Feature

Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past by Simon Reynolds

The British critic argues that pop music is losing its cultural edge through too much recycling and rehashing of yesterday's musical styles.

(Faber & Faber, $18)

“Popular culture has become obsessed with the past,” said Nicholas Carr in The New Republic. In his provocative new book, British critic Simon Reynolds argues that pop music in particular isn’t moving forward so much as recycling and rehashing, all the while “nibbling away at the present’s own sense of itself as an era with a distinct identity and feel.” Reunion tours, mashups, sampling, the ease with which one can download any song in recording history—all are draining pop of the “subversive energies” that gave earlier rockers a crucial role in the culture. Clearly, “somebody needs to figure out a new way to smash a guitar.”

Reynolds’s argument may sound at times like “the all-too-typical plaint of an aging fan,” said Michael Azerrad in The Wall Street Journal. Yet his evidence is damning. Though pop “has long cannibalized its own past,” bands such as Mumford & Sons, or Green Day and Oasis before them, have built entire careers on eschewing innovation in favor of mimicking bygone musical styles, like so many Civil War re-enactors. Audiences, with instant access to virtually all recorded music, seem in turn to be growing nostalgic for pasts of more and more recent vintage. New technology, in other words, may be accelerating the move toward musical stasis.

“Reynolds rightly worries that nostalgia might be a stealth form of conservatism, reflecting a fear of progress,” said Noel Murray in the Columbia Journalism Review. A “keen writer, with the mind of a critic and the heart of an enthusiast,” he’s produced a book that’s “easy to engage; reading it is like bantering with a smart friend.” Yet his concerns ultimately seem far too alarmist. While he’s not wrong to be concerned about the future of pop music, he may be underestimating contemporary music consumers, who have been known to “salivate over a reissue of The Creation’s 1967 debut album and still be interested in Kanye West’s beautiful dark twisted fantasies.” Who says we can’t have it both ways?

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