“Remember when I said you were too young to start a story with, ‘Remember when …?’”
That song, a characteristically pun-laden meditation on two hipsters breaking up, makes an important point about nostalgia: By definition, doesn’t it require you to have amassed enough experiences to be nostalgic for?
In the United States and United Kingdom, this sort of early-onset cultural nostalgia–even toward things that happened before many of us were born–seems pandemic to our shared pop items.
Reynolds, going so far as to diagnose this phenomena in his book’s subtitle as “Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past,” follows this thread through rock museums, tribute bands, record-store geeks, reunion tours, sampling and just about anywhere else the past is poking its head into the present. From all this, he wonders if our looking back further and further might be the greatest threat to pop’s future.
Reynolds acknowledges how 2012 that all sounds, and sagely avoids presenting these predictions as anything but that: predictions. He even admits that he is as guilty as anyone when it comes to retromania.
After all, who is more complicit in cultural nostalgia—fetishizing obscure records, devouring rock biographies, watching VH1’s “100 Greatest Hip Hop Songs” just so they can argue about it—than the hipsters themselves? The music critics, like the British Reynolds, whose breadth of musical knowledge makes it possible to recognize the bits of pop culture that’ve been recycled.
It’s his complicity in retromania that allows him to recognize its face so clearly. And he sees it everywhere: from “I Love the 80s” and the gun-jumping “I Love the 2000s” to sampling in hip-hop.
Reynolds is wicked smart. Whether you’re worried, as he is, that pop is swallowing itself, or not, barely a page goes by that you don’t admire his intelligence. He brings high-brow erudition to low culture like Chuck Klosterman, his American counterpart, except Reynolds is so much more overt about it. Check out the way he brings in Derrida to explore rock museums, or Barthes to ruminate on recycled fashions. These heavy philosophers and critical theorists, for Reynolds, swim in the same soup as Lester Bangs and Dave Marsh. And unlike many other rock critics with a philosophical bent, Reynolds doesn’t hide the former below the surface.
For some, who are hoping for a more straightforward rock book, this could be trying on the patience. And veritably, there is a line between wicked smart and semi-pretentious that Reynolds is in danger of crossing here and there.
I should also point out that this book, at 425 pages (458 if you add in the bibliography and index), is probably too long. In an admirable attempt at thoroughness, Reynolds is occasionally repetitive. He doesn’t need to be; by the time we finish the prologue, he’s already convinced us. (Eric Lutz)
“Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past”
By Simon Reynolds
Faber & Faber, 458 pages, $18