Saturday, November 26, 2011
Allow my two cents to be thrown in the pot regarding Simon Reynolds' latest tome, Retromania (Faber & Faber/2011). I'm familiar w/ some of Reynolds' writing over the years, mainly the articles he'd occasionally pen for The Wire, as well as his book, Rip It Up & Start Again, from approx. half a decade ago. The latter was actually a pretty good one, too, one which dissected and put together the post-punk diaspora which exploded throughout the globe in the late '70s and early '80s into a comprehensive (and comprehensible) narrative. He has a fairly simple and approachable style of writing, conversational like a zine/blog writer, yet he also isn't afraid to throw a few pieces of academic lingo and analysis around. Much like many a Limey music journalist, he also isn't afraid to discuss - and sometimes even create - the occasionally ludicrous music genre (such as "hypnagogic pop" and "hauntological": the kind of phrases I couldn't possibly say w/ a straight face), though he's been living in the US for 15 years now (and recently moved from NYC to LA), and "gets" rock & roll far moreso than most of his fellow countrymen (his chapter on SST in the 1980s from Rip It Up... was pretty spot on).
But anyway, it's 2011, popular and unpopular music hasn't given the masses nor underground a major kick up the backside for about a decade now (possibly debatable, but that's his stance [and mine]), and Retromania is Reynolds' attempt to tackle the topic of the state of music in the year 2011, where technology has taken us and where it's likely to lead us. The rapid change of technological advances the past 5 years, and the way it's changed the musical landscape and the way we approach it and listen to it, has left myself and some of my compadres more than a little dumbstruck. The instant gratification of the internet, iphones, downloads etc. almost has me forgetting what life was like before such gadgets came along. Whilst I'm prone to complaining about the get-it-now culture swallowing the minds of the youth of the land, I'm as guilty as anyone in my exploitation of said technology.
But back to the book.... for the most part, Retromania puts to paper what's been swimming around my head the past few years regarding contemporary music: why, in the 21st century, does the new music I'm hearing not excite me like the music of old? Is it all really that unoriginal, or is it simply a sign of my own age? Do 19 year-olds voraciously devour the hot, new underground sounds in the same manner I did 20 years ago? Does it resonate w/ them in the same way it did for previous generations? In short: has music been cheapened and de-valued? There's no definitive answer for any of this, although Reynolds does claim there to be a general malaise in the originality dept. the past decade, and this can be blamed on the omnipresent nature of information and our ready access to just about any music from the past & present at the press of a key, something bordering on information overload, and something which has led to a near-parasitic music culture which is constantly feeding on itself, almost unable to search for new ideas. In other words, its sense of forward momentum, of breaking new ground, has been lost, or at least stalled. Regional scenes are not given time to develop anymore as they had in the past (think of everything from the blues/R & B of the '30s/'40s - the west coast practitioners had a very different sound to those of the south or the east - through to the distinct HC/punk scenes of the early '80s), as an artist can display their wares to the world via Youtube/Myspace/Facebook/ etc. after one practice, and possibly find themselves being plagiarised in Finland or Estonia within 24 hours... but I digress. Retromania is more fun that that. It's not a whinge nor a Luddite manifesto, and also willingly acknowledges the benefits the internet has brought music fans throughout the previous 15 years.
The first half of the book, in particular, had me interested: it dissects the culture of record collecting and how this relates to the changing world of the 21st century. The story of his son as a five-year-old living in NYC and obsessed w/ collecting bus maps, is both hilarious and illuminating. Reynolds would take his son on weekend bus trips throughout the burroughs so he could collect the maps, until one day he simply said to his son: Why don't we just go to Central Station and pick up all the maps there are in one quick & easy grab? His son was horrified at the suggestion, and at that point the author knew he had the collecting bug like his old man: it wasn't just the collection per se, it was the journey in the acquiring which made it such a passion.
Reynolds interviews and writes about some infamous collectors and label folks well worth reading about - John Kugelberg, Miriam Linna, Crypt's Tim Warren - and for me this was the most interesting part of the book. The latter two, in particular, have always held the belief that, if I may paraphrase, it may be old, but if it's new to me, then it's new, and that's something I can relate to (at least that's how I justify my hopelessly backward-looking music obsessions). Reynolds also gives some major page space to the current trend of famous musicians curating festivals, the constant revival/reunion circuit (something which has a particular stronghold within the punk/independent scene of the '70s/'80s) and the labels dedicated to reissuing old material. I can say this from experience, having worked in the, err, "biz" the past 15+ years: it's a lot easier selling older material tarted up at the right price than it is breaking a new band, no matter how brilliant you may think them to be. Believe me, a well-annotated and -packaged Ella Fitzgerald box set marked at the right price (ie. - dirt cheap) moves faster and more steadily than 99% of "hot" "new" releases.
Reynolds lost me halfway through the book for a few-dozen pages when he started writing about the world of fashion and its constant recycling, but that's probably just because I have zilch interest in clothing (I found a look which suits me 25 years ago and I've stuck w/ it ever since), though it picks up the pace again when discussing contemporary artists he rates (ones I mostly don't), "futurism", sci-fi writing and the 20-year cycle of nostalgia. My workplace is a few doors down from a "community" high school (basically an "alternative education" facility), and it nevers ceases to crack me up when I walk past a big group of its students on the way to work, many of them decked in subcultural uniforms from decades past: there's the death/thrash metal kids wearing Kreator, Destruction and Sodom patches on their denim jackets, the HC kids w/ Bad Brains and Black Flag t-shirts and the crusties w/ Crass and Rudimentary Peni hoodies, smoking out the front on most mornings. There's even a small group of retro-stoners, clad in Led Zep and Hendrix tees, looking like extras from Dazed & Confused. Several times I've walked by in a Black Flag or Sunn O))) t-shirt, only to hear one of them mutter to me, "Cool t-shirt, man". No one's ever commented on my Louis Jordan top, but that's no surprise. Some of the kids wear Darkthrone and Burzum shirts, but none of them sport truly new and contemporary bands on their apparel. If I didn't feel approx. 100 years old in their vicinity, simply as a matter of social research, I'd ask them why they don't appear to listen to contemporary music, but each time I chicken out.
Reynolds is quite taken by the current crop of "hypnagogic pop" bands 20-somethings are entranced by in the 21st century. Hypnagogic pop? I was hoping you wouldn't ask. Loosely speaking, if I have this correct, it's a term attached to a certain retro school of sound which feeds on various forms of pop from decades past: '70s yacht-rock, '80s synth-pop, New Age, kraut, etc. Ariel Pink is the most famous poster boy, though others, like Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never, also get major props from more "adult-oriented" publications such as The Wire. Ariel Pink has one great song I can vouch for (hear it here); Mark McGuire and his outfit, Emeralds, even have their moments (there's a great 2CD Best Of on the Mego label; his schtick is looped guitars and electronics which possesses a kraut/Terry Riley vibe); even Oneohtrix Point Never I have enjoyed... but is this the best there is to offer? It's not music to get excited about, and in my grumpier of moods, I'm prone to dismissing all of this stuff as vacuous hipster nonsense few people are likely to care about in 12 months time, let alone 10 years. Taking full advantage of the technology at the tip of my fingers, whilst reading Retromania, I browsed Youtube to hear tracks by Boards Of Canada and the "hauntological" (don't ask) sounds of Advisory Circle and The Focus Group and found myself distinctly underwhelmed. I wanted to be excited by these groups, but I wasn't. I doubt there's ever been a poll conducted to determine whether my reaction is a widespread phenomenon amongst Gen X music nerds who appear to be almost incapable of appreciating 21st-century "young people's music", so you'll just have to accept that as being the opinion of one man.
But Simon Reynolds is a professional music writer, which means he has to - and obviously does - find something of value in these bands, and if he didn't, he may as well give up his profession or enquire about vacancies at MOJO magazine. 21st-century music, both underground and mainstream, may be rife w/ plagiarism, unoriginality and a parasitic nature almost unprecedented - and perhaps much of this can be blamed on technology - but you can't fight it, and I shouldn't resent those born at the wrong (or right) time who are growing up in this climate of rapid change.