Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past by Simon Reynolds | Faber and Faber, Inc. | 458 pages, $16
I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, surrounded by living monuments to a past I didn’t yet understand. I ate at chain restaurants where the walls were plastered with vintage 45s, and the tables covered with reproductions of turn-of-the-century patent-medicine ads. Art directors back then adored the Gay Nineties, while fashion designers loved the Roaring Twenties, and the whole of showbiz seemed intent on bringing back the fifties. Only later did I understand that this was recycled culture; and yet because these leftovers were such an integral part of my youth, I still pine for them. Cartoonist Daniel Clowes once predicted that in the future we’d have nostalgia for the nostalgia of the past. So who’s your favorite fifties icon? Henry Winkler or Brian Setzer?
Critic Simon Reynolds frets over this phenomenon in Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. He worries about the cultural disengagement of people who fetishize a filtered version of history—like the ones who prefer their fifties the way Sha Na Na delivered it, as a pulp greaser fantasy, at once faster, louder, and more choreographed than it actually was. Reynolds also wonders about obsessives who cling to the past’s version of the future—that never-was world of rocket-cars and analog synthesizers—and attempts to understand all those obscurants who busy themselves classifying and sub-classifying older sounds and styles. These folks frighten Reynolds. What’s to become of popular culture if no one really wants to discover anything new?
Retromania is ostensibly a 450-page essay divided into a dozen smaller ones, a structure designed to give every digression its due. Reynolds explains upfront that this “book is very much an investigation—not just of the hows and whys of retro as a culture and an industry but also of the larger issues to do with living in, living off and living with the past.” What he’s attempting here is an intertwining of multiple loosely related trends, such as the enshrinement of pop-cultural artifacts in museums; the recent wave of veteran rock bands playing their old albums, track by track, in concert; the popularity of the mash-up; and scattered other examples of pop eating itself. Reynolds tries to maintain some objectivity during his inspections, but he can’t disguise his disdain when, for example, he writes about self-proclaimed music nerds who’d rather dig up forgotten northern soul singles than listen to anything currently on the radio. He seems to see these people as traitors to their times.
Reynolds is a keen writer, with the mind of a critic and the heart of an enthusiast, which makes Retromania easy to engage; reading it is like bantering with a smart friend, not like bristling at a lecture. In the same introduction where he states his intentions, Reynolds admits that he enjoys many aspects of retro (though, he adds, “I still feel deep down that it is lame and shameful”). If anything, Reynolds often waxes as rhapsodic about the artifacts of pop-gone-by as do the people who actually dedicate their lives to them.
That said, Retromania frequently comes off as way too alarmist, especially considering how little is actually at stake. Reynolds isn’t necessarily wrong to worry that there’s not yet an identifiable “sound of the ’00s” (or at least not one as obvious as the sounds of the ’60s and ’70s). But it’s important to remember that Reynolds comes from the ranks of music writers who wage fierce rhetorical wars over albums that barely sell in the five figures. Noticeably absent from Retromania are the names of some of the biggest pop stars of the moment, who are defining the sound of this era in ways we won’t even recognize for another decade. And that’s not the only point that Reynolds either misses or undersells. Consider: