Idea for a Saturday Night Live sketch: A group of ’80s post-punkers, famous for spiky guitar noise and grimacing intelligence, reunites to perform its most legendary album at a rock festival in 2011. The original lineup has not played a show together in 20 years. The bassist is now a college professor, the drummer owns a comic-book store, and so on. The charismatic lead singer, meanwhile, has become a surprise hit on the children’s circuit, peddling a groovified canon of kid-friendly sing-alongs to an audience of 6-year-olds. Of all the guys, he seems to have changed the most: in the dressing room he is uncharacteristically spritely, and keeps humming “Nellie the Elephant.” Also, is his voice … higher? It’s showtime, anyway, and the crowd roars—the silvering rock dudes, the love-handled ex-fanatics, the frowning young cognoscenti. But what’s the front man doing? His bandmates watch in horror as he bounces to the microphone, stares out wide-eyed, and yelps “Hey, everybody! Who else hates asparagus?!”
Has pop culture, uh, stopped? Why do the major musical developments of the past decade include Guitar Hero, reunion tours, hip karaoke, the rise of the tribute band, pop stars made entirely from bits of other pop stars, and Van Morrison re-performing Astral Weeks? Lady Gaga, bless her radical retro soul, is Cher after three weeks in Warhol’s Factory. Cee Lo is Motown with swearing. This month, even as Roger Waters breaks temporarily from his transglobal plod-through of Pink Floyd’s 32-year-old rock opera, The Wall, Roger Daltrey sallies forth with a production of The Who’s 42-year-old rock opera, Tommy. One salutes the unkillability of these gentlemen, one reveres their work, but, honestly. And wherefore this pile of rock docs and rock bios, these waves of compulsive historicization? The Making of Frampton Comes Alive! … The Making of The Making of Frampton Comes Alive! … The Making of The Making of The Making of Frampton Comes Alive! …
Early in Retromania, Simon Reynolds’s recent compendious and slightly nauseating (in a good way) account of pop-cultural backward-looking, the author visits 315 Bowery—once the site of the punk club CBGB, now a John Varvatos clothing boutique. Reynolds is on the heritage trail: he’s already been to the British Music Experience in London (“giant-size cutouts of Jarvis Cocker and Dizzee Rascal”) and Cleveland’s Rock and Rock Hall of Fame and Museum, where he gazed in discomfiture upon a single severed dreadlock from the head of Bob Marley. Now he’s on the Bowery to see the reunited New York Dolls, more than three decades after their heyday, perform inside the Varvatos store. A nightmarish sense of recursion enters the narrative as he looks around at his fellow attendees and sees “faces that seemed vaguely familiar from rock documentaries.”
Did I say “backward-looking”? That’s not quite right. Here Lot’s wife joyously turns into a pillar of salt, and Orpheus is not so much peeking over his shoulder as marching, lyre adangle, right back into the underworld. Retromania is Reynolds’s term for our obsession with, or enthrallment by, the recent past, and in marshaling his materials he instances—among other retrocities—retro porn, retro ringtones, and a Pret A Manger sandwich called “Retro Prawn on Artisan.” Reynolds writes:
Nostalgia is now thoroughly entwined with the consumer-entertainment complex. We feel pangs for the products of yesteryear, the novelties and distractions that filled up our youth … The passage of our time has become indexed to the procession of rapidly obsolescing fads, fashions, celebrity careers et al.
His particular gripe, however, is that retromania has canceled or reversed the momentum of music. Reynolds is a specialist in musical momentum. As a writer for the British weekly Melody Maker in the mid-to-late ’80s, he was a fiery tribune for the New, unmatched in his exhortations on behalf of bands like the Swiss sampler-punks Young Gods and those Texan super-loonies, the Butthole Surfers (on whose Hairway to Steven he memorably claimed to have found “a guitar solo like the dawn in orgasm”). Later he wrote the rave-culture history/manifesto Generation Ecstasy, and the exploration of post-punk avant-gardism Rip It Up and Start Again. Now he finds himself marooned in the Noughties, where pop culture runs a “deficit in newness” and everybody likes Fleet Foxes (who are similar to Crosby, Stills, and Nash). Reboots and rediscoverings—the synth, the guitar, the blues, the beard—come and go speedily, flittingly, at the rate of fashion, fashion being nothing but “a machinery for creating cultural capital and then, with incredible speed, stripping it of value and dumping the stock.”