Why pop will never go bang
CULTURE: Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own PastBy Simon Reynolds Faber and Faber, 496pp. £17.99
EVER GET the feeling you’ve been doing the time warp again and again and again? Do you have a nagging sense of déjà vu, déjà écoutéand déjàbought the T-shirt? Does it seem like every moment in pop history is being endlessly replayed, like a broken record? Then you may be suffering the side effects of retromania, pop’s now terminal inability to let go of its past.
We live in an age of revival and nostalgia, when pop history is being remastered, repackaged, rehashed and reimagined, with no thought for the future. Classic albums are being reissued with bonus studio chat and alternative takes. “Heritage” bands, or at least their surviving members, are re-forming at an alarming rate and milking their legacies with endless anniversary tours. Many are performing their most popular album in its entirety live, saving them the trouble of having to write out a set list. And the grandad rockers rule the stadium roost, raking in millions from audiences that weren’t even born when their bands last had a hit. Cover versions have spread through the charts and TV schedules like a plague. The present has become overcrowded with the ghosts of pop history – but no one’s gonna call Ghostbusters.
Somewhere along the line, pop music stopped looking to the future and instead began retreating into the past. Where once it revelled in the shock of the new, it now wallows in the cosy embrace of the old. Trapped in a never-ending retro loop, pop is doomed to repeat itself, and every iteration brings it closer to the point of irrelevance.
“This is the way that pop ends,” writes Simon Reynolds in his introduction to Retromania, “not with a BANG but with a box set whose fourth disc you never get around to playing and an overpriced ticket to the track-by-track restaging of the Pixies or Pavement album you played to death in your first year at university.”
But Retromaniais not just a grumpy-old-man rant against modern pop’s rampant attention deficit. Reynolds may be an old-fashioned vinyl head and a person who’s uncomfortable with the way downloading has devalued both the music and the experience of listening to it, but he’s also fascinated with the strange twists, turns and tangents of pop history. This is a magical mystery tour through the retroscape, and Reynolds finds plenty that’s interesting and, dare I say it, new among the second-hand detritus.
So when exactly did pop music put the brakes on, do a U-turn and start heading back down Route 66? Reynolds reckons he’s pinpointed the “rift of retro” in 1965, and it began not with pop music but with fashion. Until then, he says, fashion was futuristic, inspired by space travel, synthetic fabrics and visions of utopia. Music, too, was all about progress and innovation, as bands surged forward into uncharted territory, giddy with the newness of it all. Then fashion designers began looking back for inspiration, as in the Victorian English pastoralism of Laura Ashley or the modern-baroque decadence of Biba.
Musicians, too, addled by the sheer velocity of pop’s evolution, started to retreat into nostalgia. It’s ironic that 1965 was the year that The Beatles released Yesterday. It wouldn’t be long before the band credited with leading pop’s great leap forward would swap the innovation of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Bandfor the back-to-roots rock that characterises the White Album.
From there it was only three steps to the never-ending 1950s revival that ran through the 1970s and much of the 1980s, from Elton John’s Crocodile Rockto George Michael’s Faith, from the postmodern doo-wop of Roxy Music to the all-out brothel-creeper kitsch of Showaddywaddy and Shakin’ Stevens. Soon every musical form was ripe for revival, which explains the rise of the retro tribes – mods, hippies, goths and nu-folkies – all of whom shared the same desire: to keep their favourite pop moment frozen in time so they can relive it over and over. Even hip hop, pop’s last truly new phenomenon, fell into the rehash trap, as samples were used no longer to subvert but to uphold the pop status quo.
These days it’s not the songwriters or musicians who are the key figures in pop; it’s the producers, DJs and curators. Those who can create order, and a festival running order, out of the overcrowded chaos that is the current musical climate are considered gurus of sorts. Recording studios are being turned into rock museums, and obscure library sounds are being sampled by a new generation of “hauntologists” to create ghostly music that evokes a million lost childhoods. And the superbands of the past, the Zeps, Floyds and Stones, have been replaced by the superbrands: iPod, MySpace, YouTube and Spotify.
So where does pop go from here? Is the fact that pop’s life is flashing before our eyes every day a sign that it’s about to shuffle off its mortal coil? In the course of his exploration Reynolds finds more than enough signs that pop is alive and well: the mash-up genius of Danger Mouse, the superhybridity of Vampire Weekend, the kaleidoscopic cut-ups of Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti and the sampladelical delights of Oneohtrix Point Never. It seems we’ve entered the age of post-production, where the real creativity is shown not in writing or recording new songs but in what people can do with songs and recordings that already exist. “If music is recessing into some kind of archival period,” says Daniel Lopatin of Oneohtrix Point Never, “I don’t think it’s bad. It’s just natural.”
Kevin Courtney is an Irish Timesjournalist