Everything new is old again. Channel surf through Hawaii Five-O, Doctor Who, Beverly Hills 90210, and, coming soon, Dallas, and you feel out-of-time in primetime. Turn on the radio and Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” the monster song of 2011, deludes you into thinking that you are listening to an oldies station playing a ’60s girl-group. For $10, déjà-vu cinema plays The Rise of Planet of the Apes, Conan the Barbarian, Arthur, and other flicks you thought you saw several decades ago.
We’ve seen these movies before (and watched those shows and sung that song, too). Simon Reynolds has written a whole book about the phenomenon, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. It’s about time. “Instead of being the threshold to the future, the first ten years of the twenty-first century turned out to be the ‘Re’ Decade,” Reynolds writes, as in “revivals” “reissues,” “remakes,” etc. We are a present stuck in the past that leaves little for the future.
Old Media merely broadcasts our lameness. New Media fosters it. YouTube, iPods, DVDs, and Hulu bring the then face-to-face with the now. “We’ve become victims of our ever-increasing capacity to store, organise, instantly access, and share vast amounts of cultural data,” Reynolds relays. “Not only has there never before been a society so obsessed with the cultural artifacts of its immediate past, but there has never before been a society that is able to access the immediate past so easily and so copiously.” Technology intended to usher us into tomorrow instead keeps us mired in yesterday.
Since Reynolds covers the music scene, Retromania focuses upon sonic folkways. The author introduces us to taxonomaniac record collectors who don’t listen to their stockpile; studio-whiz samplers who use their cutting edge technology to resurrect the aural past; and rock museum curators who attempt to put awopbopaloobopalopbamboom in a gallery. Those whose avocations call them to keep rock music alive instead advertise its death. They miss the point.
Reynolds is decidedly retro about his explorations of retromania. Fascinating is Retromania‘s discussion of the surreal sixties success of fifties revivalists Sha Na Na. Established in the wake of the Columbia student riots to unite warring campus factions with rock n roll, Sha Na Na soon found itself performing at Woodstock at the behest of Jimi Hendrix. If not for the cinematic documentation of the faux-fifties greasers entertaining thousands of hippies, nobody would have believed that it had happened. Their fifteen minutes of fame, based as it was on the fifteen minutes of teen idols long since forgotten, probably should have never happened. But it became more like fifteen years. They opened for John Lennon. They appeared in the film Grease. They invaded living rooms every weekend from 1977 until 1981 through their campy syndicated television show. The celebrants enjoyed a career far longer than the celebrated. Could there be more compelling evidence supporting the book’s thesis that we are crazy for the past?
Reynolds is crazy about people crazy about obscure no-hit wonders, subcultures of subcultures, and has-been never-was beens. In a book ostensibly about popular culture, so much discussed never sniffed popular (perhaps it surpassed good). The English ex-pat writes that the Flaming Groovies’ Shake Some Action “was a massive record in the Bomp! milieu.” The album peaked at #142 on Billboard; the fanzine’s milieu was about as populous as a small rock club. He discusses Belbury Poly, whose ambient music samples old public information films and stock scores to television shows. Its genre, hauntology, is so obscure that it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. He points to the popularity of Oi! bands and psychobilly music in Japan, noting that a nation of 130 million “can support a huge array of subcultures, retro and contemporary, that exist completely outside the pop mainstream.” Why does a book whose subtitle advertises its interest as pop culture obsess over what escapes nearly everyone’s notice? Books written by critics needn’t be written for critics. Trivia that might have been charming as an aside becomes a bore when it conquers whole chapters. Listening to unfamiliar music can be exhilarating; reading about it is penance for the sins of past lives.
The illustrations buttressing the point are flawed. The point certainly isn’t. The bestselling album of the last decade was a collection of Beatles number-one songs, after all. What recordings from the 1920s even charted during the 1960s? Nine of the top ten grossing movies of 2011 are either sequels or based on dated characters such as “Captain America.” A remake-happy Hollywood and backward-looking music industry strip-mining the glory days devastates the cultural landscape for posterity. “The surge decades of pop history were characterised by the emergence of new subcultures and an overall sense of forward propulsion,” Retromania asserts. “What was lacking in the 2000s was movements and movement. One manifestation of the sense of deceleration: 2010 didn’t feel that different from 2009, or even 2004. Whereas in the past, the difference between years — between 1967 and 1968, or 1978 and 1979, or 1991 and 1992 — felt immense.” A mash-up decade obsessed with the identities of dead decades etched no unique identity of its own.
Could the dearth of pop-culture creativity be a symptom of a larger disease? Reynolds sees parallels between Western civilization’s decline and Western cultural rot. “The world economy was brought down by derivatives and bad debt; music has been depleted of meaning through derivativeness and indebtedness,” he notes. Reynolds dubs retromania a “recession of creativity.” We have become a take-much, leave-little civilization. In business, politics, and culture, stagnation abounds.
Do our unhealthy borrowing habits extend to entertainment? Is cultural innovation a victim of technological innovation? Might moribund production affect art as well as business? A line referencing the 1960s within a U2 song from the ’80s dubbed a sequel to a John Lennon song from the 1970s best explains retromania: “You glorify the past when the future dries up.”