I’m slowly emerging from that sorrowful place where, after having lost something so dear to me, everything in life seems trivial and weirdly pointless. I’ve been incapable of doing anything that requires mental effort, so have cast all work obligations aside, and have passed the time either in front of a movie screen or book. I saw Fruitvale Station (devastating story, schmaltzy film), The Hunt (Scandinavians really know how to make movies), BlackFish (a glaring reminder as to why SeaWorld and dolphin/ killer whale parks need to GO AWAY), and Stories We Tell (the gushing reviews are wholly justified). I finally got through a stash of un-read books–Darlene Love and Carole King’s autobiographies, The Wrecking Crew book, and Simon Reynolds’ Retromania. I am a notorious highlighter, note-taker, page folder, and my copy of Retromania is one hot-pink mess. Pete suggested that instead of highlighting the whole book,  I should just read it again. But it’s not often you come across a book that speaks to your whole darn existence and attempts to very eloquently and enthusiastically get to the heart of every question stuck in your brain for the last five years.

My experiment in limiting my intake of new (old) music on the internet? Reynolds writes of his “musical journalist buddy,” Michaelangelo Matos, who “vowed that from January to November of 2009, he would only allow himself to download one mp3 at a time; the next mp3 can only be downloaded once I listen to the first one.” My endless complaining about the myth of choice? Reynolds cites our “culture of limitlessness” as a possible culprit for poor creativity and unhappiness, and his definition of the iPod as an “emblem of the poverty of abundance” couldn’t be more accurate.

I share practically all of his views on the overwhelming nature of youtube, the disappointment with the new, lack of time, restriction and boundaries as necessities for creativity, the collector mentality– it’s all in there, written in such snappy prose with insight and anecdotes from Northern Soul collectors, punk musicians, and experts on Japanese pop culture. When I get this enthusiastic about a book, I like to visit Amazon to read the reviews and delight in the excitement and opinions of others. But I was surprised to see very few reviews for Retromania, and many of them not quite as glowing as I had expected. Everyone agrees that Simon Reynolds is one of our generation’s top music writers, and that he makes a most convincing case that the creative fields (he focuses mostly on music) are consumed by the past, and that somewhere around the late ’90s music stopped progressing. A few music-loving friends of mine also point to the late ’90s as music’s dead end, and I would have to agree. But many of the reviewers complain that Reynolds failed to get to the bottom of why this happened. Why is “pop culture addicted to its own past?” What are the reasons we started to look back instead of forward? 

I just watched Dave Grohl’s documentary Sound City (practically perfect until the final 30 minutes’ indulgent celebrity rock jams), about California’s super-studio of the ’70s through ’90s. Dave Grohl along with many of Sound City’s rock-star alumni, mourn the transition from analog to digital, vinyl to CD, studios to pro-tools, with nearly everyone agreeing that music just ain’t what it used to be. Reynolds points out that moaning about the present day is also feature of the past, with every decade feeling nostalgic for earlier times. But whilst artists from the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s and ’80s and even the ’90s may have taken from the past, many did offer forward-thinking, innovative updates, like the punk movement in the ’70s and rave culture in the ’90s. The 2000s, he argues, have been creatively dismal.  He quotes You Are Not A Gadget  writer Jaron Lanier, who offers this challenge–“Play me some music that is characteristic of the late 2000s as opposed to the late 1990s.” Reynolds admits that it’s “hard to see what anyone could come up with in response.” 

So what happened? As Grohl implies, did digital kill creativity? Because if creativity derives from human togetherness (artists, musicians, and writers spending weeks in the studio, 15 hours a day) and restrictions and limitations on choice (having to put up with the individual demands of producers, engineers, band-mates, significant others and a record label keeping a tight eye on time and budget), and talent and ability (people who master their instruments and play with heart and soul) then surely anything that chips away at those essential music-making ingredients is to blame. Technology, in empowering everyone and anyone to be a “musician” is certainly culpable in removing the human elements in music–from programs like Auto-Tune correcting vocal “imperfections” to the laptop allowing individuals to record an entire album alone. But Grohl too, in his belief that purchasing Sound City’s infamous Neve Console would somehow result in higher quality music seems just as naive as relying on a computer. The scenes of Stevie Nicks, Rick Springfield, and Paul McCartney recording on Grohl’s Neve console just comes off as a yawn-worthy attempt to turn back the clock. And if it’s the past we’re seeking, why listen to modern interpretations of the past as opposed to the real thing? (which is almost always far more rewarding). 

Reynolds presents plenty of evidence suggesting that we’re more retro-minded than ever, and that despite advances in technology, we really haven’t progressed at all in terms of innovation and quality. The computer may have tricked us into thinking we can do without those time-tested human ingredients that necessitate artistry, but the evidence proves otherwise. And even more baffling in this supposed technologically advanced age, we now have a whole host of musicians and artists who offer nothing aside from near perfect copies of the past, made possible by computers that have given us full access to decades of music once only available to odd obsessives and fringe collectors.

Perhaps the answer lies in frustration. There’s a growing group of musicians, fans, writers, and music lovers who, though happy to keep digging up the past, are sick of the status quo and longing for a better present. As public figures like Simon Reynolds and Dave Grohl air their grievances via more mainstream outlets, perhaps someone will get the message. 

Retromania is available from Strand Books and
Sound City is available for purchase or rent on iTunes.
Simon Reynolds’ Retromania blog:

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