'Retromania': Why Is Pop Culture Addicted to Its Own Past?

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A new book says we're wallowing in our memories more than ever—and that cultural innovation is stagnating

katy perry retro.jpg

Katy Perry goes '80s for her "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" video

Nickelodeon recently decided to start catering to adults. Noticing that its 1990s programming was popular enough to spur Facebook groups, blog posts, and YouTube clips devoted to shows like “Clarissa Explains it All” and “All That,” the kid-centric cable network began rebroadcasting the content from midnight to 4 a.m.—and brought in spectacular ratings for doing so. The New York Times seemed somewhat surprised that the 18-34 demographic is old enough to be nostalgic, but the Awl’s Dave Bry countered that “nostalgia is not new”—and that he remembers when, in the dawn of the ‘90s, he was invited to his first “‘80s party,” complete with Flashdance sweaters and “Relax” booming from the CD player. In that piece, Bry traces the cycle back through Generation X’s fixation on their ‘80s childhoods, and even Happy Days trading on fond memories for the ‘50s during the early ‘70s.

retromania.jpg The underlying question: Is pervasive nostalgia for the recent past… normal? Or is there something wrong with today's fixation with the past?

Music critic Simon Reynolds tackles just this question in his book Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past, released in mid-July. Focusing on music, Reynolds asserts that recycling the past is nothing new, but that the vast digital advances of the most-recent decade have caused the amount of unimaginative and static retro culture to explode. He says we’re victims of a “crisis of overdocumentation,” facilitated by “YouTube’s ever-proliferating labyrinth of collective recollection” and the fatiguing amount of digital music history only a couple mouse-clicks away. Human beings need not rely on the foggy hard drives in their skulls anymore. Instead, they can simply Google a phrase, and spend an evening tumbling down the rabbit hole of not-so-old history.

In his reading, we’re in an extended cultural moment of “hyper-stasis”—and not for the first time, either. The “surge” decades of the ‘60s (British Invasion pop and psychedelia) and ‘90s (rave culture and electronic music) gave way to the “going-in-circles” decades of the ‘70s and the just-completed 2000s. Yes, even the supposed “revolution” of punk emerged from a reactionary impulse, he says—returning to the simple garage-created sounds of the ‘50s and ‘60s in the face of prog and the bourgeois, over-produced sounds of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac—and the ostensibly future-driven genre of electroclash was only ‘80s synth pop posing. Geez, even Gaga can’t get a break: She’s only Bowie + Grace Jones + Madonna + Marilyn Manson + Fischerspooner.

Indeed it’s the recently concluded decade that gives Reynolds the most concern (though he is trying to sell a book, after all). Where he longs for the “future-rush” of rave culture and post-punk (a quickly disappearing blip coming at the end of the otherwise static ’70s), he looks back at the last ten years and sees almost nothing but unimaginative retro, causing him to worry that the next generation will have nothing other than shoddy detritus to build upon. To him, Girl Talk’s simplistic pop-world mashups are the peak of “a barren genre” that will spawn nothing new, and the spate of cash-in reunions for ‘90s acts are on par with the rise of rock museums like the “Rock’ n’ Roll Music Library” and British Music Experience that Reynolds visits to open the book. Even the stuff he favors from the ‘00s bears a distinct relationship to the recent past: Ariel Pink’s soft-focus recreations of late-‘70s through mid-‘80s FM pop, the “hauntological” library-sampling of British electronic artists Belbury Poly and Boards of Canada, and the woozy, obscure, hip-hop creations of crate-diggers J Dilla and Madlib.

We’re in an extended cultural moment of “hyper-stasis”—and not for the first time

Reynolds traces retromania back to the heady late ‘60s, as the UK fashion scene’s ultra-modern fascination with the future—inspired by the prospect of space travel—flipped into “proto-retro,” with the rise of British psychedelia’s interest in the pastoral past. But there’s another, longer view that would see the cultural nostalgia as a necessary component of modern life. In his 2001 book Metaculture: How Culture Moves Through the World, anthropologist Greg Urban argued that societies modernize when human beings start passing judgment on the culture around them, instead of passing it down through generations like traditions or myths. We start asking ourselves: What does this remind me of? What from the past is this building upon, or “stealing from?” What can I learn from it and incorporate into my own work?

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Eric Harvey is a PhD candidate in Indiana University's Department of Communication and Culture. He has also written for Rolling Stone, Spin, Pitchfork, and The Village Voice.

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