"We have replaced innovation with perfection“ - Simon Reynolds
Music critic Simon Reynolds believes we suffer from a „Retromania“ and that our culture is only a copy of former cultures.
Mr. Reynolds, is it fair to say that from a cultural point of view, the last 15 years haven’t taken place?
That depends on how you look at it, but it’s fair to say that in terms of music, nothing hugely momentous happened. There was no brand-new sound or subculture. It was rather a continuation of the long-established. There were new trends within those established trends but no new complex of behavior, sound and clothing.
Not even a small innovative spark?
The closest thing was – or is – probably Dubstep, which has some sounds that you could describe as 21st century – or new sounds. But culturally, it is nothing more than an extension of the rave culture of the late 1980s. It’s the same with most other recent music or fashion trends. The only thing that has changed is the mediation and distribution of culture. Things like Youtube or Spotify have had an enormous impact. It’s the structures that have changed, but not the content.
In your book “Retromania”, you even argue that the iPod was the biggest thing to happen to music in this century.
Maybe Youtube has had an even bigger impact, because it allows people to delve deeply into previous times. On Youtube, the past and the present collapse into each other.
Popculture used to worship the present and the future. Now it has become one with its own past, has developed what you call a “Retromania”. What are the reasons behind this change?
There are a lot of things feeding into this. We see “Retromania” not only in music, but also in the art scene, film or fashion. In the second half of the twentieth century, popculture seemed to burn through ideas very quickly, which left a lot of loose ends that we can now go back to. A year in the 1960s was full of cultural change and we can now expand or dilate that change by doing more albums or films in that particular manner. Any artist can do a New Order album today and it’s tempting to do that. Also, there has never been a period of time when it was so easy to access old material as it is today. Today, culture mainly works like a mood board.
On a mood board, you assemble all these fragments and come up with what you think is a brand new idea. But it’s actually an idea that is based on very precise old ideas. Or you take ideas completely out of context. There’s one very odd example: a lot of graphic designers today use this old Soviet placard from Alexander Rodchenko that depicts Lilya Brik speaking out for the education of workers. Very often, the new usage of the image is completely opposed to the ideas and spirit of Bolshevism. I’ve seen Business consultancies or luxury real estate brokers advertising with this image by just changing the message– that’s absurd. Old copies of Vogue Magazine often cost a fortune because modern designers are buying them up to get inspiration for new styles. Because all of this, I think that a lot of today’s cultural fields are closer to craft than to art.
Because art is innovative and craft is more about skills?
Exactly. So much has been done in art, design or music during the 20th century that it is tempting to just go back and copy these things with a certain twist.
It seems odd, because the 21st century so far had a lot of political and technological change and that usually goes hand in hand with cultural impulses.
The thing is that people tend to forget about the future, because the future no longer seems very bright and we are deadlocked: There has been a lot of political turmoil but a lot of current problems like terrorism or conflicts in the Middle East are essentially problems of the past. People in the 1970s had to deal with these issues as well. These problems remain severe and we still haven’t found a solution. Despite the progress in certain fields like gay rights, there’s a feeling of deadlock.
These problems are also problems of the past but nowadays, due to the Internet, we are much more informed about it. Is over-saturation of information causing this cultural inertia?
That might have something to do with it. The trick of nostalgia for a bygone era is that you can enjoy its culture without the political or social context. You only get the good parts, not the bad ones. You can enjoy 1930s fashion and music without all the lynching and economic hardship that was going on back then. You can just blank out all the negativity. But today’s culture is obviously linked to all the problems that are going on right now.
Is that why we romanticize these bygone eras, because they seem more idyllic and stable than the present?
To a large extent – but then there is also the aspect of idealism. Back in the days, people did actually believe that something could change for the better. The young vigorous ages of any culture tend to produce work with a certain energy or magic to it. We long for that. But as you go back to these works, you are often contradicting the spirit by taking them out of context.
Previous decades had large countercultures and trends while it seems that during the last 15 years there were merely microtrends and no real new movements. How come?
The Internet has certainly changed a lot of this. It does enable fans of niche-trends to find each other and communicate wherever they are. The Internet allows for more interaction but at the same time it creates fragmentation. A lot of small countercultures emerge, but not a single, unified counterculture. On the Internet, it’s much cooler to disagree with people. Netculture has killed consensus and there are hardly any bands or movies out there that a large amount of people can still agree on or identify with. Just saying “Kanye West is great” won’t make you stand out.
The other thing is irony; it has become very difficult to tell if somebody really likes something or just pretends.
That is true. Queen is a good example. When I was young, growing up with punk and post-punk, we all thought Queen was awful. Now I quite like them, partly because they remind me of those old times.
It’s the same with clothes: We wear the things we ridicule, but it’s not ridiculous, it’s meant to be ironic.
You can get away with pretty much everything when irony is involved.
But can there be innovation when there is so much irony?
I used to think about irony as a purely negative thing. I even wrote about “the cancer of irony”. But the truth is: I’m just as prone to irony as everybody else. Irony is a distancing method; it’s not a full response to something. Irony is essential for us because it allows us to see some things from a safe distance, but in culture, irony is weakness. It’s doing something that you don’t fully believe in or stand for. The great upsurges in the history of music were free of irony. There was not much irony in punk or in rave. It might have been foolish to assume that they could change the world, but punks and ravers nevertheless believed it. I admire culture that is earnest – even if it’s naïve. The ability to do something that looks foolish later on is where radicalism comes from and that has always sparked innovation.
Do we even need innovation? What’s the problem if everybody enjoys listening to retro music or likes to sport retro fashion?
That’s a good question. I think we have replaced innovation with perfection. We don’t innovate the present but perfect the past. Take a band like The Black Keys or a singer like Jack White. They are not revolutionizing music but they perfect Blues Rock from the past, take it to another level. It’s a bit like making a chair, I guess.
In what way?
There are so many ways that you can design a chair but we know that it has to have some basic elements or a certain structure or else it is uncomfortable or impossible to sit on. People like Jack White have perfected Blues Rock but it’s based on what others came up with before.
Ironically, Jack White used to be an upholsterer.
(laughs): Right! He does a good job but I personally prefer it when people think about building new furniture instead of improving old chairs. But there’s certainly an argument for just going with what previous eras have left you with.
So music or fashion have become more bricolage than innovation?
Take an artist like Ariel Pink. It’s just incredible what he does. He takes all these sounds and ideas from bygone eras and makes something new and fun out of them. And he does it with a slight twist of irony or humor, but it’s great.
That combination might make him the perfect artist for our day and age.
Absolutely, he’s a very emblematic artist and there is something very fresh about him. It’s a bit like with cuisine: the molecular gastronomy produces food that is challenging to eat, weird-looking foams and so on, and there is a case for comfort food. The same goes for music – there is a case for comfort food à la Jack White or fusion cuisine à la Ariel Pink. It’s often more enjoyable than whatever the musical equivalent to molecular gastronomy is coming up with.
Do you think that our current culture will at some point have its own revival?
That’s one of the main questions I concerned myself with in the book: What will people go back to? What will they find that is essentially 21st century? It’s a hard question but I think there are some small trends that can be observed, things like autotune and other voice changing technologies in pop music. It’s funny how we have come to accept non-human voices as completely human.
Autotune as hallmark of our day and age?
It’s a naïve little gimmick and very often it is these little obscure things that will be remembered. There’s not been a specific genre that has defined the last 15 years, so people might rather remember certain musical sounds.
The same holds true for fashion. If you walk through Berlin Mitte, you’re not sure if it is 2015 or 1915.
It’s a series of echoes. The other day, my hairdresser told me that the 1990s are back in style and that girls run around looking like Courtney Love. The way fashion works is that you can always go back to older things and reuse them. It’s all jumbled up and there is no concrete, defining style.
There is so much diversity and yet uniformity because everybody dresses in vintage.
That used to be different. Now it’s uniformity in diversity but back in the 1960s, there was real uniformity because there were specific trends that everybody followed.
Interview conducted for The European Magazine in July 2015