Veteran Music Writer Simon Reynolds, 10 Years on from Retromania

Giglist's Miles Ellingham caught up with the British musicologist to discuss the development of arguments made throughout his esteemed career.
Posted: 17 September 2020 Words: Miles Ellingham Photos: Michel Meeuwissen

Simon Reynolds has been writing about music for nearly forty years, publishing countless articles and eight critically-acclaimed books. Reynolds has written about 90s rave music in Energy Flash (1999), post-punk rebellion in Rip It Up and Start Again (2005) and pop culture’s cannibalistic addiction to its own past in Retromania (2010). His last book, Shock and Awe (2016), was about glam rock. Giglist zoomed the writer from his home in Los Angeles to talk about post-punk, rave culture, Mark Fisher, the de-commodification of music... and hope for its future. 

You wrote your book Retromania back in 2010. What is Retromania? What does this term mean?

Well, at the turn of the millennium, with broadband, streaming and digital culture, retro went through a quantum leap. Of course, there’d been revivalisms going right back to the 70s–mod revivals, etc., and fashion is always regurgitating its own past – that’s how it works – so the retro stuff wasn’t unique to the 21st century. But what was unique was this sense of mania around it. Suddenly you had these bizarre millennial syndromes. Bands like Sonic Youth re-enacting old, iconic albums start to finish. Nothing sounding very new: The Arctic Monkeys were reconstituting post-punk aesthetics, Ronson and Winehouse were doing the same with Motown. There was this inescapable feeling that the dead were ruling over the young. 

The sense you evoke in the book is one of stasis. Why do you think the future felt like it was receding so much back then?

The 2000s were stagnant. No major movements really emerged – nothing on the level of rave culture or hip hop. There were continuations of existing movements like dubstep, but dubstep was very aware of itself and was reverent to its roots in things like jungle and reggae – it was almost scholarly in its approach to the past. There was yet another garage punk revival, with bands like The White Stripes and The Hives, which must’ve been the third or fourth in my lifetime, there was backward-looking Freak Folk – all essentially old music. This twinned with the opening-up of the past by new technologies made the future feel seriously far away. The most interesting artists of the time had realised this problem and set about playing with it, people like Ariel Pink, and the Ghost Box label

A decade has passed since you wrote Retromania. Have things got better? 

Well hip hop carries on. Trap is very interesting but it’s essentially another form of hip hop. But I’m optimistic and I think the past ten years of music has reached further towards a future than the decade that preceded it. The dominance of vintage aesthetics has dissipated somewhat. Something else I’ve noticed is a trans-genre shift concerning the voice and vocalists. What’s emerged is a profound interest in experimenting with the voice. Everything interesting – whether it’s ‘Top 40’, trap or Billie Eilish – is doing amazing, weird things with the voice. Vocalists like Young Thug and Future all manipulate the voice in quite revolutionary ways using architectural harmonies and Melodyne tech. In the 90s all the innovation was concerned with the beat, with the rhythm, but now that’s changed. The voice is where the action is. Just listen to Arca, Holly Herndon or SOPHIE

People talk about the concept of the future becoming ‘aestheticised’ – less a vision of progress than a futuristic-looking or futuristic-sounding thing. What separates something like jungle or Kraftwerk from that? 

That’s a good question. These ideas about what the future will look like have been a cliché for a long time. Tomorrow was a cliché even back in 1974 when Autobahn came out; Kraftwerk were referencing 1930s ideas about the future, stuff like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. In actual fact, the future that we’re moving towards is one in which technology is much more intimate. I was really into jungle and techno back in the ’90s, and even that vision of the future felt quite kitsch and received. Some of the artwork on drum and bass records looks corny as hell now. The future rarely conforms to what we think it’s going to be. 

You’ve often written about the effect that digitalisation and de-commodification has had on the music industry. Can you speak on that?

Forgetting for a moment the question of how musicians make a living, on the face of it the de-commodification of music would seem like a good thing. Taking it outside the commodity system, from a left-wing perspective, may feel like a deliverance. But, in actuality, I’ve found that getting things for free makes them less valuable. If you pay for something you have a more intense relationship with it. When my generation was young, and had a finite amount of money, one might’ve had to sacrifice going out or buying clothes in favour of consuming music, and when we bought a record we’d have to give it a lot of attention in the hope of extracting our value back from it. When I was young there was an interesting scarcity economy that one would have to traverse in pursuit of a music taste. Now, when you can have anything, there’s a temptation to gorge on it and you have a much more ephemeral relationship with individual records. People buy records in the same way they might buy posters. My kids’ vinyl just sits there. Practically speaking the records are inconvenient to play – just tokens of love, sometimes very expensive ones. 

Can we talk about Mark Fisher, one of your contemporaries, whose K-Punk blog often espoused similar ideas to your own, Blissblog. Fisher tragically passed away four years ago, could you speak a little bit on his legacy? 

Well, obviously, Mark has an academic legacy in so far as a thousand PHDs are blooming and that ‘Mark Fisher Studies’ doesn’t seem too far off as a discipline. There’s a very attractive interface between popular culture and theory in his work and it’s very well written. Young people encountering Fisher may have thought “Oh, I can actually write about things I care about”. Fisher was one of the few academics to create that feeling, I suppose Slavoj Zizek did it too, using Lacan to analyse Hitchcock and Christopher Nolan. And Mark had a political legacy as well; trying to imagine a post-capitalist world and what that would look like, working on his vision of ‘acid communism’ which he never really got to complete. But his main legacy is in music. A lot of musicians have read his work on ‘hauntology’ and he’s become part of the self-education of a lot of music lovers, serving as a conduit for them to get into stuff like Fredric Jameson and critical theory. He’s an evangelist of that mode of thinking. 

Fisher’s concept of ‘hauntology’ – the ghosts of the past returning to haunt the present – and your work on Retromania address a similar feeling...

People seem to click with my ideas and Mark’s about Hauntology and undead futures. But, honestly, what I’m most excited to see next is young people aggressively putting across a counter view of the present. Mark and I also suffered similar kind of bipolarity – not in terms of mental illness, though Mark did struggle with that, but in terms of our worldview. We’d struggle through these entropic years of shit together as writers, and then everything would break and we’d see the future unfolding in front of our eyes. Those years that bled out of rave and into garage and early grime were, I think, the longest rush we’d ever had, a ten-year manic phase followed by a crash in the mid-00s. That’s where Retromania and Hauntology came from. 

You came of age at the advent of post-punk, a genre you ended up writing a book about, Rip it Up and Start Again. Why was post-punk so important to you? 

This relates to what I was saying about the bipolar nature of being a music fan. What’s interesting about post-punk is how the music press and music culture, particularly in the UK, worked in this dialectical way – where you have a proposition and a reaction against it. Each phase of music takes a tendency as far as it can go and then there’s a reaction that says, “You’re missing something…” So punk was this raw aggression and blast of rebellion, and post-punk says “Yeah, but this has become sloganeering, the music is stagnant, we’re going to make the critique more sophisticated”, then that becomes too cerebral and it’s met with New Pop, which was more ‘fun’. It was an exciting time to follow each reaction and counter-reaction. You had to be convinced by the arguments of music. Because music is an argument. Music and criticism are not separate. Every piece of music contains a kind of critical statement, and criticism, when it’s done well, can approach a kind of musicality. 

Right now in the UK there’s a rather gross, right wing-dominated introspection about ‘what it means to be British’. Does any music make you feel patriotic? 

I’ll answer this anecdotally. I took a trip to the Yorkshire Dales where my aunt lives. Me, my aging mother and my aunt were all driving though this gorgeous countryside, old stone walls, sheep and so on. Suddenly Radio 4 switches over to a program about Afrofuturism presented by Kodwo Eshun’s brother. So, I’m in the car with my elderly relatives in the middle of the morning listening to Noise Factory – this hardcore rave group I’m obsessed with. I think I felt patriotic at that moment. 

You’ve been writing about music since the 1980s. You’ve seen music writing in all different mediums – magazines, blogs, books. What are your thoughts on its future? 

I don’t really have any bright ideas. It does seem like unless you can persuade people to pay for music writing, it doesn’t have much of a future. People are very used to getting criticism for free that it’s hard to imagine magazines re-establishing subscription models – which is how you used to ensure you had a business that worked and one that paid its writers a reasonable living. I don’t think it’s ever been a field in which you could get rich but you used to be able to eke out a life doing it. If work’s not very well paid people spend less time on it. Low paid writers may not do interviews in person and you end up with this thing that isn’t quite real journalism because there’s no investigative sense about it and it becomes purely reactive. Music journalism is being nibbled away at in these different ways. The funny thing, though, is there’s more of it than ever. I don’t know if people are making a living from it, but people still seem to crave it. It’s just a question of getting people to pay for it. 

You can find more from Simon Reynolds on his Blissout blog.

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