of music as a mode of identity formation).

Poptimism is inevitablism (it’s coming, we can't stop it, so we gotta go with the flow). Retromania (aka nu-rockism) is resistant and wary.

Morley’s Words and Music is an early attempt at a positive view that is veined with ambivalence... ultimately whether it’s hell or heaven depends entirely on the reader’s perspective. His more recent books (Earthbound, which converges with both Rip It Up and Retromania) and pieces (like this one about the Rolling Stones at Glastonbury) are much bleaker about music's prospects for the future.

Where does listen without prejudice  become listen without preference?  Loss of all affect

Craft versus Art

The spectrum of shame: tribute band (replica of one band) < cover bands (bluegrass, etc)  < genre-focused pastiche but original songs < era-tribute band (Primal Scream etc) <  recombinant / pomo-reference (Costello, Basement Jaxx, White Stripes, Prince) < innovative but starting with sources (Beatles, Stones, Wire, Talking Heads, Police, Radiohead) < ex nihilo (musique concrete, abstract electronic music etc)

None of these levels are actually shameful really provided the people at that level have a proper sense of their category and an appropriate modesty – problems start when craft-y  types start thinking they’re art-y, when they record albums for sale, attempt to have  get a critical assessment

Modernistic (the artist career as a line  of forward movement, implicitly teleological, each phase superceding or expanding upon the previous one, movement along an axis of intensification) versus the Retro-Recombinant (the artist ziz-zagging through the archives, style-leaps arbitrary and in no particular sequence or logic – Costello, Ariel Pink)

There are other career trajectories and approaches – the static-incremental – the wildly original artist who has one thing that that they hone and perfect and intensify

The modernist line of evolution tends to reach a dead end or to go along the axis of development until it reaches the Zone of Fruitless Intensification, at which point artists often go back to an earlier phase and decide this is their sweet spot (Talking Heads, Radiohead)

Surprised nobody has made the critique of Retromania as having a basis in heteronormative and biologistic tropes. Sterility as a negative term.  Also the negative value attributed to terms like shopping, craft, d├ęcor, irony, camp, fashion...  smacks of “heterosexual modernism”.
(e.g. chapter on collecting and the horrified thought that all this time when I thought I was doing something else, I was only shopping)

To this I would argue that the strength, fervour, forward drive, “ardent rigour”, obsession, etc that is exalted explicitly throughout the book is not necessarily gendered – there are female culture warriors (Patti Smith, Slits, Ke$ha  etc), countless female and gay modernists in the history of art and literature.

Of course you might say that the “battlefield of culture” model is simply obsolete – that a non-combatant, non-explorer view of music is what needs to developed

Biologistic tropes – I really think there might be something organic about analogue modes versus digital modes.  Analogue–era music and culture seems to invite the language of growth, grass roots, evolution, “seminal”, hybrids, mutations, spawning etc

Digital culture operates in more uncanny ways – cut + paste, montage, photocopy, replication, cloning.  The simulacrum. Reproduction in the non-biological sense.

Is the difference between digital and analogue essentially the same as the difference between organic and inorganic? Is that the ontological basis of the difference between history-as-history and history-as-retro.  Or is that too heteronormative a coding? (“Sterile”, etc). The copy as clone, as asexual reproduction.  The analogue process does seem to allow in imperfection, change through mutation, etc.  The digital copy is exact, perfect, there is no multiplication-ory element to the process  (“go forth and multiply”), at most it can be addititive (the mash-up).

Avant-garde as a military term. The longing for heroes and a great unknown. The Astronaut as model.  Plateau as negative term c.f. altitudes (Nietzche)

Even more perturbing analogy would be with the concept of lebensraum – an endless expansion for music – the model of the self as an explosive self  --  genres or movements that move with blitzkrieg speed into unconquered territory

Shock troops and the shock aesthetic

The flirting with the concept of decadence -- a historically suspect concept, given those who have wielded it.

Decadence, it seems to me, can partly be defined as pleasure without desire –   

Pleasure in itself, as Zizek or is it Badiou said, has no emancipatory value in itself.
What 2000s brought about was an affluence of limitless pleasure whose instant-access availability and lack of cost meant that the interval in which desire could form itself (also known as intrigue, mystery, fascination) almost disappeared. No obstacles to gratification.   A hollow repletion, ultimately unsatisfying.

Subculture as enclaves of uncivilisation versus pop – throwbacks to earlier modes of sociality, tribal consciousness,  the reduced-options environment – gemeinschaft versus gesellschaft – Jameson’s point that the utopia is closed off, cut-off, hermetic, often literally isolated – an island.
Rock history is the history of more primitive / unsophisticated / less-civilised modes of being invading the pop mainstream  -- early rock’n’roll... early hip hop ... reggae... metal .... rave.... jungle .... grime

Speaking of a world that was more urgent, more primal, impulse-driven

But also truth-based, not ironic / Rorty-esque /"language games"-y

Each music a belief system versus the pop sophisticate’s agnostic hedonism

(Then again, pure pop – teenybop pop – also = a kind of barbarianism, impulse-emotion fueled - - a religious hysteria  -- if not a religion as with subcultures then an idolatry)

The ideology of innovation is a self-fulfilling fallacy. It’s a myth that continues to pay dividends. Don’t stop believin’


Modernist / minimalist / reductionist / subtractive


Postmodern / maximalist / ornamentalist / additive

Modernist psychology – the agon of anxiety of influence, the struggle with the primary influence as a patricidal self-birthing – Freudian
Postmodernist psychology – the dispersed/saturated self pulled this way and that way by the currents of influence-as-information  -- kaleidophrenic  - post-Freudian –  the inundated self

The ideology of information --- sees everything (culture etc) as exchanges of information, collations of information, data transfers, codings, references -- but ignores (or removes) the element of will, primal drive, libido etc that animates artistic activity     -- the violence behind and within music -- music as a force, not a mere pattern

No comments:

Post a Comment