I have done something like 150 interviews about Retromania -- for magazines, radio, TV, and at public events - and as you can imagine, certain topics come up repeatedly, so I've gotten pretty good at responding them. Here, culled from email interviews and from published interviews, are some of those frequently asked questions and their frequently given answers.
It seems like you are saying that retro is a new phenomenon. But surely it has been going for years?
No, the argument of Retromania is not that revivalism and pastiche is a completely new, unique to the 21st Century phenomenon. Nor is it asserting that it is a completely barren field of artistic endeavour.
In fact, the book, in its second half, explores the roots of retro, going back to examples of revivalism in pop as far back as the very end of the Sixties. What I contend is different about the last 15 years - broadly speaking, the broadband era - is the degree and intensity of the recycling, and the absence of a strong force of musical innovation to counter it. The only contenders in the past decade I can see are dubstep, which I underestimated in the book, and perhaps the AutoTune phenomenon in pop, which has been used as a creative or at least an extreme tool in terms of vocal manipulation.
But overall it’s undeniable that the last 15 years or so have been inundated with retro-pastiche, revivalism, nostalgia marketing, reissues, archival culture, vintage aesthetics – all to a degree never before seen, and converging in such a way as to make for a depressingly muddled and undynamic spectrum of music, whether in the pop mainstream or in the various undergrounds.
That there have been some original interventions within this field of “recreativity" is undeniable, and something I acknowledge and investigate in the book. But it doesn’t compare to the modernistic self-renewing drive of the Beatles/Kate Bush/Talking Heads model of the rock artist, or the emergence of new genres (prog rock, metal, dub reggae, postpunk, disco, techno, industrial, etc) in the Seventies and Eighties.
Talking of inundation, to me the apt analogy is with climate change and global warming. That phenomenon has been building for decades - it didn’t just come about overnight. There have been voices warning about it for a long time. But there’s no doubt that the situation with global warming is reaching a crisis point, which you can see it in the drastic changes in the weather systems.
It's the same with retro.
People - including myself, going back to some of my earliest writings in the late Eighties - have been fretting about it and complaining about it for yearss. But the situation gets worse, there's a sense of escalation and impending crisis. And there had never been a book-length exploration of the phenomenon and the issues it raises. Hence, Retromania.
What was the triggering event - if there was any - that made you decide to write the book?
The feeling crept up on me through the 2000s, the sense that pop music had succumbed to a fatal attraction to its own accumulated history. Could this pull be resisted, I wondered? Or were heading irresistibly towards a kind of black hole of pop time?
It’s hard to point to a turning point where I thought “hey, there is a book to be written on this subject”. But the Beatles’s album Love—a mashed up remix of the group’s greatest hits done by George Martin and his son Giles, released as an album in late 2006 – felt like a significant development. It seemed to symbolise our collective desire to reconsume and revisit rock’s glory years, over and over again. I also noticed the growth of a nostalgia industry of reunion tours: in particular, the “Don’t Look Back” events, where a band or performer plays their most iconic album in the original track sequence, a template that was then widely adopted throughout the live concert promotions industry. The rapid development of YouTube as a gigantic collective archive of pop cultural video and TV clips also caught my attention. Conversely, there was also a lot of music I really loved based around the idea of memory or ghosts: Ariel Pink, the Ghost Box label in Britain, and many others. This seemed like a really provocative way of engaging with the past, and much of based around the notion of “the lost future”. To describe this tendency in music, I and some other writers borrowed “hauntology”, from Jacques Derrida.
But most of all I was preoccupied by the fact that innovation in music seemed to have slowed down and occurrences of newness in music became much harder to find: most music was heavily involved in reworking established styles, slight tinkering or recombination. Or it was outright pastiche, with a self-conscious referentiality not just at the forefront of the music, but actually integral to the enjoyment the listener got out of it.
In the 2000s, there had been no major new formations of music and youth culture on the scale of hip hop or techno-rave. The closest contenders as new genres--grime and dubstep-- were really extensions of things that had gone on in the Nineties (UK rave culture, specifically jungle and drum’n’bass music). So how did this situation develop, and was it a terminal syndrome? This was the primary impetus for writing Retromania.
How did you come up with the concept of retromania?
I’m not sure “retromania” is a concept, really. It’s a word I used a title for the book - and I settled on it towards the end of the writing process, after having failed to come up with a title I preferred! In the end I think it was the right title, though. I see ‘retromania’ not as a concept or a theory but as an open-ended evocative term for a bunch of phenomena to do with retro, vintage, nostalgia, revivalism, curatorial aesthetics, commemorative culture, collecting, reissuing, etc . These phenomena are related and intermeshed but they also have their own discrete trajectories and specific determinants, and they can each be traced back in history a good way (in some cases several decades, if not longer). But the convergence of these tendencies in the first decade of the 21st Century adds up to a cultural landscape that seems to deserve a term like “retromania”. It’s a good ambivalent word for the overall mood of the culture. For a condition that could be seen as a malaise, but also as something distinctive and defining of our time, with aspects that are exciting and culturally productive.
“Mania” is suggestive of something out of control, an addiction or obsession, something on the edge of madness. It suggests both craziness and a craze (in the sense of fashion or fad). But mania also contains the idea of excitement and enthusiasm. And that fits because there are aspects of retro culture that are enjoyable and compelling. Certainly retro’s charms are something that I’m far from immune to. The book is written from the standpoint of someone who is as prey to retromaniacal tendencies as anyone. It’s a self-critique as much as critique of anybody else.
The word itself is something that seems to have been out there, drifting around in the pop culture ether, for some time now. I've seen vintage clothes boutiques called Retromania.
Actually I discovered recently in my files a piece I wrote in 1990 that was about reissues and retrospection in rock – it was published by the Guardian newspaper under a different title, but the title I gave it was “Retro-Mania”. So maybe I was the first. I doubt it. But what that shows also is that all these interrelated phenomena I'm lumping under the term “retromania”, they have been building for a while! And in fact they’ve been a concern of mine almost from the start of my writing (I was doing fanzines from 1984 and writing for Melody Maker from 1986). But I think they have built to a new intensity since the rise of broadband internet circa 2000, which enabled forms of sharing, collecting, documentation and archiving that are like nothing we could have dreamed of before. That has definitely added greatly to the manic aspect of retromania – the ease of access to the pop cultural past, the instantness and the total recall that’s possible.
Another point to make is that not everything about “retromania” is bad or boring. Some people doing retromaniacal work are among the most thought-provoking and entertaining artists of our time. Retromania is just a catchphrase to evoke a general condition of inundation of the past into our present. There is such a diverse range of activity going on in this field, from stuff that is just outright lame and exploitative (most Hollywood movie remakes, all tribute bands) to stuff that falls under the banner of what I call “recreativity” (mash-ups, reenactments, etc) and that varies widely in quality and pertinence, but it is certainly culturally significant to argue about in so far as it does tell us something about where our culture is at. And there are musicians like Ariel Pink or the Ghost Box who are doing really amazing, emotionally resonant work based around cultural memory and nostalgia. Even a phenomenon like vintage porn has different aspects and zones, from refined collectors of esoteric erotica to websites that are just exploiting their back catalogues of porn magazines and porn film companies, through to a magazine like Jacques which is like a very hip, stylized recreation of “quality pornography” from a different era.
Given your similarly encyclopedic studies of rave culture and post-punk when did you first become aware of “retromania” as an affliction? I can’t imagine the idea came separate from them?
My editor in the U.K., Lee Brackstone, said something at one of the London events about how Retromania was the last volume in a sort of trilogy that started with Energy Flash (a/k/a Generation Ecstasy) and continued with Rip It Up and Start Again. I had never thought of that before but it makes sense: Energy Flash is about the Nineties as one long future-rush, and Rip It Up is about growing up during postpunk and how that would make me the kind of person who would embrace rave and techno as a renaissance for the modernist spirit in music. And then Retromania is about what happened to those energies when we actually reached the future, which is to say the 21st Century. It’s a history of the present, meaning the 11 or 12 years of the 2000s and early 2010s.
When I was looking back over my old writings to see if there was anything I could repurpose for Retromania, I was struck by how often – and by how early – retro had been a preoccupation. Even in an essay on the parlous state of music in 1985 that I wrote in our fanzine Monitor, there’s a reference to the glut of reissues. Later on I would be writing in Melody Maker about bands I loved that were very obviously influenced by the Sixties but trying to imagine them as the start of something new rather than a faint echo of a lost golden age. That took some rhetorical effort, as you can imagine. It’s definitely been there as a concern right from almost the start: the accumulating burden of rock’s own history, and how that becomes an insidious mindset of reference and reverence. I think my generation inherited a sense of belatedness, that we were after the Sixties and most of us had missed punk too. So there was a kind of struggle to outflank that condition of being the epigone.
What's new and what's old in music?
That’s too big a question, really. I wrote a whole book about this and it is as full of questions as it is answers! I think it is easier to identify what is obviously old and second-hand than it is to talk about the new. There are any number of examples of groups that are directly modeled on a precursor band from decades earlier, or who combine clearly signposted elements from different eras of music, different ancestor bands, and then have a retro vintage thing going on with their clothes, the typeface and art work on the record covers. This is the dominant aesthetic in indie music and while there are people who use that aesthetic to create attractive and entertaining and “well done” work, there remains for me a big question about what exactly it is bringing into the world that is really valuable. There is a lot of music in the world, too much, and for me one way of cutting through the glut of sound and focusing on what really matters is having a really stringent set of criteria about newness and originality.
You can have innovation that is sonic and relates to sound, texture, technology; innovation that is structural and relates more to melody and harmony and song-structure; and then innovation that is not musical at all but is to do with lyrics and persona. The best thing is when you have all three of these going on, but there are valuable artists who have just one aspect. For instance a lot of electronic dance music is innovative in terms of sound-texture and rhythm, but it’s melodies are pretty simple and old fashioned. Then there are artists who are traditionalist in their music style but do innovative things with lyrics and their whole attitude and persona (PJ Harvey I think is a good example)
What’s the biggest criticism of Retromania that you've found unfair or unfounded?
That the book is one long grouch. It’s fairly clear, at least if you’ve actually read it, that I’m as fascinated and intrigued by retro culture as I am alarmed and disgusted. And as I make explicit upfront, I am also involved in the culture myself, as a fan who obsessively pores over rock history and who loves certain retromaniacal artists, but also professionally, through reviewing reissues, being in rock docs, and so forth. So I would describe the book as “an ambivalent indictment”.
The other angle that some reviewers put forth that I find suspect is this notion that recycling and derivativeness have always part of pop culture. I think this is symptomatic of the very syndrome I’m critiquing: there’s an inability to believe or even imagine that there was ever anything unprecedented or out of the blue in music. But rock history –indeed popular culture history, in general – is teeming with examples of things that are “new under the sun”. The artists in question usually start from something—they have primary influences and sources that they wrestle with-- but very quickly they take those influences to totally unexpected and radically new places. The Beatles, obviously, but James Brown, Miles Davis, Kraftwerk, Giorgo Moroder, Talking Heads, Chic, etc etc etc. And whole genres – roots/dub reggae, electro, techno, jungle etc etc.
Why do you think being interested in the past is so bad? History is interesting. The past is rich. Why shouldn't musicians take inspiration from it? Why shouldn't fans explore old music?
"Retro" is often used as a vague insult for anything considered traditional, nostalgic, derivative. And in Retromania I do use "retro" in that loose, elastic sense to refer to a set of overlapping syndromes: the emergence of a nostalgia industry, the rise of rock heritage, things like the Eighties revival and the unimaginable but seemingly inevitable Nineties revival, the endgame of musical postmodernism in the form of pastiche and curatorial aesthetics running rife through various underground genres.
Perhaps forgivably people assume that because I'm criticizing retro culture I'm opposed to anything old and from the past. Actually I don't have any problem with history: people taking an interest in past eras of music, writing books about them, making documentaries. Trying to understand the past and to bring it to life in some way that doesn't diminish it-- that's a noble calling.
The problem with retro culture is that it is utterly immersed in the past, but it is increasingly ahistorical. Retro is the exploitation of the past-- its history-making exploits, all the hard work that was put into creating new forms--in a way that never ceases to be dependent on history but that doesn't illuminate it or reactivate it in a way that gives it any kind of renewed relevance in the present. It's just simulation, a replication that is depthless, all about surface stylization.
An expert in fashion said that fashion revivals will always work as there will ever be someone who never wore that. Can we translate that into the music world?
Someone who disagreed with Retromania said that "everything you have never heard is new by definition." If you think about the implications of that, it's an extraordinarily self-centered and solipsistic idea to propose: if I haven't heard something before, then it is new, no matter how many objective precedents for it exist. Now arguably that might apply to listening to music, being a fan and a consumer. When I first heard Astral Weeks, Younger Than Yesterday and Forever Changes in the early Eighties, they were revelations, because I'd never really listened to Sixties music properly. It was new to me. But if I had then gone on to make music and it was very similar to the Byrds or Love, and then if I had had the temerity to press up some vinyl copies and send it to a music paper for consideration, it would be perfectly appropriate and legitimate for a music journalist to dismiss it by saying, "well, this has been done before."
Equally, if a musician somehow had managed to never hear the Beatles music, and just started writing songs and they happened to retrace the footsteps of the Beatles, it strikes me as perfectly fair to tell that musician, "this thing you're doing, it was done three or four decades ago."
It might be "new" to that musician, but it's not new to me or to any but the most ignorant listeners. In an objective, measurable sense, the music is not new.
Well, that is the state of 95 percent of today's music scene! The best stuff today is the stuff that is chewing over the past in a knowing and playful way, and that is honest about its derivativeness and has some fun with it, by combining unlikely influences or digging deep in the past, for things everybody forgot about or never even knew about. But this artfully recombinant stuff is not comparable, is not in the same league as The Beatles's "Tomorrow Never Knows", or Kraftwerk's "Computer World", or Bowie's Low, or Kate Bush's The Dreaming, or Talking Heads's Remain In Light, or any number of hip hop, house, techno and jungle tracks from the Eighties and the 90s. It pales next to the genuinely innovative music that has always been a prominent force within popular culture .... until the last decade or so.
Nostalgia and retro are related but not exactly the same, right?
In the book I talk about retro in two ways. There is a sort of vague use of “retro” as an umbrella term for anything to do with phenomena that have some relationship to the past; usually it’s a derogatory or slightly mocking use of the word. All the things that get loosely described as ‘retro’ are dealt with in the book: nostalgia, reunion tours, heritage culture, rock museums, revivals, reissuing, remakes, etc. However ‘retro’ actually has a more specific meaning that actually has little to do with nostalgia as an emotion of genuine loss and longing towards the past.
Retro in this narrower, precise sense refers to a cultivated appreciation of past styles, usually with a sense of irony as opposed to anguish. Retro aesthetes are charmed by the quaintness of things from the past, but they don’t want to go back in time. This “pure” retro is much more aestheticized and style-oriented. In a non-pejorative sense, just a simple statement of fact, it is superficial: it attends to and delights in the surface properties of the style. That’s why ‘retro’ in this sense first manifested in the world of fashion and graphic design. Then it gradually spread into, or emerged within, music. And initially it was a rarefied, sophisticated sensibility, and in the rather earnest context of rock culture in the 70s, it was cutting edge. The pioneers of it in rock would have been figures like Roxy Music, or later the B-52s. Art school and/or gay musicians. Nowadays it is really widespread in “post-indie” music culture and a lot of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking operators currently active approach the past as this gigantic flea market of sound and style and imagery through they sift for style signifiers to play with.
What do you mean by "pop's addiction to its own past"?
The analogy there is not so much in terms of drug addiction (although there is a mania to some of the retro activity in the last decade or so) but more like the West’s addiction to oil. A form of dependency on ideas laid down in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties.
But you could counter that fossil fuel based analogy with another resources-based analogy, and claim that retro is recycling, it’s a form of artistic ecology – instead of this crazed, frantic, unreleastic belief in constant innovation, which came out of that unbalanced decade the Sixties, this is a more realistic vision of how culture develops: slowly, incrementally, renovating past forms and getting more use of them. A sort of zero growth view of culture. Maybe that’s a more sane way to see how culture grows and develops. Unfortunately my whole metabolism is wired into the more manic tempo of eras like postpunk, when I grew up, and the rave Nineties, when I came into my own as a critic. In different ways postpunk and rave were like replays of the Sixties: the obsession with constant change and the future. But perhaps that level of innovation and mutation and onward acceleration is literally unsustainable.
It could be that the modernism and the neophilia of the 20th Century was a byproduct of a period of dynamic economic growth, which peaked in the Sixties, and was related to cheap fossil-fuel energy sources. And a lot of historians believe that the major shift in recent history that changed that dynamic was the oil crisis in 1973-74: the end of the era of cheap energy. So perhaps the idea of a slow down is to be welcomed.
Nicholas Bourriaud in one of his books actually connects modernism in art with the acceleration and expansion of economies supercharged by sudden access to vast stockpiles of energy – with the invention of oil drilling and refining, the tapping of natural gas, and all the side effects of that in terms of mass transport, the combustion engine, trains, aeroplanes. Everything went faster.
Part of the problem of our time is the sense of being an old culture, living in an aftermath period following the 20th Century with all its turbulence and continuous changes in culture, fashion, music, arts. It is perhaps inevitable that we would become mesmerized by the accumulation of all the styles and art forms and movements and moments, especially as our archiving systems have developed to this extraordinary point where we can access all the high points of the last 50 to 100 years, as audio and video and text. So it could be that inevitable period of pause and digestion was bound to follow all that dynamism and growth. For people like me though, whose aesthetic nervous system was wired during the Seventies and Eighties, this sensation of slowing-down feels alarming and frustrating.
Could we run out of past anytime soon?
"Running out of the past" refers more to the sense that the Nineties revival, which is already happening and seems to be both inescapable and perfectly logical, is a thought that fills my mind with a sense of incredulity. It seems absurd. But it will happen and in fact is already happening. And there seems every likelihood that there will be a Noughties revival at some point. What they will find there to revive, I do not know.
Theoretically the number of recombinations you can make out of the past, meaning primarily 20th Century recorded music, is infinite. In practice, you see a lot of familiar, worn-out, redundant ideas cropping up again and again. One of the problems with the DIY ethos, and all the facilitating technology people have available now, is that it’s led to an overproduction of music, and lots of people who have some skill and talent, but aren’t really artists, are making music. And retro modes appeal because it involves craftsmanship, the enjoyable side of art to do with making stuff and getting it right. But it doesn’t require the difficult part of art, which is vision, innovation, thinking musical thoughts nobody else ever has. Bringing something new under the sun into the world.
If you think of how much actually happened in the 20th Century, maybe recycling and recombining could go on for quite a while. So the alarmist, "crisis impending" framing of the book is perhaps misplaced. But the problem I think is that all the really good eras for retro and revival have been visited once or twice already. So there is a logic that pushes people towards the deservedly forgotten music of the past. I find myself doing this all the time when i’m in secondhand record stores, I’ve even rebought records that I once owned and got rid of at the time because they weren’t much good.
Isn’t art always indebted to past creators? No one creates out of the blue, surely?
Actually I do think there have been artists, and artistic movements, who’ve created out of the blue. Musique concrete and electronic composition from the early Fifties onwards. Certain electronic dance genres and artists from the Eighties onwards. Usually this kind of pure, ex nihilo creativity has a relationship with technology, finding new possibilities in recently created equipment. The electric guitar from the mid-Sixties onwards becomes this huge field of innovation, people exploring the possibilities of effects, of amplification, feedback, and also in tandem with studio advances, the possibilities of overdubbing, phasing, reverse, multitracking. That took decades to unfold fully and to become exhausted.
But yes, most artists – even people like Hendrix, or the Beatles – start with something. The question is whether they take it anywhere, or build on it. I think of the figures in the Sixties like the Beatles, Stones, Byrds, Dylan, Hendrix, as joining an on-going musical conversation and then extending it, often in drastic ways that would have been inconceivable to the people who started the conversation. The Beatles and the Stones started out covering songs by or imitating the style of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, but by the mid-to-late Sixties they are doing things—“Rain”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Sympathy for the Devil”, “Moonlight Mile”—that would their heroes would never have dreamed of. Also, when they joined the rock’n’roll/electric blues “conversation”, they were mostly inspired by music that from a few years earlier: too recent to be considered “retro”. The artists they admired were still around and still active. This is radically different from say Jack White on his new album covering a song by Little Willy John from 1961. And everybody agrees that “I’m Shakin’” is the best thing on the album! White’s approach from the start has been archival, it’s about stepping out of a current musical conversation and going back to something that’s anywhere from 30 to 40 years earlier. It’s the craft of making reproduction antiques. And it’s very much couched in terms of a rejection of the present, an avoidance of current music-making technology in favour of the antiquated recording equipment his role models had at their disposal (which in their own time was state of the art!).
I don’t think the influence of Lewis Carroll on John Lennon’s lyrics, or the fact that Morrissey loved Oscar Wilde (and admired any number of authors, films, etc) is really what I’m talking about in Retromania. Mostly I’m talking about sonic innovation. And then the overt impulse to pastiche, the rise of a curatorial mindset, music that is based around references. And I mention Morrissey as a precursor of that, with the way that he used the Smiths singles as form of iconographic education for his fans, turning them onto his heroes and touchstones. Also in his lyrics he often sampled films and books he liked. But I don’t think that detracts that much from his awesome originality as a persona, performer, singer and writer of lyrics. I think it’s one of the few true cases where “talent borrows, genius steals” actually applies. The monstrous originality of Morrissey as a character, as this force of nature, means that anything he steals actually becomes assimilated to him: he owns it.
By the way, I don’t regard all uses of historical elements in music or youth fashion to be “retro”. For instance I don’t think of the folk scene or the blues scene in Sixties as retro, they were using these older forms but they were electrifying the music with electric guitars and amplification, they added different kinds of lyrics that were more bohemian or counter-cultural, soon they added other musical influences like jazz or Indian music in there. And it was all happening in the context of youth culture and commercial mass music. So what Dylan and the Byrds, or what the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin did, has really nothing to do with retro: they built on elements of folk and blues forms but they were really the start of something new. It had to be something new because the folk-rockers weren’t peasants or agricultural people, and the blues-rockers weren’t black and from the South. They were white urban and suburban youth using these rural forms of music from long ago in time or far away in distance.
What’s retro is when rock folds back on its own history. So the first example of that is actually glam rock with its invocations of 1950s rock’n’roll. That’s rock becoming self-reflexive and harking back to its own lost golden age
Your earlier books like Energy Flash and Rip It Up were driven by enthusiasm for music, you were championing particular sounds or movements in music history? Retromania is the first book you've done that is more like a polemic or critique. It's more negative than your other books, and it's less about music criticism and history. How do you think fans of the rave and postpunk books will respond to that?
I think there’s as much history and music criticism as ever – in some ways the books is a kind of “history of the present”, meaning pop and rock in the first eleven years of the 21st Century. There is certainly a lot of criticism of music, it’s just that it is critical of it. Certainly this is my first book that is not primarily driven by enthusiasm. Well, there was The Sex Revolts, but even then nearly everything Joy and I wrote about, we liked as music. In Retromania there is less direct description and evocation of music as sound. Often people who like Rip It Up or Energy Flash tell me that it made them go out and buy a lot of music, or these days, download it or read it while flicking through YouTube. But Retromania won't have that effect, mostly. Maybe the Hauntology and Hypnagogic pop chapters, when I am writing about music that I love. But overall I'm not trying to evangelise or increase sales for any music particularly with this book.
For me, being a music writer is about the love/hate syndrome. But only because I love music so much and have such high expectations for it! With this book the emphasis is on the other side of that slash.
Actually one of the targets of the book is the erosion of the love/hate mindset, what I call “either/or” taste. It’s being replaced by a sort of weak eclecticism, the iPod shuffle mode of liking a lot of things but not having anything that provokes obsession or fanaticism.
How much is retro bound up with hipster culture?
Hipster, as a phenomenon, is closely connected to retro, but it’s not identical with it. Retro and vintage is one of the ways hipsters express themselves and accumulate their subcultural capital. But it can also be done through cosmopolitan exoticism – through knowledge of other cultures, usually non-Western and subaltern cultures. So I talk about xenomania as a parallel phenomenon to retromania. Both retro and xeno have existed for decades, but again the internet has intensified both syndromes hugely. You have hipsters who know about obscure music from the 1960s and 1970s (or increasingly going back before World War 2 to pre-war gospel and blues). But you also have hipsters – often the same hipsters – who are chasing strange new rhythms from the ghettoes of South America or Africa, things they find out about on YouTube. And sometimes you get retroxeno – which is the quest for super-obscure African music only ever released on cassette in the 1970s, or Ocora field recordings, or New Wave music from the former Soviet Union...
The derision comes from an intuition that the process of turning music into semiotic capital, an index of coolness and superior skills at scavenging and hunting for things no one else knows about – that this is voiding the music of its value. The hipster modus operandi is decontextualising the music from the lifeworld where it actually had meaning and social purpose, and turning it into décor for your lifestyle or something that is “costuming the ego”. Even when it’s driven by a genuine hunger for “the real”, the authentic... which is what it seems to be about in a lot of cases – it comes out, unavoidably, as inauthentic.
But there’s hardly any of us who escape the taint of hipster... it’s more a sliding scale of tourism and vicariousness.
I sometimes think of myself as a hipster who isn’t good with clothes or hair... a failed or partial hipster! I can do the music-taste part of hipsterism easily, not the other bits. But I’m the wrong age group, also. I have too much mental and emotional baggage from a pre-hipster era. If hipsterism is the voiding of bohemia of any actual dissident cultural value, then I still mostly belong to a world before that happened. The voiding causes me anguish.
A few years ago at a party in Boston, I met some extraordinary examples of this hipster breed, these three young men. The first young man was carrying a Japanese magazine full of pictures of old analogue synths (he described the magazine as “synth porn”). All three men had beards and unusual hats, and they were wearing striped suits and thin ties of a kind that made them look like a gambler or card sharp on one of those paddle steamships with casinos that went up and down the Mississippi in the 19th Century. It was all some kind of major style statement but what it was saying I couldn’t work out, nor how it fit together with the analogue synths. One of the guys pulled out one of those Korg Monotron palm-sized micro-synths at one point and started playing on it – that didn’t go with the 19th Century gambler look at all! It was even more incongruous when the guy was later deejaying using a laptop and one of those digital programs that allow you to beat-match automatically and pull from a virtual DJ box with thousands of tracks.
A big part of the book is about the history of revivalism, almost contradicting the argument of the first part of the book, because you show that retro is not a new thing. It's been around for years. So what is different about it that deserves this term "retromania" and the alarmist way in which the book is framed?
The main difference is just the scale, intensity, and volume of the problem, which relates to the digital culture aspects of our present and the rampant archiving of pop memory on the internet. That’s where the “mania” comes in.
Obviously the problem didn’t come out of nowhere, it has been building for years, for decades. I see an analogy with climate change and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. People, including Gore himself, had been talking about global warming and its consequences for years, for decades even. But that didn’t prevent the movie from being a vital and timely intervention. Nor does it mean he should shut up about the issue, now that he’s said his piece. Likewise retro has a history and a build-up that goes back decades, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s escalated drastically in the the last ten or twelve years, and it is something that needs to be addressed. Questions must be asked!
Do you ever think that the clash between old languages and new trends (which are unavoidably here, and filter through music even if they weren’t meant to be new at all, they are new despite all their intentions) could produce some progress almost accidentally.
There’s a chapter in Retromania on the strange emergence of punk as this revolution that happened almost accidentally. It looks at how all the people who created punk and laid the groundwork for punk’s emergence, they were all backwards-looking: they all wanted to restore how things were in the past, in the rock’n’roll Fifties or the mod Sixties. So it’s as though they were walking towards a revolution without realizing it, walking with their faces turned backwards. And a lot of them were really surprised by what punk turned out to be: the outrageous fashion element, the politics, the artiness, the feminism, the Situationism and the shock effect. Some of them just wanted a return to teenage rock’n’roll simplicity. But they got a lot more than they bargained for. So that chapter is me exploring the possibility that a retro-oriented movement could actually turn into something more progressive. But the trouble is it’s impossible to predict if that’s going to happen or whether it’ll just turn out to be an empty, pointless, nostalgic revival like most revivals are.
Reworking the past can obviously lead to innovations, but it requires a certain mindset of iconoclasm and disrespect, a kind of violence or transformative damage. A good example is Wire, who for one of their songs decided to see if they could rewrite “Johnny B. Goode” using only one chord. I can’t remember which song it was – “12 X U” maybe—but the result sounded nothing like Chuck Berry and you would never have been able to guess that this was the method they used to achieve the song.
A more recent example is the Rustie album Glass Swords, which draws a lot of inspiration from prog rock, figures like Allan Holdsworth, who played for Soft Machine, Gong, U.K. and then had a long solo career. Here the transformative aspect is the translation of rock ideas (long snaking guitar solos, bombast, a sense of scale and altitude in the music) into electronic dance music. You can hear the proggy quality and it is signposted playfully with the album artwork and his logo, which is in the style of Roger Dean’s Seventies album covers. But the end result is something that is neither rock nor dance but something fresh and exciting. It’s like the old spirit in new flesh.
Allan Holdsworth himself said something interesting about how this works, someone asked about his compositional influences and he talked about loving classical composers such as Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Copland, and Bartok. “What I took from those guys was how their tunes make me feel in my heart. It's about the emotion, rather than what the piece actually is. I think that's because I want to be influenced , which is a whole lot different than trying to work out precisely what someone is doing.” So Holdsworth there is making a crucial distinction between influence/inspiration versus imitation/pastiche. A great deal of music nowadays falls on the wrong side of that divide: retromania is about getting the period style precisely right in all its details. That divide is the difference between art and craft. Craft is the technical aspect of getting the style exactly right, it’s about correctness of form and idiom. Art is about creating new forms and idioms.
Everyone has influences but the crucial thing is taking them somewhere. It’s not where you start from, it’s where you go to.
Do you agree that every form of art that brings something modern is capable to become a classic?
I don’t know about that, but I do think that in most cases what we now consider “classic” was once modern. Whether it’s Shakespeare and Dickens, or the Beatles and Motown, these were cutting-edge in their original time. They didn’t start from nothing, they had influences, but they were an evolutionary advance, a giant step forward. Things that start out as derivative, heavily indebted, and “behind their own times” rarely acquire classic status when it comes to the judgement of posterity.
In music, a good example would be Electric Light Orchestra. Their records are fondly remembered, but no one considers them a classic rock band because it was clear they were really heavily imitative of the Beatles. What the Beatles did in the late Sixties (in terms of orchestration) that was then an innovation, ELO continued to do in the 70s. At that point it was clearly something of a throwback, as well as not very original. Someone unkindly said of ELO that they based an entire career on the cello sounds that the Beatles and George Martin and the Abbey Road engineers had got on certain of their tracks in the late Sixties. That’s too harsh, but it is an example of how “classic” status accrues to those who make the breakthrough, not those who reiterate it.
For similar reasons, I don’t think Oasis’s music will stand the test of time. Once the generation who fondly remember the 1990s and Britpop has passed, their songs will mostly be forgotten, while the Beatles, I’m sure, will be played and enjoyed for centuries. Partly it’s a difference in sheer quality, but also I think that when art is making a breakthrough, when it is doing something for the first time, that quality infuses the art in some way. You can hear it or see it. That sounds a little mystical but I think it is true.
The ceramic sculptor Ken Price has a good quote on this: "A craftsman knows what he's going to make and an artist doesn't know what he's going to make, or what the finished product is going to look like"
The ceramic sculptor Ken Price has a good quote on this: "A craftsman knows what he's going to make and an artist doesn't know what he's going to make, or what the finished product is going to look like"
Every decade had it’s new music – but in the noughties there was nothing new under the sun (apart from dubstep, one could argue). The new thing was the digital technology -- the Internet, the ipod, filesharing, etc. Would it be too much to say that technological progress stopped musical progress?
I’m not sure I’d go that far, although there is something intrinsically atemporal about all these archiving technologies like YouTube, Spotify, etc.
The thing that seems to be the case with digital technology as it’s affected both the production and the consumption of music is that we haven’t had any giant advances that have allowed people to think new musical thoughts, or create radically new kinds of behaviour or culture. Instead we’ve had increments in convenience, upgrades in terms of facilitation. And also in storage space of information. So the digital audio workstations get more and more complicated and flexible, and the results can be more and more intricate and detailed, and also more glossy in terms of sound quality. But have they produced any giant formal leaps in terms of music?
The two areas I think where that has arguably occurred are the basslines in dubstep, which involve super-intricate editing and processing using the Massive program in Native Instruments. And then vocal science, the kind of treatments and micro-surgical editing you get all across the landscape of music, from people like Burial and Salem to mainstream pop from the likes of Ke$ha and Black Eyed Peas. AutoTune is another way that you can identify a Sound of Now.
Vocal science goes back a long way, through early digital dance music styles like UK garage and drum’n’bass. Arguably it goes all the way back to analogue-era practices like musique concrete, where composers were particularly drawn to cutting up and resplicing the human voice because taking something so „organic‘ and rich in breathy overtones and then fucking with it has really dramatic and disorienting effects.
Nonetheless vocal science has got super-inventive recently and it has also become a mainstream pop phenomenon. Gradually people have got used to hearing non-naturalistic voices. My children don’t like to listen to music that isn’t Autotuned. When we are in the car listening to the radio, they actually ask for AutoTune, they know what it is!
The retromaniac trend exceeds the musical sphere - fashion, cinema, journalism seem concerned. Can we apply your thesis to other disciplines than music?
Totally. It’s a culture wide paradigm with retro action going on particularly in fashion and graphic design, but it is creeping into film and TV.
To be fair to Mad Men, which I think is the greatest TV show of our time and just about the best popular culture artefact of recent years, I don’t think it is retro. It’s a historical drama, like those costume dramas set in the Victorian era, but more recent. There is, though, an enormous attention to period detail, and part of the craft of doing this kind of TV show or movie that is set in the past is the avoidance of anachronism: making sure that every last appliance, piece of furniture, clothing, is historically accurate. And also making sure that the idioms and slang used by the characters aren’t anachronistic. The makers of the show know that there is legion of bloggers and fans checking every episode for mistakes! But yes, part of the pleasure and the achievement of the show is the ravishing sense of being plunged into another time. Mad Men is enormously visually seductive, and in that sense seems to connect to our culture of retro stylization and vintage chic.
The Artist is totally part of retromania. It’s obviously a good story and well done and quite affecting, but I think there is a kind of unique perversity to this kind of project that speaks about our time. It connects to the re-enactment art that I write about in Retromania, where artists have recreated famous rock concerts, or political events. I think that what these recreations provide for artists is all the pleasure of art-making – the research, the planning, the craft – but without the actual spark of artistic innovation.
You can see that the artists or film makers get totally lost in the process of recreating the bygone style: with the Artist, it’s about using the aspect ratio of silent movies, the camera angles, the typical actorly gestures of that era, and so forth. It appeals to the geeky obsessiveness of digital culture. Just today someone pointed me towards an album where someone had recreated My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, their classic and highly innovative album of 1991. Other people like the group Japancakes had done cover albums of Loveless, reinterpreting it in a different style, with different instrumentation. But this guy had attempted a sound for sound, note for note reconstruction of Loveless. What a strange, pointless achievement. A huge challenge, I’m sure, but why??
Are you worried that there aren’t many musicians trying to imagine what the future will be like –either as a utopia or as a dystopia?
One problem for music that wants to be futuristic is that the images and sounds that we associate with the Future or futurism or futuristic-ness got fixed at a certain point. So they’ve become retro-futuristic, in some sense contaminated by a certain campness and irony.
But in a larger sense, as regards what you’re saying – I don’t blame musicians for not imagining the future, because it’s very hard to imagine a future that seems promising at the moment. In some ways it is understandable that people are going back to more traditional forms, it’s the musical equivalent of what people in America call “comfort food” – cuisine that isn’t challenging or radical or fashionably trendy, but gives you what you need in terms of heartwarming flavour and nutrition. Food like your mother made. Well there is a lot of music that is like that, based on songs and folk and country forms, traditional American music, or traditional rock in the groovy 1970s sense. In some ways, I can see why people are drawn to make that stuff and listen to it, it is satisfying and it is something solid to hold onto in a very tough, unstable time. Tradition and the past always appeal when things are precarious and doomy.
There have been innovations in how we consume music in the last fifteen years, but not in the way it's produced? How can this paradox be explained?
Well, I don’t know if it’s a paradox, but it’s certainly what has happened. There hasn’t really been a radically new sound-making machine since the sampler in the 1980s. There has been the rise of digital audio production software from the 90s onwards, which has enabled people to make complicated music in their computer or laptop – basically a virtual studio inside your computer. So that has enabled an explosion of do it yourself music-making, where people can make glossy, clean-sounding, multi-layered music out of a laptop. And every few years there’s a sort of upgrade in that technology, so that you can do things in more detail and intricacy, or with cleaner, sharper sound.
You have all these effects and processes and a huge array of choices in terms of producing and arranging your music. So basically it’s enabling you to do much more easily things that were already possible but harder, more labor-intensive and more expensive. But things like digital audio software or ProTool don’t really seem to have helped people think new musical thoughts. Not to the same extent that the electric guitar did when it first emerged and opened up a huge field of possibilities, with effects and overdubbing and the use of volume. And not to the same extent as things like synthesisers, or sequencing, or the sampler when they came on the scene. Basically the digital audio software revolution has just created a glut of music that sounds pretty good and pretty clever. But only a small proportion is really new.
Another thing that’s increased is data storage capacity. Which is not a good thing in itself, either for the individual acquiring more music that they can process or emotionally absorb, or for the musician who has an overwhelming number of options, choices, influences. They have the ability to record an insane amount of music (because you don’t need tape, you just use a hard drive) and also through Bandcamp, YouTube, Soundcloud, etc the ability to put an excessive amount of music out into the world.
How has the internet , the ipod and MP3 culture changed your own listening?
Mostly for the worse, I fear. Much more distracted and flitting about. I think the Internet preys on your curiosity about new and different things, by making it so easy to check them out (things from the past as well as current thingss). There’s no cost, and there’s inconvenience. You just go on YouTube or you visit a blog. But having so much stuff available to you inevitably makes you move on constantly. So it becomes harder to get fixated and attached to a record.
I also think listening to music via a computer, or a tablet, or a phone, is very counterproductive, because the machine that is your portal to the music is also a portal to everything else in the cultural universe. You tend to find yourself listening while also reading, while also possibly downloading something else to listen to. So your attention is divided. So I would like to create space for more immersive listening. It’s something you have to work at consciously.
Overall the MP3, through illegal downloading and filesharing and so forth, has decommodified music. Which sounds good, to those of an innately left-wing mentality. It sounds like “sticking it to the man”, i.e. the big music corporations, the major labels and song publishers. However unfortunately the worst effect of illegal filesharing has been on small labels and small-to-medium level artists. They can no longer count on the revenue stream they did when music was a solid-form, commodified thing. That means that many left-field musicians cannot even hope to become a cult artist eking out a meager livelihood, which was a possibility when music was a tangible commodity. They do music as an amateur activity, while having to earn a living through some kind of job. Labels are increasingly run a hobbies by people who have some other kind of means or wealth. They are labours of love. They always were the product of dedication and were not paths to great wealth. But now it is very hard for these small, arty labels to stay in operation, have staff that they pay. They become one-man operations done for the rewards of doing good work and “cool”, without much hope of ever becoming a way of making a living.
But the decommodification of music has not led to any kind of “liberation” of music as a free, spiritual thing. On the contrary, the MP3 further desacralizes music. It has become less than a commodity, just this worthless data that you download in vast amounts and often don’t bother to listen to. Utterly disposable, like water from a tap. Or like a devalued currency during hyper-inflation as in 1930s Germany.
In a wide chapter of your book, you explain how YouTube, file-sharing and digitization of information have made available a potentially infinite archive. The point being that TOO MUCH, in music as in life, can be harmful?
Yes. I have a feeling that Seneca, the great Roman philosopher, probably had something wise to say about this. He has a saying, “to be everywhere is to be nowhere”, which I think offers a warning about the illusory nature of connectivity and this idea of being post-geographical through the internet. Basically the more connected you are to the telecommunicational network, the less present you are in the here-and-now, with the flesh-and-blood beings that surround you.
I suspect somewhere in Seneca’s writings from two thousand years ago there are maxims that basically say what I am trying to say in Retromania with phrases like “the poverty of abundance” or “glutted / clotted”. Unearned wealth is generally ruinous to people’s characters, it is the oldest story in human history: how the generation that inherits wealth becomes decadent because they never had to fight for or struggle to achieve the fortune. Well, downloading music for free creates a sort of unearned fortune, an affluence that is an affliction. Because too much music in your life destroys the role of desire and anticipation. And at a certain point, having too many choices cancels them all out, you become paralysed. Loss of musical appetite results: a sated indifference to music, a form of sonic anhedonia. The full-to-capacity hard drive and the silent computer speakers seems to be a common scenario, a modern cautionary folk-tale.
Why were there so many microgenres during the noughties, but no big movements that had a huge impact, transforming the mainstream?
It is to do with the inherent nature of digiculture, which leads to dispersal – a centrifugal tendency, driving us all further apart. Consensus is harder to achieve because there is no cultural capital to be derived from agreeing with other people! This is why I have been calling, not entirely seriously but sort of meaning it, for more “groupthink”. So micro-genres develop and then people react against them, the backlash starts. Or you see things like black metal, which has been going for ever, about 20 years – it got really trendy with hip people outside the genre in 2006, then faded away for a while. Now it’s hip again with Liturgy and Wolves in the Throne Room. In the 21st Century these small genres never seem to take off, or take over. There will never be another grunge because we don’t live in a monoculture anymore.
You use concepts like "archive fever" and "musealisation" -- how can we escape from these syndromes?
Jim Morrison sang about how we should “learn to forget”. There is something about the compulsive memorialisation and self-documentation that digital technology, social media, etc incites, that feels to me fundamentally anti-life. The image I used to have of this was of the father at his little kid’s birthday with the video-recorder jammed into his eye, who is not fully present at the event because he is so obsessed with documenting it. But that is becoming more and more what everyone is like – documenting the minutiae of our existences. Going to gigs and videoing it on your phone. Poring over the recent cultural past that we lived through, as stockpiled on YouTube.
Is pop music still relevant to young people, or has it been replaced by computer games and social media and smartphones and gadgets?
It’s still relevant – I think as long as people want to dance and as long as people fall in love, have relationship problems, feel alienated or restless or uncertain – music will fulfil that function, it will produce songs that resonate and heal. But certainly rock and pop music do not seem to have the same privileged and central role in the wider culture that they did in the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and even still the Nineties. Other things like games, social media, Internet communities, apps, gadgets like smartphones, iPads and so forth – these seem to be what have caught the imagination of the young generation. My son is just about to turn 13 and he is all about games and online communities and movie-maker programs and YouTube oriented stuff. He likes music but it is a relatively small area of interest, something he hears on the radio or in the background of games. I can’t imagine him ever buying music. But who knows, when he becomes a proper adolescent and has hormone-driven emotions and starts to question things, maybe music will become more important to him. I do think that music has undeniably become demoted in the scheme of things. It used to be the centre of youth culture and popular culture, now it is just one of a number of zones that include movies, games, TV, social media. Todays pop stars try to become transmedia stars as soon as they can, move into movies and other areas of popular culture.
Artistic collective movements appear to be an obsolete notion. The contemporary artist is solitary, a movement of one. A sad development? Why is this so?
I think this is actually related to retromania, in so far as when the archive of the past is so accessible and available, and there is such a bountiful array of options in history, it is tempting for artists to create an idiosyncratic melange of different bits and pieces drawn from multiple decades. So it’s like everybody goes off on their own unique path through the vastness of the past. The internet and digital culture allows for differentiation; it encourages us to be less involved in a current cultural conversation, to have common points of reference.
That applies to whether you’re an artist or a consumer. Instead of paying attention to what’s in the pop charts right now, I can be investigating many different kinds of older music. The money and attention that I would once have directed towards the cultural present, is now diversified all over History. And that also helps to keep people entertained, because there is so much great stuff in the past. You aren’t so bothered by the poverty of the current cultural moment, because you can access all this other stuff. So for instance the great boredom and frustration that led to punk is unlikely to happen.
Overall digiculture and archival culture tends to work against what I call “positive groupthink”. We tend to go our own way, all of us. There are fewer cultural events that everyone pays attention to. Certainly in music, there is less consensus and less focus every year. Partly because the current scene is more fragmented each year, splintered into different genres, but also because of reissues, reunions, various revivalist style. I think of this as a kind of “decentralisation of time”. We are gradually moving further out of cultural synchrony. So a concept like Zeitgeist no longer applies – there is no unified temporality, in the sense of culture-time as opposed to clock time, and thus no Spirit of the Age.
There are liberating aspects to this, but on the whole I think it is sad, and bad. Certainly for a music fan and critic of my mindset and values, the idea that there will be no more great convergences around movements, like punk or rave… is it depressing.
The music scene seems like it’s in a real muddle to me. That’s why I use the term “hyper-stasis”. There’s a lot of energy but seems to go round in circles, without building. Basically what has been lost is what that kind of positive and productive "lockstep”, the convergence of social energy, people synchronizing and moving forward together. “Synchrony”, in the sense of “shared time”, the feeling that we are all living under the aegis of a ZeitGeist, a spirit of the age. That is what has disintegrated. If you are more involved with the archive of music (and it’s huge, five or six decade to drawn on), that means you are pulled out of a current conversation of music.
Think of how things were in the Sixties, when you had white music influenced by current black music, but also black music influenced by Beatles, and then you also had the competition between Beatles, Dylan, Beach Boys, the Stones, the Byrds, Hendrix, all of them listening to each other, admiring each other, taking on each other’s ideas and taking them further. I don’t see this going on in current music hardly at all. Similar things went on during postpunk, with white bands absorbing the new ideas out of black music: funk, disco, reggae, early hip hop.
So there are certainly innovative figures in current music, but they are on the margins of the scene, and they don’t have much influence. In the past, innovators would be copied, and this copying was actually productive, because it changed the overall sound of current pop music. Look at how the Beatles and the Stones were imitated, or James Brown and Chic in their own day. Apart from anything, some of the copyists would be good at it.
Today, people are copying more often than not from the past, and from a past that is a long time ago. And because there’s a lot of past, that means they can each find different things to copy. So you end up with a scene that is disparate, with no central direction – but also where everything sounds a little bit familiar, because it’s all based on something or other from the past.
Is part of retromania the disappearance of generational differences? The generation gap that caused young people to reject their parent's music? Or even the music of their older brothers and sisters?
Yes, it is a real problem for rock and for the younger generation -- what do you do when your parents have cool taste? When it's your parents who introduce you to the Velvet Underground or Sex Pistols or Public Enemy or Nirvana? I have young blogger friends who have parents who were fans of The Cure and Japan.
One way of dealing with it is not to care much about music, or just to use it as a sound that is a background to life. I have a son who is 11 and I don't think music means much to him. It is possibly ruined a little for him by having a dad who is a rock critic and who is always playing weird, edgy music! But also it is just not his generation's thing. He is into games, into social media, into YouTube and making little videos he puts up there.
But with young people who do care about music, they don’t have that drive to reject music as old fashioned. They seem interested in the music their parents were into. Look at Fleet Foxes who got the inspiration for their sound from their parents’s record collections – Crosby Stills and Nash and The Band. There isn’t that generational enmity syndrome. Certainly when I grew up there was a dynamic process whereby the music scene evolved in leaps and bounds, through the superceding and rejection of the previous stage of music. That was what propelled punk, into postpunk, into “New Pop” and Goth and other Eighties sounds. And it was what propelled the techno-rave and electronic music of the 90s, a series of mutations and breakaway sounds, new genre names being coined constantly in an attempt to track this rapid development. But nowadays that trajectory of innovation and supercession seems to have broken down. Bands seem as interested in the archive of music history as they are in participating in a current musical conversation that is pushing forward into the unknown
Explain this term "recreativity" you've been using
Recreativity is a term I came up with for a whole set of practices to do with remixing, reenactment, mash ups, parody, and also for the theories that have sprung up to celebrate these practices and to attack ideas of originality and innovation, along with the notion of copyright and intellectual property. The central argument of recreativity is that creativity always involves some aspect of re- to it -- remixing, reviving, recontextualising, recombining, reassessing, remotivating, repurposing. There's no such thing as creativity ex nihilo. Hence "everything is a remix" as a slogan and credo.
As with retro, there’s been a boom of these practices and their attendant theorizations in the last decade, but they also go back a long way – through appropriation art in the Seventies, back to Pop Art in the Sixties, all the way to the readymade and collage in the early 20th Century. Not forgetting postmodernism which was in large part all about the rejection of the idea of originality and origins.
And just in the context of pop music, there have been debates about sampling and “plunderphonics” and the remix going back to the early Eighties. So in an ironic way, these very 21st Century things like Nicolas Bourriaud’s theories about postproduction art and curatorial aesthetics, or things like the early 2000s fad for mash ups, they are themselves remixes of earlier ideas or they are extensions of earlier practices of remixing and mashing-up. They exemplify and perpetuate the very syndromes they identify and celebrate .
To me, the ideas seem exhausted, they feel like the 1980s all over again... and they are used too often to justify work that is purely a rearrangement of existing elements, with no X Factor of newness. “The new is always old” has become a cliché and a defeatist creed. I do not understand why people seem to find it a liberating concept, or refreshing. It’s stale and old!
To say that “all artists steal” doesn’t help explain how some artists transform what they steal and actually create the new.
Aren't guilty of nostalgia yourself? Isn't Retromania just saying "things were better in the old days, better when I was young"?
Some people seem to think this is a notion that never ever crossed my mind during the writing of the book, those three years of doing it and thinking about it before deciding there was a book there. They seem to think they've come up with the killer blow that I could never have anticipated, the ultimate "hoist by his own petard" /"kettle calling the pot black caught red-handed" counter-argument. Gotcha, Reynolds! I mean, if you want to say that I'm being nostalgic for a time before nostalgia, and that's self-contradictory.... all I can say is, these are the paradoxes we deal with in an era in which digital culture has turned temporality inside out.
I don't actually have much problem with nostalgia on the personal level. If you haven't been afflicted by it yet, you will be -- trust me. I have all kinds of nostalgia for various periods of my life, and periods of culture. But I strongly resist this idea that when you talk about a decline, or a change even, in how culture works, or in the nature of music – that this can be simply dismissed as nostalgia. That is the chauvinism of the present, this poptimistic fallacy that now is always the best time to be alive, that levels of quality always stay... well, level. Every year produces approximately the same amount of quality music. Apart from being wrong, it's a really boring view of history and culture. But there is also plenty of evidence historically for artistic and literary genres /modes/forms/ styles that have peaked and then gone stagnant for long periods.
To point out that things are different in a certain respect, doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to go back.
An example: after punk and New Wave, it is simply undeniable that British rock bands, on average, were less groove-oriented and capable of “feel” than they were in the Sixties and pre-punk early Seventies. This is because of a number of factors: punk discredited the idea of virtuosity and paying your dues, so that by the time they were getting make records, New Wave bands were less seasoned and tight as performing units; New Wave music had moved away from its grounding in blues and in American musical sources generally. Now you can say that “feel” and “groove” are old fashioned values, if you want, or you can say that postpunk and New Wave made up for that diminishment through other aspects of the music being radical or exciting or fresh. But just taking that metric of value, it’s undeniable that the drumming in your average British band deteriorates from 1977 onwards and it has continued to deteriorate. (Partly I would say because anyone with a flair for rhythm has been more like to get into electronic dance music and apply to it drum machines, sample-loops, digital audio workstation programming etc). To say that this has happened isn’t nostalgic, it’s pointing to a real and measurable decline along one metric or axis of judgement.
So in terms of what I’m writing about in Retromania, I think the book can be seen as in part a neutral description of changes caused by the transition from an Analogue System to a Digital System. Parts of the book – the stuff to do with YouTube and with filesharing and MP3s in particular – are a kind of phenomenology of digital life, an anatomy of its sensations and affects. The Analogue System made possible certain kinds of affect and convergence of energy; these occur much less frequently or much more weakly in the Digital era, if at all.
But since my expectations of music was shaped by experiencing those affects and living through such convergences of energy: postpunk, rave, etc) yes, you could quite justifiably view Retromania as a requiem for the Analogue System. There is an element of mourning the passage of an entire world and the kind of subjectivity shaped by it. The Analogue-era sense of culture-time as linearity and forward propulsion has been displaced by atemporality and a recursive, archival logic. So the interest is what new convergences and affects are emerging out of this altered sense of time and space? How will music function in the new order? So far it’s very unclear -- mostly we are still living inside the wreckage of the Analogue System. Will pop music have the privileged status it had or has it become just one zone or componenent with the entertainment landscape? The sense is that the old power and function that music had has decisively gone but we don’t know yet what powers and functions it will have.
In the book there is a strong autobiographical undercurrent. It's full of personal memories and tales: the bus maps hunting that absorbed you and your son in NY; strange meetings with retromaniacs during your university years, the uncanny sensation of having an American raised son that will never share the cultural atmosphere you grew in. Is Retromania a portrait of the music critic as a middle aged man?
All my books are personal in so far as they wouldn’t exist without the passion for and obsessive interest in the music scene or movement they’re about, and wouldn’t exist without my involvement in those scenes, as with rave in the 90s, or postpunk when I was a teenager and student. But certainly there is more anecdotal and emotional and memory stuff going on in Retromania, it is drawing from my life history more than the earlier books, and it is inseparable from my perspective as someone who has lived through various eras. So in that sense it is the book of a middle-aged man. I think readers of any age can understand the argument but they might not feel it to the same extent as people in their thirties, forties, fifties: people who lived through the 1960s, or through postpunk, or through the techno-rave 90s. There is a direct experiential element to the book that adds to the emotional charge of Retromania both for the writer and the reader.
What effect did you want Retromania to have? What was your goal in writing it?
I suppose on one level it was simply just to describe as accurately I could the present situation in music -- present meaning the "long present", so really the last ten to 12 years. Popular music and semipopular music in the 21st Century.
I also sent it out as kind of probe, to see if people agreed with me or had the same feelings of queasy ambivalence and doubt about the way things are going. Almost like a test of my own perceptions. Like, "am I going nuts or is there something really eerie about our sense of temporality these days?". Time not in the literal sense of calendrical or scientific time, but "culture-time".
And also, if I'm honest, I really wanted Retromania to sow seeds of discontent. Make people dissatisfied. Perhaps my hope was that if the desire for the new is rekindled, then this will somehow bring it into being. If I could make people impatient with all the passe sounding, heard-it-before, copycat music around, then they wouldn't settle for it, and people would stop doing it.
On which subject, I suppose also, unconsciously, I was hoping to discourage bands from doing work that is derivative or pastiche-oriented. A couple of bands have actually written to me saying the book made them question what they were doing and abandon that sound as too retro, which made me feel a little bad, but perhaps is ultimately for their own good, and for our own good too.
Last but not least: I think I wanted to encourage my fellow critics to be more stern and judgemental about stuff. You get a lot of very derivative music that is celebrated by music journalists or given a free pass. I think we should be less indulgent, and more insulting, about this kind of thing!
At the end you write "I still believe the future is out there.“ Do you really believe that? Because overall the book seems deeply pessimistic about the future of pop.
The book goes up and down in terms of its mood. It’s manic-depressive! The first low point occurs in the last part of that chapter on Japanese music and the curatorial impulse, where I’ve worked myself into a fairly depressed – and angry - state: comparing the obsession with originality in the music I grew up on (postpunk, 1960s music) and then the acceptance of pastiche, copyism, non-innovativeness in recent decades. That’s the end of the first section of the book.
Then in the next section I cheer up for a bit while tracking through various interesting examples of revivalism and retro in earlier stages of rock history, including some pretty creative and exciting things like glam and more recently hauntology. However by the end of third section and as we go into the conclusion, I have managed to get quite depressed again!
The ending about the future still being out there -- it’s an example of what Gramsci called "optimism of the will“, which is the necessary counter-force to what he called "pessimism of the intellect". There is a kind of ethical imperative to keep believing in the new, in the possibility of some kind of jolt or disruption in "business as usual".
It’s a slightly forced tone of uplift at the end, I couldn’t go out on a total bummer note! , but at the same time there is nothing in the conclusion to really support and substantiate that note of optimism.
However I must say that a year after the book first came out in the UK, and nearly two years since I finished writing it, I do feel more optimistic. There are certain things going on that I underestimated in Retromania like dubstep – I didn’t taken into account that the wobble sound, all those mechanistic basslines, was actually a genuinely new sound, and I had no idea that harder colder kind of dubstep was going to take off in America so hugely. So that is a vanguard in music that is not only pushing forward sonically, but is actually expanding in terms of its audience and its public profile.
Generally speaking the EDM explosion in America – while inevitably seeming like a rehash of the Nineties for those of us who lived through techno and rave when they first hit Europe – is a sign that things are changing. Rock music is almost finished in America, it’s an antiquinarian culture, or an upper middle class tradition. In terms of a forward looking sound, EDM is what young people are turning to. I thought this revolution would happen in the Nineties but it took longer, as is often the way with America.
Apart from EDM I also really like footwork. And generally there’s quite a few artists around I would call innovative or at least fresh. The problem is that they are minority-interest, marginal artists, whereas in other eras of music, the innovators were the most popular and dominant figures of their time, from Beatles and Hendrix, to Giorgio Moroder and The Police and Human League..., but they tend to be fairly marginal figures.
But when I’m back in my normal mode of being a music journalist and fan, it’s quite easy to find enough things to write about and be excited about. It’s when I do a book and take a big picture view that things look more bleak. But as I say, I do feel guardedly optimistic. People are very ingenious and clever. Some of the problems affecting music are to do with economics and technology, a more general sense of the decline of the West and the fact that the future is fucked. It’s very hard for young people nowadays.
One thing that is also possible: everything that popular music is capable of saying and doing has already been said and done. The fact that young people don’t look for new sounds but stick to 60s or 80s music, doesn't that hint that this might be the case?
Yes this is definitely possible. I think it happens to most fields of music, it certainly happened with orchestral based classical (as opposed to electronic and musique concrete). Although then again you could say that Minimalism in classical orchestra-based music was a new thing when it came along in the Seventies. It was a step back to euphony and tonality, but in terms of construction and mood it was definitely new. In the Seventies there was a lot of talk about New Music, stuff that was in the wake of John Cage and Steve Reich and so forth.Actually it happened even earlier with classical - in the 1920s and 30s, with the neoclassical moment, when composers like Stravinsky, Milhaud, and Hindemith deliberately embraced the formal constraints of 18th Century idioms like the fugue and the Baroque concerto grosso. And you could say that
Jazz reached its neo-classical moment in the 80s with Wynton Marsalis, and it feels like free jazz and improv are basically fairly settled traditions these days. At a certain point genres of music run out of places to go. So they go into fusion (taking on ideas from world musics, or traditional folk music, or commercial mainstream dance styles – classical did it with jazz; jazz later did it with funk and disco). Or they get more abstract and unpopular. Or they deconstruct themselves. Or they go "postmodern" which you could see a figure like John Zorn (in the 80s, anyway) as.
I don’t know if avant-garde music in general has reached that point, but certainly if you look at the contents of a magazine like the Wire, there’s a sense that most of the people in any given field – whether it’s improvisation or drone or noise or whatever – are now operating in established and defined traditions. The groundbreaking work, the pioneering journeys into the unknown, were done many decades ago, and the current operators are making small incremental advances, barely perceptible adjustments and recombinations
So I tend to think the “rift of retro” is something that probably occurs to any field of music or culture. It seems that any art form reaches a point when it’s accumulated so much history behind it that the archives exert a kind of gravitational pull, which becomes harder and harder to resist. In part that is because so much of the potential ways forwards that any given field of creativity has available to it will have been used up by that point. Soon the only pathways into a future for the genre point towards a dead end of ugliness and difficulty. At this point the artist can “go forward” in terms of his or her individual trajectory much more easily by exploring the past. And much more enjoyable.
Are we all just waiting for a new kind of music-machine or technological breakthrough that will open up a whole new horizon of possibilities for sound-making?
That's one thing that occurred to me — that could be the source of a new sound, or a new way of structuring music would be some new machine — but it's hard to imagine what it would be until it exists. I dunno, it's difficult to say. A lot of the classic era of rock has to do with people working through the possibilities of electric guitars, and the possibilities having to do with amplification. And that took a long while, there were decades worth of possibilities to explore out of guitars and guitar effects and overdubbing and multitracking and all these things. And things to do with effects of volume and massive amplification. So it's a field of possibilities and people wring out of it every possible permutation
It feels like it's been awhile since we've had one of those — maybe sampling was the last. It's one of those things where there's the original intended function that the manufacturer came up with, which is quite limited, and then there are the myriad unintended and unforeseen uses.
I guess the last device offering these kinds of possibilities is Auto-Tune and similar pitch-correction technologies like Melodyne. There are all sorts of wrong ways to use it, possibilities for distortion and excessive uses.
But y there is that feeling of waiting for the next thing like that. The thing that enables people to think new musical thoughts.
What kind of future do you see for pop music?
At the moment I can only see more of the same. However I have noticed through picking up various old music books recently – particularly the big picture books that attempt to take a snapshot of a ZeitGeist – that often these books naturally tend to imagine that the trends of the present (which due to the delays built into book publishing, actually means the immediate past) will continue. So for instance a book I have that was written in 1974 imagines that the future will consist of more glam oriented shock rock but also of figures like Mike Oldfield turning rock into a sort of modern day classical instrumental music. And of course nothing like that happened at all. Punk and New Wave happened, and synthpop, and there was the rise of disco, and then hip hop.
So the hope would actually be that Retromania becomes overtaken by events. That it ends up being a useful and accurate history of the 2000s, and of the earlier pop historical trends that led up to the 2000s, but that it isn’t in fact a prophecy of what is to come. I certainly hope that retromania as a phenomenon does not continue on its present course! I fear that it might do just because of the digital archiving systems that we have got so used to and so dependent on. But you never know what the future has in store. The future that we now have does not resemble at all how we thought the future would be when I was growing up. So I expect some kind of surprise or swerve from the culture. What it would be, I have no idea.
The funny thing is, when I signed the contract for this book, the premise was: nothing new is happening. But of course I realised there’s a fatal flaw, which is that it’s going to take me two or three years to write the book and for it to come out, and what if something innovative happens in that time? Fuck! But of course that’s what I most want; that’s my deepest wish as a fan of music, that something innovative will come along, some massive wave of innovation.
The funny thing is, when I signed the contract for this book, the premise was: nothing new is happening. But of course I realised there’s a fatal flaw, which is that it’s going to take me two or three years to write the book and for it to come out, and what if something innovative happens in that time? Fuck! But of course that’s what I most want; that’s my deepest wish as a fan of music, that something innovative will come along, some massive wave of innovation.
At the end of the book, you suggest that maybe the future is in Asia or Africa. Maybe the future is now there, but we don’t know it.
Yes, we know very little about what’s going on in China culturally. In American supermarkets and shopping malls, nearly everything is manufactured in China, India, Taiwan, Indonesia, and so forth. But there’s no equivalent exporting of Asian cultural goods to the West.
Most of the stuff we do hear about in music hipster circles are the local variants of dance music, which are pretty cool but basically are composites of hip hop, techno, electro, house, Miami bass, dancehall reggae – into which are filtered some local ethnic quirks, flavours from traditional music. But structurally it’s basically more or less grounded in the American/European template of hip hop/techno with a little bit of Caribbean influence in there.
I keep wondering when the Anglophone domination of pop music is going to end. Perhaps the rise of EDM, which is largely instrumental and which at least has kind of Euro/Esperanto quality in terms of its rhythms and textures, shows that American youth are becoming more cosmopolitan and less America-first. But as music EDM is still pretty Western.
There is a definite sense that the West is aging. Europe has been the Old World for a long while but America too has accumulated a whole heap of historical baggage during the last couple of centuries. Especially the 20th Century when it enjoyed a global cultural dominance, through jazz and Hollywood, then rock’n’roll and TV, and most recently with hip hop. It has a lot of achievements to look back on now, America, and its future looks more precarious as an economic and cultural force. It seems to be in the decadent phase of imperial power. So the Western World doesn’t feel as “young” in a cultural sense as some of the other zones in the world. And when a culture gets middle-aged or elderly, just like a human individual it tends to start looking back at its youth or “the good old days”.A friend of mine, the writer Carl Neville, was talking about the notion of the mid-life crisis and the question of how do you avoid the second half of life being a memorial to the first. Well, I think that question is relevant to the whole of Western culture.
Isn't the real problem that music doesn't matter anymore? Or matter to the same degree, and in the same way, that it once did? It's no longer the centre of popular culture. That's what Retromania is really about - because musicians inevitably look back to when music did matter to that extent and in those particular world-shaking ways... Music has been eclipsed by other excitements like games or movies.
There does seem to have been a long moment when music had a particular prestige and and it does feel like that moment has passed. Music was a sort of sovereign zone: it demanded the listener's complete immersion, you were subjugated to the temporality of the Album. Now music is much more about being at our disposal, it's become convenient, a backdrop to other activities, a space-filler. Music is ubiquitous today in a way that it actually wasn't in the Sixties and Seventies. It's in the soundtracks of games and movies, it's in TV commercials, it's piped out as Muzak in supermarkets and cafes. We take it wherever we go with our iPods and iPhones. Yet this omnipresence and superabundance has ultimately led to a depreciation in music's value.
The other thing is that music had a privileged status where it wasn't just one option in a range of entertainments, or merged with them in various transmedia combinations. Music was rather the central prism through which all other fields of culture were seen, a glue connecting various disparate zones of progressive culture and politics. Just look at how important rock in the late Sixties/early Sixties sense was to Martin Scorsese-- music ran through all his films, with The Last Waltz he created a memorial to a entire era as it was fading out, decades later he did the Dylan documentary. Or look at how the New York artists of the late Seventies were all in bands and saw rock as the power spot of the culture. Rolling Stone was defined by its founder Jann Wenner as being a magazine not just about the music, but all the things and attitudes that music embraced and was about. There was a long moment when there seemed to be hardly any limits to the things that music could be about.
I'm not sure that movies and games have taken over the role that music once had. Movies are so expensive in terms of entry level that cinema can never be the kind of democratic popular art form that rock, rap, rave, etc, were. Perhaps the kind of movie-making programs that kids use on their computers will lead to a kind of DIY movie-making underground, but it'll always be lagging way behind the level of spectacle and immersive intensity that Hollywood offers. As for games, people have been talking them up as the New Rock'n'Roll since at least the early 90s. What they seem to supply is the same reptilian-brain thrills that rock, rap, rave, etc provided, but none of the "higher" functions. Games have been in existence for several decades now but they've yet to create a discourse around them as ambitious as rock criticism (which sprang up within a few years of the Beatles). It's hard to imagine a magazine that could describe itself as being "not just about games, but about all the things that games are about". Because there is no "about" with games. Their whole point is to get away from Life and the Real World.