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More a history than a thesis.
on 15 August 2011
Simon Reynolds' exhaustive overview of popular musics (and to an extent pop culture as a wholes) current obsession with reworking or recreating its recent past, 'Retromania' takes the form of hundreds of short essays on everything from 1950s trad jazz fashions to dubstep. It's never less than readable, but is occasionally repetitive and does tend to ramble into irrelevance.
Postmodernism in popular music is, of course, not a new theme. The first of many books on the idea (Jeremy J. Beadle's "Will Pop Eat Itself?") was published as far back as 1993, so no matter how in depth Mr. Reynolds' research, no matter how erudite his knowledge, no matter how insightful he is about music, its' difficult to escape the fact that it's all been said before: Most of 'Retromania's idea's will be already familiar to its target readership, especially as it becomes clear on completing the book that the author has no real thesis as such. Once he's followed every last thread to it's end, we're left with the standard middle-aged music fans complaint that pop music just isn't as exciting as it used to be back in our day, and where are the young people that will kick off the new punk?
One problem, I feel, is that the author generally fails to go outside the parameters of pop music production itself when looking for reasons for its' ongoing taste for nostalgia, whereas it seems to me that considering socioeconomic issues might provide a greater insight (One of the reasons might simply be that people tend to listen to pop music to a much later age than previous generations, so that they eventually delve into the past after consuming all of the current music to their taste: It might be that post-war youth cults were a historical blip, and that the most creative of the younger generation are no longer interested in producing music, etc) There's also, to me,an issue with Reynolds seeming assumption that all culture is of of equal importance within whats ultimately a marketplace, so that obscure postrock acts selling a few dozen homemade cassettes are as worthy of discussion as Phil Collins, etc.
Having said all that, I do still recommend the book: Along with Chuck Klostermann, Reynolds is by far the most insightful critic currently writing about popular music, and many of his thoughts on pop (The music of bands like the Black Eyed Peas being 'pre-degraded for MP3' for instance) are absolutely fascinating. Flawed but still worthwhile.