Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past

Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past
Simon Reynolds
Faber & Faber, 458pp, £17.99

Turn on BBC4 almost any Thursday at 7.30pm, and you will find 1976 unfurling week by week. These Top of the Pops replays - the larks! the loon pants! - were greeted giddily by pop fans when they began in March, but as they've worn on, viewers have started to see through the past. It is "almost impossible to remember how awful music was", as the late Tony Wilson said. A 1970s-obsessed friend of mine tweeted: "Christ, you can tell how punk happened."

The repeats teach us about nostalgia. They make us gluttonous for history without thinking about what it entails, relying on harsh editing, filtering and forgetting. Few can miss the irony that our appetite for what is gone - driven by surplus TV channels and the internet - has been enabled by the technology of the future.

In Retromania, Simon Reynolds takes these ideas and sprints with them, analysing the delirious ways in which we consume history. The book is long awaited, and not just because Reynolds's great studies of post-punk (Rip It Up and Start Again) and dance culture (Energy Flash) consolidated his position as the ultimate philosopher-fanboy. There has also not been a comprehensive study of our collective desire for the past until now, and how endemic it is in both mainstream and alternative culture.

Reynolds's position can be summed up as that of a restless, misty-eyed modernist. Pop culture should be about bold new horizons, he frets, not the thoughtless recovery, reassembling and redistribution of old data in kitschy list shows, magazines and museums that soon becomemausoleums. Laudably, however, he realises from the off that this is a problematic approach. What about the sampling technology that created the future shocks of club music in the 1980s? What about his own longing to see those raucous shoegazers, My Bloody Valentine, re-form a few years ago?

Equally, he explores how commercial pop ransacks the generations before it - 1980s jeans adverts making hay with the sounds of the 1960s, the 2000s with the neon glare of the 1980s - but also acknowledges the conundrum of punk portraying itself as Year Zero while marking a return to raw, 1950s-style rock'n'roll. He may not look at how nostalgia worked before pop culture was born - Gothic revivals or the Renaissance be damned - yet his explorations are, as always, breathless and readable, a mix of enthusiastic self-analysis and academic theory. And even though he barely provides any hard-and-fast answers, the way in which he asks, prompts and questions involves the reader intimately - as it should. It made this one recognise, for a start, how she accepts nostalgia so readily and how her emotions can complicate the archiving of her memories.

Several fascinating ideas emerge from the mix. Mark Cooper, creative head of BBC music entertainment, suggests in an interview that we long for the past "because we haven't had enough wars". Does our future-lust expose a need to escape the horrors behind us? And perhaps the horror of not knowing what's next has pushed us towards familiar comforts. Reynolds also brings up the relationship between class and nostalgia, a fascinating furrow, one that deserves further ploughing. Antiques were once an upper-class obsession, he writes, but now "vintage" items are desired by the middle classes and hipsters: "The further down the class ladder you go, the more value is set on things being brand new." But what does this show - a working-class urgency to rip up one's roots, or to reassert one's character through capitalism? Reynolds does not decide, but his ideas shine an intriguing light on social economy.

He writes vividly on the dynamics of sharing - how the internet has made multiple ownership of obscure records and films possible, instead of allowing collectors to hold on to them like talismans. This opportunity promotes a Marxist approach to cultural artefacts, he reasons, but also opens up culture to exploitation. One of his most beautiful passages involves a musical sample and how it operates as both "ghost and slave" - something that has haunted us, which we reward with use and abuse.

There is another difficulty that Reynolds can't avoid. "We can no longer imagine tomorrow," he writes. But who is this "we"? Often it sounds like a royal one. One is put in mind of the 48-year-old dad, grumbling about young people not creating their own culture. It doesn't help that neither does the author interrogate any signs of it - the recent permutations of dubstep, for example - or engage in any depth with young musicians and movements. And even though Reynolds writes regularly elsewhere (such as Wire magazine) about contemporary culture, its omission here doesn't serve the book, or him, well.

Another thing that Retromania forgets to get to grips with is the energy of youth. This force-field warrants deeper engagement when dreaming about the future, and Reynolds, ironically, needs to be reminded how that felt. Equally, the book struggles with the ways in which emotions can be just as constructive as destructive. Yet these flaws are a tiny feature of a much richer fabric, small tears in a work that is vibrant and vital.

This article first appeared in the 27 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The food issue