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

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.

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?

In other words, Urban’s view is that looking backwards is the only way for a society to move forward. But this can happen in a few ways. On one end of the spectrum, there’s culture that overtly recycles the past—all the stuff that Reynolds bemoans in Retromania. On the other end, however, is a much itchier sensibility that wants to push forward, implicitly reacting to what came before—what Reynolds calls the “future rush.” Yet underlying this process is the necessity of knowing what we hear when we hear it, and having the chops—as Reynolds so clearly does—to sort the wheat (Reynolds feted rave culture, much of which centered on reusing the “Amen break,” a sample based on a track recorded in 1969) from the chaff (Girl Talk’s mashing of Elton John and Notorious B.I.G.).

Reynolds is possibly our finest living music critic, and his specific tastes permeate Retromania. While the phrase “popular culture” threads throughout every chapter, much of what Reynolds discusses is far from popular. It’s a paperback aiming directly for music geeks and other critics who can keep up with lengthy sections on UK Northern Soul and Japan’s Shibuya-Kei movement without having to hit up the Wikipedia hivemind for explanations. His penchant for flying through semi-popular music movements mirrors Reynolds’ own tastes, which were forged in the fires of two movements founded to dispense with the past and rocket toward the future. He was a teenager during the UK’s wild post-punk moment (which he chronicled in the wonderful Rip it Up and Start Again) and a working critic during the rise of rave culture (covered in the sadly out-of-print Energy Flash). Reynolds not only has a soft spot for what he calls the “future-rush” of “absolute newness,” but his own intellectual career has allowed him to amass an encyclopedic knowledge of music’s last 50 years.

Reynolds’ resume is what makes Retromania an engaging read, but also likely limits the book’s audience. It’s not that he doesn’t address the notion that “retro isn’t anything new,” because he goes to explicit detail—even incorporating lengthy sidebar lists—to prove the connection between technological advances (mp3s and YouTube) and the increasing ease with which popular culture can remained enamored with its past. Rather, while he acknowledges his status and aesthetic preferences, he leaves little room for the myriad pleasures of retro. It might not be the most productive way to keep culture moving forward on the macro level, but for non-critics, luxuriating in the recent past can be an immensely enjoyable social activity.

This hews closer to the more mundane anthropological view of retro culture: Our fascination with what’s only recently left us is not something to fear, but a predictable and often-pleasurable product of modern life. Societies are always patchworking the past, but only a few geniuses are going to use their resources and time to create something that seems unique. If history’s any indication, people will dig enough out of our ever-expanding digital archives to blow our minds again. Critics certainly hope so, but do everyday folks? The real revolutionary potential of YouTube and filesharing might lie in the fact that they’ve given us infinite new spaces to wallow.