The Sunday Times' Style magazine recently ran a feature entitled "Back to the '90s". "It feels so recent," the writer conceded, "but _ from music to fashion _ the 1990s are making a nostalgic return". The decade of grunge and Brit pop may indeed be too fresh in the collective psyche to be worth reviving, but it seems it's too hazy for some. The article ended, predictably enough, with a quote from the editor of a youth culture magazine, who claimed: "On a niche level, some people are moving on to the early 2000s." That was way back in spring; no doubt hipsters are now reliving the glories of 2007.
RETROMANIA: POP CULTURE’S ADDICTION TO ITS OWN PAST: By Simon Reynolds, 496pp, 2011 Faber & Faber paperback. Available at all good bookshops for 617 baht.
Nostalgia is not a new phenomenon, of course, but never has society been so obsessed with the cultural artefacts of its own immediate past, so besotted with the fashions and music that occurred within living memory. How did pop culture become entrapped in this endless rehashing? The issue is examined exhaustively and engagingly in Retromania, the latest book by Simon Reynolds, a US-based British music journalist who has written extensively on new wave, hip hop and rave culture.
Bringing a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of post-war music history and an eloquent style that seamlessly mixes academic analysis with fan-boy enthusiasm, Reynolds is well equipped to make sense of the directionless direction of noughties pop. The self-styled "future addict" writes, "I come not to bury the 2000s but to appraise them." And that appraisal is far from stellar.
Looking back at the first 10 years of the 21st century he observes: "Instead of being about itself, the 2000s has been about every other previous decade happening again all at once _ a simultaneity of pop time that abolishes history while nibbling away at the present's own sense of itself as an era with a distinct identity and feel."
The book covers all aspects of what he labels "the 'Re' Decade" _ an era dominated by revivals, reissues, remakes, re-enactments, endless retrospection and rampant recycling _ but the focus is on music for it is within the music industry that "the scrambling of pop time, the atrophy of any sense of futurity or forward propulsion" is most egregious.
Rock, the new classical music, now supports a massive heritage industry of museums, tombstone-like boxed CD sets, "rockumentaries" and band reunions. Even in the more experimental scene there is a disconcerting sense of deja vu, which raises the question, is this really experimental?
Each decade has had its own retromania, as Reynolds notes in the second section of the book, "Yesteryear", in which he dissects the trad jazz boom of the early '60s and the rock'n'roll revival and Northern Soul scenes of the '70s. The turning point when artists abandoned the urge to be creative came in the 1980s. And it's been downhill since then.
"Because music history is splayed out as an atemporal smorgasbord, with sounds from every different era of history equally available as current music, the presence of the past in the present is massively increased," he notes. Most of the music genres and subcultures that have ever existed are still with us. Ultimately, "neophilia has turned to necrophilia". Reynolds makes the important point that sometimes we need to forget.
Technology, especially the internet, must take the lion's share of blame for this abnegation of originality, according to Reynolds. Our "YouTubeWikipediaRapidshareiTunesSpotify era" is characterised by an "ahistorical entropy that produced the shuffle aesthetic of the iPod, the archival maze of YouTube". In cyberspace, "past and present commingle in a way that makes time itself mushy and spongiform". Worse still, the web's superabundance of choice and instant access has reduced the power of art to dominate our attention _ a sorry state indeed.
The forty-something writer is mystified at the way the young generation is enthralled by the music of its predecessors _ a generational inferiority complex summed up neatly by Sandi Thom's 2006 hit I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair). Lamenting that she was "born too late to a world that doesn't care" she wistfully looks back to '77 and '69, "when revolution was in the air". And who can blame her in a world of crass talent shows and Justin Biebers?
The book's central argument, that pop is living on borrowed time, is hardly controversial _ we only need to look at what's in the charts or check the online stores to see that for ourselves. But Reynolds' astute and witty analysis really brings home the scale of this strip-mining of yesteryear's popular culture. There must come a point at which detritus can no longer be recycled, and that point was reached last decade, some might even argue in the 1990s.
Admitting his own complicity in often yearning for the past, Reynolds is not against nostalgia per se, suggesting that it can be creative and subversive. This subversive nostalgia approach, after all, produced the punk explosion in the second half of the 1970s, and he devotes a whole chapter to detailing the movement's reactionary roots.
Ultimately, however, Reynolds remains sanguine. Despite bemoaning that "we can't seem to get past this past", in spite of castigating pop's necrophilia, he concludes, "I still believe the future is out there."
Given his steady finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist, let's hope his optimism isn't misplaced.
About the author
Writer: Alex Choi Ingamells