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?
SR: I can’t think of one, actually. It’s more the case that there were things that I didn’t bother checking out, probably to do with the post-punk indoctrination I underwent about prog and pre-punk music being largely a wasteland, and then when I finally got round to it, I was like, “damn, this is good.” So it took me a long while to get around to post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd. Led Zeppelin I got to earlier, largely because they were sampled in the Beastie Boys, although I had always liked “Whole Lotta Love,” which was the theme intro tune to Top of the Pops for many years.
RTH: Given your stance in Retromania, how can we even recognize innovation if it appears? Are you barring the possibility of innovation due to perception, or due to an objective impossibility for its occurrence?
SR: I’m not “barring” anything; I’m observing that the rate of innovation in pop music seems to have slowed down markedly, and using various comparative techniques and memory exercises to work out if that is objectively true, rather than just my own perspective. I tentatively concluded that it wasn’t just me and that something was going on like this. And then there are a whole bunch of attempts to work out why and how that came about. In the end I conclude that it is a multiply determined outcome, or even over-determined.
I like to think we’ll recognize it when it comes, if it comes.
What is interesting to me is also that the taste for, or requirement of. innovation seems to have faded in the general public. “Is it innovative” doesn’t seem to be a question that many people are asking anymore when it comes to music, certainly not as many as when I was growing up in the post-punk era, but also not as much as during the ’90s, when, at least in the world I moved in, electronic music and techno-rave were all the rage. There has been the gradual fading of that “progression” mindset that really goes back to the ’60s.
Perhaps the “innovation buzz” is found elsewhere in culture than in music now—in gadgets, communications devices, computer and Internet-related stuff.
RTH: In Retromania you discuss the fixation on the past in music, fashion, and the visual arts. Do you also feel that there is a “retro” focus in current politics?
SR: I don’t know about “retro” but there is a lot of wishing to go back to how things are and fear-of-the-future. And that is understandable to an extent, the future is pretty fearful. It all looks very precarious and unpromising. Perhaps.
I’ve noticed that in political commentary, as well as obvious invocations of figures or moments from the past (Reagan, Kennedy, the Clinton era), pundits are always looking for models for the next election, or a particular candidate’s trajectory, in terms of campaigns from the past. It’s a curious reflex, but I suppose it is a human instinct to try to look for explanatory models in precedents, and also it is just space-filler for a punditry-machine that is constantly churning. Got to get those clicks somehow.
RTH: On the blog, we had an inadvertent “discussion” about the medium of music, specifically, how pristine should your recordings be? This all started when Mr. Moderator played some old vinyl recordings that included all sorts of pops and hiss. Several members were annoyed, saying that the music was unlistenable; others were more forgiving to some deterioration in the sound. Where are you with this? Will you only listen to digital recordings? Do you still favor vinyl? I tried to convince some of the other members that deterioration reflected the Japanese concept of wabi sabi, but not many went for it.
SR: I really wanted to get the wabi sabi concept into Retromania but couldn’t find a place. A sort of wabi sabi or pseudo-wabi sabi does seem to explain the fetish for analogue formats you get in hip music circles, and also the whole aesthetic of faded Super 8 movies, discolored photographic stock, that you get in videos and in album cover art. See also Hipstamatic and Insta-Gram and the Polaroid-simulating Shake It app. And of course in hip hop you have people deliberating incorporating the hiss of vinyl into records, to indicate that they are sampling from vinyl. I think you can digitally simulate vinyl hiss and cracks and pop too.
I listen to every kind of recording and find virtues in all of them—vinyl, love that warm analogue sound (am pretty tolerant of surface noise) and ditto for old cassettes; CDs for clarity and cleanness and also convenience; MP3s for… well convenience and ahem “cheapness.” Went through a pro-vinyl phase but current albums on vinyl often sound poor (it’s the used, ’60s and ’70s and ’80s vinyl that sounds good) cos I think the art of mastering etc has deteriorated and vinyl releases now are from tiny do it yourself artists and small labels, so everything’s done on the cheap c.f. the expertise and expense and experience that went into, for instance, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours on vinyl. But I am coming around to reappreciating the CD: the early transfers to CD done in the late-’80s were often shoddy and thin, but if you listen to recent remastered versions like, for instance, the Doors box set, it sounds fantastic. To get similar effects on vinyl you’d have to be a serious audiophile spending thousands and thousands on your turntable, amp, stylus, cartridge etc. So for most regular folks a CD is probably going to get better results.
RTH: Given the lack of innovation in current music, who are artists whom you hail as innovative? Do you feel that you have to enjoy their music or is it sufficient to appreciate them? Given your recent NYTimes article about female synth artists, is this the sort of thing that is seeming more innovative?
SR: I don’t think musical innovation has completely disappeared off the face of the earth, but it is more infrequent and sporadic and isolated now I think. I don’t think there is a whole wave of innovative music that happened in the last 12 years or so that is remotely comparable with post-punk, or ’80s and early ’90s hip hop, or the whole house/techno/rave/jungle thing that went from about 1986 to 1998 at full tilt in a million directions. There are people doing fresh and cool stuff in electronic genres like dubstep and related zones, figures like Actress. I do like these new female synth musicians as well as their male equivalents (people like Oneohtrix Point Never). Often it seems music now is a mix of new and old ideas jumbled up. Oneohtrix Point Never does stuff that is working with an ’80s synth palette, sounds that recall New Age or space music or figures like Jon Hassell, who was a collaborator with Brian Eno. But he’ll be doing new things with that palette. And sometimes he’ll come up with stuff that doesn’t seem to have any reference points at all. Then there are figures like James Ferraro, who are having wicked, mischievous fun with ’80s and now early ’90s sounds—the clunkiness of early digital music.
In 2011 synths and samplers have been around for about 30 to 40 years. If you compare that to the electric guitar’s life historoy, that is roughly equivalent to the mid-’80s. There were still people doing new things with the electric guitar then—The Edge, even Johnny Marr to an extent, people like Sonic Youth and a little later My Bloody Valentine. But they had the odds stacked against them and an awful lot of their contemporaries were covering well-trodden ground by that point in terms of guitar music. Well now in 2011 it is vastly harder to do anything new with the electric guitar. But with synths and samplers and drum machines there is still a bit more room, maybe.
I encourage our illustrious Hall to check out Simon Reynolds’ books and his many blogs, including BlissBlog. Also, keep you ears open for a special Simon Reynolds Edition of Saturday Night Shut-In, for which he has selected a half hour of music that to him epitomizes Post-Punk.