There’s nothing new about “nothing new.” To be fair, Reynolds openly acknowledges that nostalgia movements are old hat, and that even the narrowing of the gap between “the moment” and “fondly remembering the moment” isn’t strictly a symptom of the ’00s. Retromania is divided into sections titled “Now,” “Then,” and “Tomorrow,” and the “Then” section is the strongest, even though it undermines some of Reynolds’s larger case. In it, Reynolds considers the history of garage-rock revivalism from the 1972 Nuggets anthology to today, and looks back at the multiple throwback UK movements that arose in the seventies, like pub rock and mod revivalism. He examines The Beatles’ White Album and the late-sixties records by The Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival, which all pushed a “back to basics” approach that resonated with those who’d grown weary of the complicated cultural politics of the time. Reynolds even suggests that two musical eras often hailed as revolutionary—punk in the seventies and grunge in the nineties—were in fact reactionary, since they were born out of a yearning for musical simplicity.
Reynolds then shows how the cycle repeats every few years, with retro-influenced acts like the Flamin’ Groovies, the New York Dolls, the Ramones, and Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band emerging periodically, as if from a rock critic’s fever dreams. But he fails to acknowledge that all the above-mentioned bands incorporated their rock-and-roll influences into albums that were very much products of their respective eras. No one listens to Born to Run and thinks of it as an artifact of the early sixties, no matter the extent to which it’s an homage to Phil Spector. No, the album sounds like 1975 for a number of reasons, but primarily because
Technology forces change. Reynolds notes this in passing as well, identifying various revivalist movements that produced music far different from the music that inspired them, simply because recording conditions had improved. In some cases—again, as with Sha Na Na—musicians barely even try to copy their sources. They just make the version of rockabilly or jump-jive that they’ve always heard in their heads. (Or perhaps they’ve never heard the music properly; Reynolds observes that the fifties trad-jazz skiffle acts in the UK based their live sound on loud, tinny old records, not on the way jazz actually used to sound in concert in the twenties.) In other cases, musicians try to be trad but come out with something cleaner and punchier than would’ve been possible decades earlier. Because of the general cruddiness of the MP3 format, music booms more than it once did, to overcome the format’s technical limitations.
The technology of distribution has changed as well. Compact discs freed artists from the constraints of the forty-minute album, and then mp3s freed consumers from having to buy albums at all. Both of those developments have forced some new approaches to how music is recorded and packaged. Reynolds, though, is skeptical about many of these changes. He decries the rise of the CD box set, saying it gives fans an excuse to put their music on a shelf and never listen to it. He confesses his dislike for iPods, as well, because they’re insular instead of communal, and because they encourage users to skip through their record collections.
But, of course, neither of these complaints describes the way things have to be, or even the way things are. A lot of people combine these new technologies. They load box sets onto their iPods; they stream playlists wirelessly through a home stereo so they can listen with their friends. And this is because
Most people aren’t cultists. Perhaps this is a function of Reynolds growing up with the more factionalized UK pop scene—where self-identifying as a mod or a rocker or what-have-you is a significant life choice—but when he writes dismissively of those who preach the gospel of the old and rare, he seems not to grasp that it’s possible to salivate over a reissue of The Creation’s 1967 debut album and still be interested in Kanye West’s beautiful dark twisted fantasies. Granted, Reynolds cites some eccentric cases in Retromania—like Japanese bars devoted exclusively to narrow cultural interests—but the vast majority of consumers are perfectly capable of digging into the past while also exploring the present. And not every contemporary musical genre is backwards-looking, either. Pop generally isn’t, nor is hip-hop, where, as Reynolds notes, the emphasis is more on the shiny and new.