In his seventh book “Retromania,” British-born rock critic and music memorabilia collector Simon Reynolds asserts that there’s never “been a society so obsessed with the cultural artifacts of its own immediate past” as ours. Of course, collectors have always been fascinated with antiques and objects from history. But now web archives like YouTube, Wikipedia, and Tumblr have made it possible for anyone to get lost reliving the pop culture landscape of their childhood. At the same time, smartphone apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic let us turn any new photo into a faded Polaroid relic from the ’70s or ’80s. Reynolds, who’s been a music journalist for 28 years now, is alarmed that modern musicians are obsessed with period re-creation and applying the sonic equivalent of Instagram filters to their albums rather than creating anything new. Reaching him by phone at his home in South Pasadena, California, we asked him what all this bodes for the future.
Collectors Weekly: What inspired you to write “Retromania”?
Simon Reynolds: As a rock critic, I’ve been anxious about music for a long while. I find very retro, overtly nostalgic music, like what you see coming from Jack White, Lana Del Rey, or Fleet Foxes, to be, well, retrograde. I’m into innovation and moving forward. All the music I grew up on was like that, starting with post-punk music. Then in the ’80s, I was into Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, and in the ’90s, I was involved in the electronic scene. So the idea that, in the 21st century, music is modeled on the past seems counterproductive, or a failure, even. Obviously, musicians always draw influence from the past, but I’m talking about bands that explicitly copy the Beatles or something classic like that.
“It’s fun to relive our pop-culture history. But is the fun based on being scared of what’s going on now and hiding in the past?”
I started to think about writing this book around 2006, a year after a concert promoter at All Tomorrow’s Parties in Britain invented this thing called “Don’t Look Back,” where a band plays its most loved cult or iconic album all the way through. Van Morrison, for instance, did “Astral Weeks,” playing it from Track 1 to Track 9. To me, that seemed like a weird, fetishistic thing to do. But there’s a demand for it. “Don’t Look Back” became a template. Suddenly, every music festival had an element where bands were doing their most famous album all the way through. That seemed to be a sign of the times we’re living in.
Also in 2006, a record called “Love” was put out under the Beatles’ name, featuring mash-up versions of their songs. George Martin and his son Giles did it in connection with a Cirque du Soleil production in Las Vegas. At the time, I thought this would turn into a big trend. I imagined Pink Floyd would do an album like that, as would the Rolling Stones, but it didn’t catch on. Still, it seems significant to me that the nostalgia industry found another way they could squeeze even more enjoyment out of the classics of rock history. How can we keep on enjoying the Beatles? Remix them.
Collectors Weekly: Why does this concern you?
Reynolds: I wonder why we’re so obsessed with the past, particularly in music, because that’s my thing. A lot of the other retro phenomena I find vaguely amusing, but the music is a genuine worry because I like to be surprised. The first instinct for a new band starting out now—and I’m talking about very musical, intelligent people—is to go to an existing template and then tinker with it. They have fun trying to reproduce it as exact as they can or adapt it to their purpose in some way. But there are not so many musicians trying to come up with something out of nowhere, which is quite hard to do.
In the past, though, people have tried to do that. That was the general modernist ethos for a long period in music, particularly in the ’60s, but also in the post-punk era I grew up in, and in the electronic techno scene of the ’90s. You might use an idea from the past, but you’d probably mutilate it in some way or drastically change it. Or you’d use it as a springboard to go somewhere new. Now the ethos is much more like reproducing antiques. It’s about getting that drum sound or that guitar texture. It’s literally a backward movement. My concern is a sense of everything being seemingly vaguely familiar. It’s a bit depressing.
Collectors Weekly: Why wouldn’t you just listen to the Rolling Stones, if you’re going to listen to a band that replicates the Rolling Stones?
Reynolds: Yeah, it’s redundant. Plenty of that style of music was made, not only by the Rolling Stones but by the Rolling Stones imitators in the ’60s. Your needs can be supplied with what already exists, so why add more redundancy to the world?
Collectors Weekly: Everyone has to discover the Rolling Stones or punk music for the first time, right?
Reynolds: Punk is starter music for a lot of people. It’s fast, aggressive music that you can play really well. But in the ’70s, the original punks barely knew how to play their instruments. They were struggling to play in time and deliver their sound. It gave their music a certain edge, which you don’t get with the pop-punk from the ‘90s. I don’t mind Green Day at all, and they can really play. A lot of people think Tré Cool is one of the best drummers in rock, which is unusual for a punk musician.
“It has never been possible to go back and revisit old movies, music, TV shows, and even commercials to the extent we can now.”
Initially, punk was more of a shocking image. Punks had safety pins in their noses. Some wore swastikas, not because they were fascists but because the most upsetting thing you could do in Britain in the ’70s was to mock the sacrifices of the previous generation in World War II. So punk was super-threatening for a while. Then, I think, the record industry noticed this new burst of energy, and it did get assimilated fairly quickly. So the pop-punk people of the ’90s were less political, picking up on a more teenage aspect of punk. Bands like the Descendents and the Undertones sang about the woes of being a suburban kid as opposed to anarchy, smashing things up, or destroying everything in protest. And there were a lot of serious protests in ’70s punk, from bands like the Clash and Crass.
Collectors Weekly: Do you feel any music now is making a statement about our society?
Reynolds: I can’t think of any, really. But pop music always reflects what’s going on to some extent. For instance, last year, there were a lot of big pop songs about getting very drunk and living as if there were no tomorrow. That’s an explicit theme of a lot of songs like “Till the World Ends” by Britney Spears, which was actually written by Ke$ha—who started the recent reckless hedonism trend. Then there was Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night,” which says she woke up from “a blacked out blur.” That’s a pretty grim view of pleasure.
To me, the bleak aspect of this hedonism you saw starting in 2010 reflected the state of the economy. It’s improved this year, but last year, things felt terribly precarious and dark. I sense that these songs are appealing to a certain feeling like, “There isn’t much of a future, so I’m just going to enjoy life in this rather desperate way as much as I can.” It’s something that pop songwriters—who are actually quite well off and not living in this precarious way—have intuited that people want.
Collectors Weekly: Part of the appeal of those “Don’t Look Back” concerts is that a 16-year-old who just discovered an album gets to see the band play those songs.
Reynolds: Sure, it makes sense. It’s not exactly the same as seeing the band the first time around. But it’s a bit like the classical music idea of the repertory, like when you go to see Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But it’s not an orchestra working from a score, it’s the actual original band. Of course, there are also a tribute bands, where they have a singer who’s trying to imitate the specifics or timbre of the original singer’s voice. They might even dress the same and hold their instruments in the same way. It’s not just the melodies; it’s the whole experience.
Genesis has given their official approval to this one Canadian tribute band called The Musical Box. When the tribute band performed the 1974 album “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,” Genesis actually provided the band with the slides the band used on that tour. So it’s a very close simulation of that ’70s tour, with the blessing of Genesis. You can imagine that becoming a franchise system, when a legendary band gets too arthritic to perform themselves. They could have a franchise in each territory, one for Australia and Indonesia, one for Latin America, and one for North America. It could be a nice little earner for everybody.
Collectors Weekly: What would something new look like now? Are we beyond being surprised?
“If people now see the idea of going to the moon as a corny retro thing, that’s really sad.”
Reynolds: It’s difficult to say. So many extreme things have been done sonically and in terms of image. I suppose Lady Gaga had a very good try of being shocking, but unfortunately it does seem like a composite of things done by Marilyn Manson, Grace Jones, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Madonna, and all these different shock rockers from the past. Her music, however, sounds quite a bit like ’90s electronica. In terms of sound, I would say it’s the dubstep music. The groups that are becoming stadium headliners like Skrillex and Bassnectar are almost like a rock version of the genre. Those mad, wiggly bass lines do sound quite new and quite horrible. When Deadmau5 was on the Grammy Awards, I was excited to hear that sound in that context.
It’s still hard to see how you could come up with something that would be utterly surprising that was still vaguely enjoyable. There are all kinds of extreme things you can do. Although even in extreme music, like the sort of music that Wire magazine covers, in a way it’s continuing what John Cage, the Velvet Underground, or Karlheinz Stockhausen did. That super-experimental abstract music has its own enormous history behind it that’s hard to get beyond. Maybe the new thing will be something that combines sound and vision in some totally free-form way, with the audiences remixing the sound on their iPhones or tablets.
Collectors Weekly: You also talk in your book about pop culture’s addiction to its own past. What do you mean by that?
Reynolds: My book is focused mainly on music, but I do talk about other art or entertainment forms. When you take it all in, you see that retro is like a culture-wide paradigm. Fashion is the pioneer of this idea of recycling relatively recent looks as retro. Then, you started to get it in graphic design.
In the last decade, it started to show up in movies. Obviously, there’s the remake phenomenon that’s been going on for quite a while. But now you’re increasingly getting movies that are done in an outmoded style with a lot of attention to making it look like an artifact from the past. The 2011 black-and-white silent film “The Artist” is the big breakthrough moment in that movement. In 2007, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez did a pair of movies, “Death Proof” and “Planet Terror,” that were meant to be like a 1970s grindhouse double bill. In between the films, they included ads for nonexistent movies. The whole experience was meant to be as if you’re at a ’70s sleazy cinema, watching these exploitation movies.
And there’ve been TV series like that. In the early 2000s, the BBC aired a comedy series called “Look Around You” that was a spoof of very stilted educational programs from the ’70s. With these shows, there’s a lot of attention to getting the clothes right, as well as the quality of camera or the photography and lighting used at that time. With “Look Around You,” they even make sure the presenters hair looked bad in this period-precise way. Instagram, Hipstamatic, and smartphone apps that filter photos to make them look like snapshots from the ’70s are the same thing. On the one hand, I think this aesthetic appeals to artists because it’s quite challenging. It takes a lot of craft, but it’s not impossible because you have all these digital tools to help you make things look like artifacts.
A sister phenomenon is vintage chic where you are actually getting the original artifacts and decorating your house. In the ’60s or the ’70s, a hip, young couple would have a lava lamp or one of those fiber-optic lamps, design elements that felt very modern. But now you have a chipped, painted sign from a ’40s diner or an ancient manual typewriter as a decorative object. So that says something about changes in design sensibility. People seem to think old, faded, and distressed is more beautiful than shiny, new, and futuristic.
Collectors Weekly: We want the futuristic things from the past, but we don’t want the current future.
Reynolds: That’s true. Things that are shiny and new are considered plebeian taste or they just look tacky. A lot of the Etsy world is based on this idea that things made new in factories now are cheap, plastic junk, and people would prefer hand-milled paper that’s silk-screened or objects made out of old things, stuff that has a real texture and grain to it. I recently went a craft fair in L.A.: They had notebooks where each cover was made from an old-school textbook or hardback novel, but inside, it’s just a blank notepad on nice hand-milled paper. They also had belts with tape-cassette shells as buckles. That salvaged and reused aesthetic is a big thing now. Then, you get the Internet version of it, which is Tumblrs just full of old images and old typography.
There’s a whole online fetish for the Penguin Books of the ’60s. Penguin is famous for doing these cheap or relatively affordable paperbacks on serious topics. And they had this great grid design that was, in its own time, quite experimental and avant-garde-looking. But now, it’s quaint and charming. People collect these Penguins because they also were sold as intellectual books for the common man, the everyday reader, so they’re associated with idealism of the time. It’s something to be obsessed with, I suppose; people like to be obsessed.
Collectors Weekly: Is part of it a rejection of the current pop culture, like trashy reality TV?
Reynolds: Certain people don’t like the time they’re living in, and romanticize a previous era. It’s probably quite rare in human history that an era or an age thinks it’s the best time. Generally, the feeling all through history is that we are fallen in some way, that we’re a lesser period than the time before. The Renaissance had that idea about the Classical Age, for example. But I suppose there was a period in the mid-20th century when people felt like things had never been better.
Collectors Weekly: After World War II, Americans were really excited about the future and new technology bringing economic prosperity.
Reynolds: Yes, and then, people wanted to get rid of the old stuff. In Britain after the war, the interior decor fashion was the absolute opposite of what it is now. Everybody wanted low ceilings, so people actually built in low ceilings inside Victorian high ceilings. They ripped out the old-fashioned fireplaces. Brass fittings would be replaced by plastic ones. The old-fashioned lamps were replaced by strip lighting, and everything had to be shiny. People got rid of wood; you had to have Formica surfaces. Looking to the future was a big thing in the immediate decades after World War II.
Collectors Weekly: And in the digital world, everyone is craving the tactile, analog experiences of the past.
Reynolds: That’s also big now. James May from BBC’s “Top Gear” had a TV show around an idea called “Man Lab,” where he explored traditional skills such as carpentry, which are becoming lost. He even wore one of those shirts spoofing the World War II slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On.” His was “Get Excited and Make Things,” which was the motto of his show. There’s a sort of steampunk-y wing of this movement, too, where you’re making contraptions and inventing stuff. It’s rejecting the digital for the manual, which is funny, because obviously you can’t use anything digital without using your fingers. But when you build things, you’re not moving information around. You’re moving blocks of wood and metal around.
Collectors Weekly: Why do you think people are so obsessed with artifacts from their own childhoods?
“Will the garish cans of energy drinks like Monster or Red Bull one day have the same vibe as a lovely old Coke bottle?”
Reynolds: Unless you were unlucky enough to grow up in truly awful circumstances, when you were a child, you were fairly oblivious to what was going on politically. You remember the era as a happy time. My mother grew up in Britain during the Second World War, but she still remembers it as an idyllic childhood. Occasionally, her family would have to hide under a table when the bombers flew overhead. She didn’t have any sense of deprivation because she didn’t know that there’d been a time when there wasn’t rationing. So generally speaking, the cultural products of your childhood are always going to have this halcyon glow to them, as long you didn’t have a particularly traumatic childhood. Even then, I think there’s still something about the first TV shows in childhood, the first movies you watched, like going to see “Star Wars” when you were 11. It’s always going to leave a big impression on you.
I suppose there’s a sense that certain things are changing really fast. It’s something that happens to everyone at a certain age. In my 40s, suddenly I remember things I had completely forgotten, like my favorite old sitcom. Then, I found bits of it on YouTube, I looked it up on Wikipedia, and discovered all these facts about it that I never knew at the time because I was a kid. But back then, you couldn’t find the information even if you were looking for it.
It has never been possible to go back and revisit these things to the extent we can now. And the emotions you get looking at this stuff are rich and complex, because you see how absurd, laughable, and stilted the TV shows or commercials were. But you remember that certain commercials were cultural phenomena. We would sing our favorite commercials in the playground. There would be cult catchphrases would come out of them, like “Nice one, Cyril” or “It’s frothy, man.”
It’s fun to relive our pop culture history. But is the fun based on being scared of what’s going on now and hiding in the past? That’s what people have always accused nostalgia of. In the ’70s, there was all this ’50s nostalgia, and ’20s nostalgia as well. Various columnists in “The New York Times” wrote about it in the ’70s, wondering what’s going on with this backward-looking or regressive phenomenon. Often, being nostalgic politically has been linked with conservatism and more reactionary forces. As in, “Things should go back to how they were when people knew their place” and that kind of thing. You’re suggesting that you’re opposed to progress in some way.
Collectors Weekly: But aren’t liberal urban-dwellers the most obsessed with vintage chic?
Reynolds: Sometimes liberals construct a myth of how things were, a time before alienation or before the Industrial Revolution or before capitalism. Things were somehow better; people were less alienated; they were more in control of the existence. But usually it’s just another myth. In some feminist circles in the late ’70s especially, it was decided that at one point there was a matriarchy where everyone lived off fruit and we had no class system, like in a commune. It is more or less a mythical time before patriarchy, but there might be some elements of truth to it.
Collectors Weekly: I’m old enough that I can’t believe people are nostalgic for ‘90s pop culture now.
Reynolds: It’s interesting, that moment when a period stops being like a pre-extension of now and suddenly start to seem like a period. For example, “Seinfeld,” which ended in 1998, has never been off the air, really. And six or seven years ago, you might watch one idly, and it would feel like it was vaguely related to the now you were living in. But now you look at “Seinfeld,” and it’s like, “Oh, the hair looks dated.” You can see that it suddenly drops into relief as an actual period, and it’s clear from the texture of life, people’s hair, and people’s clothes that was a different time.
My 12-year-old son collects things from a few years ago that are more or less on the level of Happy Meal toys. Words like “vintage” and “retro games” are his worldview. He’s actually bought “vintage”–meaning 10 years old–Pokemon cards, for example. I often bring up my son because he’s such a new, different generation from me. He has that collector’s bug. It’s just different stuff, merchandise or promotional stuff. It’s not like he lives entirely in the world of data: His room is a chaos of things, and he’s still got a primal love of objects. I think that’s a fine thing to keep in your life, that sort of delight in finding stuff and collecting everything in a set.
Collectors Weekly: If you collect early 1900s postcards, the most valuable ones right now are the store advertisements and political propaganda. Basically, the junk mail.
Reynolds: Some people love cans, too. People will get obsessed with a can of something that would’ve been completely unremarkable, like a can of baked beans or an oil can, if it’s in good condition and it’s got the typography of the era. It fascinates me to see what’s considered collectible on these shows like “American Pickers.” Sometimes money can be made out of these things because they are actually cultural artifacts, whereas other things are more like tchotchkes, things you’d use for décor. It’s not rare in itself, but it’s cool enough to display in your living room.
At the time, it never seems conceivable that a thing from everyday life will become a collectors item. For instance, I was thinking about all those garish-looking energy drinks like Monster or Red Bull. Will their cans one day have the same vibe as a lovely old Coke bottle? Will people collect those at some point? It makes you want to save these things as college funds for the kids.
Some of this stuff seems utterly worthless and nondescript, just background noise, but it’s actually cultural data. People are collecting items potentially of historical interest in the future. One of the concerns about the Internet for historians and sociologists is “Is it being documented? Is there a record of it?”
Collectors Weekly: What do you collect?
Reynolds: I collect records, books, and music magazines. It can be very expensive, and I end up with a house full of these moldy, decaying music magazines. But they’re useful because my other books are more historical than they are polemical, unlike, “Retromania.” Music magazines are just invaluable because they give you a real sense of the era. You have the record company adverts. You have pieces on bands that no one remembers. They’re all part of the grist of that time, part of the mulch out of which the legendary bands emerged. The gossip items, news items, even the way the typography in these magazines look—it all helps you understand the context a band was operating in. Plus, old music magazines are just fun to have and look at. But it is ruinous obsession to develop in terms of living space and, essentially, money.
Collectors Weekly: Do you also collect CDs?
Reynolds: It’s strange. CDs haven’t become a lovable format, have they? Maybe certain odd-looking box sets or limited-edition CDs with unusual designs will become collectible. But your run-of-the-mill CD, there’s just something resolutely unlovable about them. With vinyl LPs, the spines of records get worn, but it seems to add character to them. Whereas CD cases just become annoying when they’re all splintered and cracked. And the worst things in the world are CD singles. You can’t even give them away.
Collectors Weekly: I talked to a futurologist who told me that soon people will stop owning things like books, movies, or records. It will all be up in the cloud.
Reynolds: My son’s generation will totally be about the cloud for things like music, and they won’t understand why someone like me likes to have all these records around. But as I say, he still has this attachment to things. The 20-somethings I know are also quite into experience, almost as a counterweight to the digital world. They’re very into food and microbrew beer, and into making material things. It’s not like people only exist in this information world.
Collectors Weekly: So, our future’s turned out to be these little devices that are basically wayback machines reflecting the way we were?
Reynolds: It’s not as heroic and grand as the future once seemed. I did an interview with “Salon” magazine when the book came out, and I mentioned the Space Race. “Salon” is famous for these grumpy, touchy, smartass commenters. One guy commented that basically the Space Race was campy. I thought, if some people now see the idea of going to the moon as a corny retro thing, that’s really sad. At the time, they were attempting such a grand, heroic visionary thing. It was such an enormous achievement, the same spirit that took the explorers to discover the New World.
It’s sad that the whole idea of outer space seems to have dropped away. Supposedly, President Obama has recommitted to the Space Race and to funding NASA, which is talking about moon bases and a manned trip to Mars. In all honesty, I don’t see how the United States can afford it, but supposedly it’s “on” again. For my son, it’s not really part of his mental architecture. It doesn’t seem to hold any romance, and that’s a puzzling development for me as someone who can actually remember watching the moon landing when I was 6. My son is just crazy about everything to do with social media and the Internet. For him, that’s where the adventures are.