Let’s Do the Time Warp Again

A review of Simon Reynolds's Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past

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:

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.

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.

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Noel Murray is a writer and critic who regularly contributes to The Onion's A.V. Club.