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Is Today's Pop Culture Living in the Past?

Simon Reynolds delivers insightful 'Retromania'

Sep. 19, 2011
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Nostalgia has become the password for entry into contemporary music. With ease and elegance, Simon Reynolds describes this complex condition in Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past (Faber & Faber) and delivers an insightful polemic against it. Retromania serves as a forceful, definitive status report on today's music as well as an implied warning to critics who do not know their subject matter adequately.

"Music has been depleted of meaning through derivativeness and indebtedness," Reynolds writes. Ironically, the past is recycled without any sense of musical history, often by critics who don't even realize how shallow and subjective they are. Reynolds delves into his subject with the creative audacity of one who seeks to expose a problem at the root of contemporary culture. "Rock (and rock writing) was always energized and focused by being against. But animosity...has gone now, everywhere," he adds. Rock has been turned into an interactive museum, the essence of the music stabilized, and instead of forward-moving anger and angst we have dusty record collections unheard but preserved and giant landmarks to what was once an apocalyptic sound and narrative.

identifies contemporary pop culture as "'memory work,' Freud's term for the grieving process." The music is "self-consciously playing with a set of bygone cultural forms." The cutting-edge movement has been dulled. The problem isn't only that what's marketed as new is actually old, but also that it's not recognized as repeating what's already been done better.

Reynolds' innovative analysis is rife with impatience and sadness. Retromania calls for action, but is not so much a manifesto as an explanation for why music is recycling and not reinventing. At the center of his commentary are the "Groove Robbers" who find "the past inside the present" and have lost the need for a wider contemporary sound and the need for a future sonic universe resulting from deep, spatial exploration rather than remaining on the narrow surface of remembrance.


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