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Book Review

‘Retromania’ explores why so much of society fixates on the recent past

By Eric Been
Globe Correspondent / August 18, 2011

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Critic Simon Reynolds’s infatuations with forward-thinking music and movements have been the driving force of his 25-year writing career, sparking such works as his definitive chronicle of rave culture, “Generation Ecstasy,’’ and the authoritative post-punk history “Rip It Up and Start Again.’’ Likewise, in his underappreciated collection “Bring the Noise,’’ this futurist zeal allows Reynolds to weave together a host of independent writings that span more than two decades to present an overarching case that the cross-pollination between white and black music has “served as the motor of change in pop history.’’

In Reynolds’s latest book, the exhausting yet exceptional “Retromania,’’ he shifts his inquiries to investigate why and how contemporary pop culture doesn’t share his “future-rush’’ fixation. Reynolds maintains that instead of “being the threshold to the future,’’ the 2000s were “dominated by the ‘re-’ prefix: revivals, reissues, remakes, re-enactments.’’

Reynolds acknowledges that “retro,’’ broadly defined in the work as a term to “describe pretty much anything that relates to the relatively recent past of popular culture,’’ isn’t anything new. Nonetheless, he contends that the amount of creative and leisure-capital spent on nostalgia is unparalleled. “[T]here has never been a society in human history,’’ he writes, “so obsessed with the cultural artifacts of its own immediate past.’’ Examples given, among a slew of others, are the culture industry’s decision to churn out countless deluxe reissues of classic albums to artists mining decades-old musical genres to the relentless reunion-tour fervor.

And while retro fetishism in pop music is Reynolds’s chief concern in “Retromania,’’ other pop forms are implicated as well, including Hollywood’s seemingly endless cycle of revamping yesteryears’ blockbusters, theater’s current obsession with recycling films for the stage, and fashion’s vintage addiction.

Reynolds even points to technologies like YouTube and the MP3 player as enablers of revivalism. As Reynolds sees it, they block progress by allowing the past to always be immediately available. The result, he argues, is “[n]ot only has the anxiety of influence faded away’’ for artists, but “so has a sense of shame about being a derivative.’’

Reynolds acknowledges that he himself is a culprit of retro-ism, but he ultimately positions himself as a modernist - one who holds the belief that art should continually seek out new territories. But is positioning yourself as a modernist in itself a retro stance?

Furthermore, for all his modernist pronouncements, Reynolds steeps “Retromania’’ in postmodern-leaning critical theory. Throughout the book, he draws on the works of such post-structuralists as Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, and Jacques Derrida. And like these Left Bank theorists, Reynolds never misses a chance to devise new terms for explaining his discursive meditations. He coins the word “franticity’’ to depict “the neurological pulse of the wired life,’’ the “anarchive’’ for how the Internet collects “data-debris and memory-trash’’ and “hyper-stasis’’ as shorthand for a cultural artifact that is at once new and inert.

Yet, one crucial term Reynolds fails to clearly define is retro’s flipside, originality. In fairness, he does make an implicit case for it, offering up a handful of sounds that seemingly came out of the ether, including Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,’’ Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light’’ and most surprisingly, “Are You That Somebody?’’ by the late pop singer Aaliyah.

But these are minor quibbles. “Retromania’’ not only makes a persuasive case that retro-ism is impeding pop culture, but it also illustrates why Reynolds is arguably the most provocative pop music writer of his generation.

Eric Been, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at ericbeen@gmail.com.

RETROMANIA: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past By Simon Reynolds

Faber and Faber

458 pp., $18