Simon says, "Be here, now!"
A couple of weeks ago, Mr. Royale and I were able to see one of our favorite music critics, Simon Reynolds, discuss his most recent work, Retromania, and field general questions about music and his other books. The man is well versed in a wide range of musical topics, having written about the Post-Punk era, the “Blissed-Out” era of the late ’80s and early ’90s, rave culture, gender influences in rock, and hip-hop culture. Mr. Royale and I arrived a bit early at the bookstore for the reading and noticed him already there browsing the stacks in the music section. We approached him and started chatting, and he was kind enough to answer some of our nosey questions. For instance, his favorite music writers/books include Griel Marcus and Wompbopalubomp, by Nick Cohn. He got into the music writing business indirectly, first studying history at Oxford but continuing his interest and discourse about music, especially in relation to some of the 20th Century French philosophers. He also likes science fiction, and his wife, who is also a music critic, started out by publishing a Duran Duran fanzine.
A central thesis of Retromania is that there is no innovation in music now and that we are overly fixated in looking backwards and making ironic winks to previous time periods. There are technological advances, but they not used to further music, just make it sound like what has come before. He hates mixes/remixes/mash ups as he feels they don’t offer anything new. He despairs about reunion tours, rock museums, and retrosound. He gave an example that if a new writer wrote in the style of Faulker, walked around dressed like Faulkner, and quoted Faulkner all the time, we would laugh. But when musicians do it, it’s given a pass. However, he admits that he is ambivalent about his theory and wrote the book to engage others in discussion about his perceptions.
After the talk, he agreed to field additional questions from The Hall, including some sent in by my trusty colleagues. I submitted several via email and he promptly wrote back.
Rock Town Hall: I’ve read some interesting research that suggests that half of all humans tend to peak early in their creative/artistic growth, and half are of the “slow and steady wins the race” type. Examples of these two types might include, say, Prince on the one hand and Jackson Pollock on the other. One flamed out with astonishing brilliance fairly early in life, and the other didn’t paint anything of interest until he cracked his personal creative code in his 50s. I think one of the reasons the field of pop music lacks so much creativity is because the prevailing A&R system only recruits young talent—a strategy that virtually guarantees that most pop music artists will be relevant and interesting for only a brief time. I believe the pop music industry is ignoring all the “late creativebloomers”—50% of all potentially great music makers—and I think that most people who are only latently brilliant when young don’t think they’llever “make it” in pop music, so they stop trying. Of course, I understand issues related to sex appeal, spending habits, and so forth are at the root of the “recruit only when young” method, but… I’d be curious to get your thoughts on this.
Simon Reynolds: Hmmm, that is interesting. I don’t know if it connects to my preoccupations in Retromania, though, because a lot of older artists are still recording, either for major labels or in the musical indie leftfield, which is what most of my attention is on—and I don’t particularly hear great breakthroughs coming from the older set! But it’s true that record companies did use to invest in talent long-term more, they had the equivalent of “mid-list” artists as in the publishing world, an artist would be allowed to put out album after album after album. And they developed artists, like Kate Bush, who was very young when she started, was put on a wage, and put up in some kind of house or apartment with a piano for a year or two to develop her thing. EMI saw as a female Pink Floyd or something, a long-term major artist. This kind of development I’m sure still goes on but is more likely to be grooming and dance lessons, and all the other things required to be a transmedia-dominating pop star. And artists tend to get dropped really quickly if they don’t make, which must be crushing to many people who are talented and would bloom later.
RTH: I am having a hard time formulating this question, but if you look at the history or jazz or blues or other forms of music, don’t they all reach a point where they are pretty much “played out,” at least as phenomena with massive audiences, and become niche entertainments and recyclers of the past? What makes us think that rock music is immune to these cycles of growth, evolution, and diminution? I am not suggesting you are trying to make that case, by the way. But there are jazz bands that go around and play the music of various bygone eras, or in the general style(s) of past eras; there are jazz artists striving to create something new that is still part of the tradition, but for the very few people who are interested, etc. Will rock as we (vaguely defined, older people “raised on classic rock”) understand it not go the same route, if it hasn’t already?
SR: Yes, there is a case for the argument that musical genres, or major musical movements—jazz, rock, hip hop, electronic dance—have a kind of life-cycle. First phase is the emergent one, where often the music is considered juvenile or lowly in some way (jazz being connected with lowlife, brothel music). Then it breaks through to wider acceptance and becomes the dominant popular music of its age, influencing everything else that’s going on. Then you have the fragmentation phase, where it is looking for ways to develop and it is itself influenced or even looking for influences: one way is to combine with the more recent popular styles and dance rhythms (in jazz’s case that would the ’70s fusion era, when it combined with rock, funk, etc), another way is various paths of extremism or abstraction (free jazz, fire jazz, non-idiomatic improvisation, etc); there is also another kind of fusion, which is merging with musics from outside the American tradition (in jazz ECM did with various European flavours and world/exotic flavours, also people like Don Cherry did similar kinds of moves). Then the final phase of the music is a kind of classicism—in jazz terms that would be Wynton Marsalis and Lincoln Center and the critic Stanley Crouch, the idea of building on a very strong knowledge of and basis in the past, a return to fundamental principles (so in jazz, according to Marsalis and Crouch, that is “blues” and “swing”). Jazz players stop trying to look trendy (all those ’70s fusion snazzy threads!) and dress in suits and ties again. This kind of neo-classicism in jazz tends to blur into a heritage mindset, where it’s all about the classics, almost like the classical music world idea of repertory, whether it’s old performers wheeled out again onstage or it’s young, very respectful and reverential players playing the classic tunes. And indeed the argument is that jazz is America’s classical music. So there is an emphasis on preservation and history: books, documentaries, museum exhibitions. And even with composers and players making new music, the music teems with ghosts of its earlier glory days. Well you could see similar four-phase narrative unfolding within rock and even in hip hop and rave culture.
RTH: Is there an artist you most regret “not getting” at first who you would eventually dig years after you first had the chance?
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