Pop music criticism is one of the first kinds of writing I appreciated as a novice, and it’s the area where I’ve had the most success as a professional; I know the field well. So I’ve also learned the common clichés and blind spots which affect pop critics, including me, and also including Simon Reynolds, especially in his 2011 book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past.
At the core of Retromania is a provocative and perfectly plausible point: pop culture in the West has nearly exhausted itself, and we now spend more time quoting, curating, and recycling old work than we do creating genuinely new stuff. Much of this, Reynolds says, is driven by our unprecedented access to archives of music, cinema, and television which previous generations simply never had, the infinite repositories of YouTube and iPods being prime examples. “History must have a dustbin,” Reynolds warns, “or History will be a dustbin.”
Yet suffocating this central idea are many pages of the self-indulgence for which pop criticism has become notorious. Retromania, despite its subtitle, is really more about music than any other medium, and while plodding through it I thought of the classic barbs aimed at rock writers – Frank Zappa: “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read”; David Lee Roth: “Why do most critics like Elvis Costello and not Van Halen? Because most critics look like Elvis Costello”; and avid reader Keith Richards conceded the absence of music books in his collection by shrugging, “Music’s for listening to.”
The Costelloesque theorizing of Simon Reynolds dates back to the earliest scholarly rock essays of the 1960s and 70s, when Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Robert Christgau, Ellen Willis, Charles Shaar Murray and many others attempted to cover the music as both passionate fans and objective experts, promoting rock ‘n’ roll for its revolutionary potential while reluctantly acknowledging its function within a consumer economy. Later scribes downplayed their utopian hopes but still extolled the subversive possibilities of punk, rap, or rave. To advance such arguments, they had to boast encyclopedic familiarity with a range of famous and obscure acts, and they had to know the evolution of the form as thoroughly as an academic historian might know the political parties of inter-war France or the ruling dynasties of ancient China. Indeed, a review of Jim Miller’s 2000 book Flowers In the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock ‘n’ Roll, 1947-1977 noted that Bob Dylan’s “going electric” had taken on the same significance in rock as the Battle of Midway in World War II.
Obviously, though, it’s that microscopic perspective on what is, after all, mass entertainment which renders so much rock criticism hopelessly geeky, and which makes Retromania so tiresome. For years, the brainiest pop music writers have composed sentences like, “They sound like the almost-underground Mommyheads crossed with the oh-so-’92 angularity of early mumblecore, but without the faux neo-irony of the now-unhip Jesus Jones…,” and Reynolds upholds the tradition. He devotes a dense chapter to the meanings of punk rock: “…we cannot but hear [Patti Smith’s] Horses as a herald of the coming convulsion”; “Everything came together in a surge of energy, and then, Big Bang-like, exploded outwards into new galaxies of sound and subculture”; “…the energy that burned through was electrifying, from the paranoid delerium tremens of ‘Talk Talk’ by The Music Machine to the sensual inferno of fuzztone that is ‘You Burn Me Up and Down’ by We the People…”
Media theorists like Reynolds seek to definitively map the pop galaxy – to categorize every last band, song, and style by the standards of an omniscient first-year humanities student – but they chart almost nothing of pop’s wider universe. Are there any senior citizens, nuclear scientists, or Syrian jihadists who think the distinctions between New Wave and rockabilly merit sophisticated analysis? Are the continued cults of 1960s garage bands and 1950s cool jazz of relevance to global climate change or electronic surveillance? Is retro anything very important to anyone outside a small class of purists, collectors, and pedants? Retromania is a thoughtful book by a smart writer who has considered everything about his subject, except its enormous, embarrassing triviality.
Plus, he makes no mention of AC/DC, a critical error I cannot forgive.