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.
I don’t want to give the impression that Retromania is completely off-base. Reynolds rightly worries that nostalgia might be a stealth form of conservatism, reflecting a fear of progress; and he’s right to be concerned about our tendency to embalm the past, turning formerly rebellious artistic movements into museum installations and PBS pledge-drive fodder. He makes solid points when he wonders if the impulse to archive everything on blogs and on YouTube puts the properly discarded junk of the past on the same plane as the treasures; and when he questions whether sampling is a form of exploitation (by way of railing against pastiche artists like Girl Talk, who specialize in aural versions of a VH1 I Love the 80s special); and when he describes restagings of famous concerts, designed to give people who missed a cultural happening a replica of that experience instead of a new experience, relevant to today.
But even Reynolds’s best points are refutable. What should be in a museum, if not the elements of culture that mattered most to people? Why shouldn’t amateur historians preserve all they can, especially since record companies and movie studios don’t seem that interested in keeping our cultural history in print? Is sampling remarkably different from Led Zeppelin “borrowing” an old Howlin’ Wolf blues lick for a song? And aren’t the ways that people choose to recycle the past a comment on the times in which they live?
Reynolds is sharp enough to catch a lot of those contradictions himself. As he says, this book is meant as “an investigation,” not a closing argument. And it’s a credit to his skill and wit that Retromania is such fun to grapple with.
But it’s also telling that these debates don’t preoccupy literature or cinema critics the way they do music writers. Only the most avant-garde critics will fault a book or a film for not attempting a major new stylistic breakthrough. Cutting-edge technique is nearly always welcome in all the arts, but if a novel tells an engaging story, or a movie seizes the imagination, that’s usually achievement enough. In Reynolds’s obsession with how music sounds, he disregards the lyrics, the melody, all the components of a song. And it’s the songs that linger, and that ultimately define a time.
Consider contemporary garage-rockers The White Stripes, who get a page or two to themselves in Retromania. Frontman Jack White is a nostalgist of the first order, enamored with vintage equipment and archaic rock and blues records. But out of those moldy old influences, he produced “Seven Nation Army,” a rock anthem that people chant en masse in sports arenas all over the world. Whatever parts of the past inspired it, it’s undeniably a product of now.