The Null Device

Why retromania is all the rage

Simon Reynolds writes about popular culture's increasingly revivalist tendencies:
Head into the post-indie musical zones of NME/Pitchfork and most of what you encounter is "alternative" only in the sense of offering an alternative to living in the present: Fleet Foxes, with their beards and balladry modeled on their parents' Crosby, Stills & Nash LPs; Thee Oh Sees' immaculate 60s garage photocopies; the Vivian Girls' revival of what was already a revival (C86 shambling pop). In indieland too we're starting to hear 90s vibes creeping in, from Yuck's grunge-era slacker-isms to Brother's Gallagher-esque "gritpop".
Head into the post-indie musical zones of NME/Pitchfork and most of what you encounter is "alternative" only in the sense of offering an alternative to living in the present: Fleet Foxes, with their beards and balladry modeled on their parents' Crosby, Stills & Nash LPs; Thee Oh Sees' immaculate 60s garage photocopies; the Vivian Girls' revival of what was already a revival (C86 shambling pop). In indieland too we're starting to hear 90s vibes creeping in, from Yuck's grunge-era slacker-isms to Brother's Gallagher-esque "gritpop".
(I'm not sure I'd lump NME and Pitchfork in together; while each does convey a formula for what "indie" is, there's an order of magnitude of difference in how cynically formulaic it is. Pitchfork, whilst being a musical equivalent of Stuff White People Like, at least aspires to a demographic which purports to be somewhat more thoughtful about its aesthetic preferences. NME, meanwhile, has long ago abandoned any ideal of "indie" being driven by any sort of independence of tastes; its oeuvre is marketing-driven Indie® reduced to a cartoonish lowest-common-denominator of facile lad-rock in skinny jeans and striped deep-V T-shirts, the messages of the original source material reduced to a series of cool stances, with ads in the back for where to buy the uniform.)

Reynolds' contention is that popular music (and other aspects of popular culture; witness retro fashion, for example, or pixel art, or the prevalence of apps that make your smartphone simulate a stylishly crappy old camera) has increasingly become focussed on the past. The mainstream has all but stripmined the obvious things (garage rock, Motown, synthpop), turning them into pattern-books of conventions (I'm not sure if anyone has described 1980s synthpop as "timeless" yet, though it's bound to happen). Meanwhile, once bounteous treasure troves of leftfield cool and edgy weirdness such as krautrock and tropicalia now look as despoiled as Nauru's phosphate quarries, leading retro cool hunters to look further afield, from exploring foreign tributaries of the collective past recently opened by the advent of YouTube (apparently the next big thing among hipsters is Soviet new-wave post-punk known as stilyagi) to the cultural equivalent of tar sands oil extraction, digging up and reviving what was considered terminally cheesy (the yacht-rock revival could be considered in this regard), to the point where one considers whether we may, indeed, run out of past. And now, as the 1980s revival is exceeding the duration of the decade it revived, the revivalists are moving into the 1990s, with indie bands doing grunge and R&B/pop artists detuning their polyphonic synths and riffing off cheesy Eurodance.

The question is: does popular music really look backwards a lot more than it used to? Is it because, as recorded music (which, a few decades ago, was relatively new) has accumulated more past, it is increasingly difficult to do anything totally novel without referencing the past, or because recorded music is becoming an elderly pursuit, with the more forward-looking diverting their attention to newer endeavours?

Anyway, Reynolds (who has a new book titled Retromania out) is chairing a talk on the subject tonight at the ICA in London.

There are 6 comments on "Why retromania is all the rage":

Posted by: Bowie Fri Jun 3 01:22:05 2011

I have often thought that one of the largest understated problems of the modern recording industry is the volume of "catalogue" music (as they call it) continues to grow. With modern digital music stores everything-ever is competing on a relatively level playing field with your "new" song. When it is trivial to compare your music to that of the music of the last hundred years, you're bound to sound like somebody.

Posted by: acb http://dev.null.org/acb/ Fri Jun 3 09:57:18 2011

...and eventually you end up where folk balladry is, where stylistic originality is a moot point.

Posted by: Slavoj Muzak Sat Jun 4 01:48:35 2011

The phenomenon of Peak Retro is also beginning to affect the whole retrochemical industry.

Posted by: Greg Sat Jun 4 12:41:38 2011

Certainly it's something that everyone is noticing, and quite a few are making comedy of. My 2c worth is at http://spill-label.org/nw/lyrics/1979.html .

I've noticed that it has become standard practice to reference one's material to the past ("it's kind of mid-70s Bowie" etc). This is in stark contrast to the post-punk era, when the daggiest thing imaginable was to (even accidentally) sound like the past.

In fact I'd go so far as to say that the 80s was the last time rock tried to be original. 90s indie and grunge was a revival of 70s pop and rock. (Reviving the 90s will be complicated.) I remember remarking in the mid 90s to a band-mate that techno was the only original genre of that time. They looked at me strange but eventually agreed. A lot of the innovation today is in the top 40, which rarely uses guitars and drums.

Maybe it's a sign of a maturing genre that it looks more often back than forward? Look at jazz - current acts basically choose which golden era they will imitate, and no-one minds much.

Posted by: acb http://dev.null.org/acb/ Sat Jun 4 19:08:18 2011

The ironic thing was that, stylistically, punk sounded like 1950s rock'n'roll and/or early-70s pub-rock, only with poorer quality musicianship. (There were acts who didn't, but they distanced themselves from punk. As Lydia Lunch said, "the problem with 'punk rock' is rock".)

Posted by: Greg Sun Jun 5 00:36:56 2011

Sure - but the practitioners of the day were aware of it, and consciously tried to move away from the "punk as in rock" sound. By 1980, punk bands and fans sensed that punk was dead (to the extent that the first wave of punk revivalist bands, led by The Exploited, were able to use that as a slogan/album-title in 1981).

A distinct anti-rock meme emerged, pushed by the NME and others. Formerly punk bands and fans quickly and deliberately moved in new musical directions - generally not to "new wave" (which was really just a commercial watering-down of punk) but to what is now called "post punk".

Most punk bands who survived into the 80s radically changed their sound - for example the Clash "Sandinista" album, the post-Pistols Public Image Ltd, and the post-Saints Laughing Clowns.

"Rock" become something of a dirty word around then and you'll find many practitioners from the early 80s have been suspicious of rock revivals such as 90s grunge/indie and 00s nu-rock, causing a rift between 80s and 90s musos.

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