Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Best of 2011: Simon Reynolds "Retromania"

There's no doubt that this is the best book on music criticism released in 2011.  It has generated a flurry of internet discussion, & the discussion now seems to be spilling over from the world of music to more widespread cultural critique.

In a nutshell, Reynolds argues that popular music has become addicted to rehashing its own history.  This is preventing development of any really new movements.  In the process, he takes us back to the 60s & works his way forwards chronicling various retro fads & movements.

It's not often that I find music criticism to be so intellectually provocative.  Of course, most music criticism doesn't touch on concepts like "radical atemporality" or "hauntology".  There's a lot here to process, & I feel like I'm still chewing on these ideas, months after finishing the book.

A few quick takes:

  • The concept of "progress" is a huge assumption that he is making.  My initial thought is that it is a modern capitalist framing of music.  Traditional music doesn't have the same priviledged status for anything inherently new.  In the modern (post WWII) era, it seems that "new" is priviledged simply because that allows for more goods to be sold.
  • In the last 20 years, we have not seen a large social or cultural change that functions as a driving force.  Earlier historical periods were marked with a variety of these, that drove changes in music.  (For example, in the post WWII era large numbers of Southerners migrated to Northern industrial cities.  Traditional music responded by electrifying instruments in order to be heard in the crowded Northern bars.)
  • Current (post millenium) political & social situations seem to favor reactionary behavior.  As the War On Terror continues on, seemingly endlessly, & global economies stagnate, people seem more interested in the equivalent of comfort food.  They want to feel comfortable & safe.  In this case that means they turn to music of their childhood, or some other time perceived as simpler.

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