Is Our Retro Obsession Ruining Everything?

Rock critic and music memorabilia collector Simon Reynolds is the author of the new book Retromania. In it, he asserts that obsessing over the past is holding back creativity in music.

Reynolds: I wonder why we’re so obsessed with the past, particularly in music, because that’s my thing. A lot of the other retro phenomena I find vaguely amusing, but the music is a genuine worry because I like to be surprised. The first instinct for a new band starting out now—and I’m talking about very musical, intelligent people—is to go to an existing template and then tinker with it. They have fun trying to reproduce it as exact as they can or adapt it to their purpose in some way. But there are not so many musicians trying to come up with something out of nowhere, which is quite hard to do.

In the past, though, people have tried to do that. That was the general modernist ethos for a long period in music, particularly in the ’60s, but also in the post-punk era I grew up in, and in the electronic techno scene of the ’90s. You might use an idea from the past, but you’d probably mutilate it in some way or drastically change it. Or you’d use it as a springboard to go somewhere new. Now the ethos is much more like reproducing antiques. It’s about getting that drum sound or that guitar texture. It’s literally a backward movement. My concern is a sense of everything being seemingly vaguely familiar. It’s a bit depressing.

How true is it that modern music, and pop culture in general, depends too much on the past? There are plenty of examples in an interview with Reynolds at Collector's Weekly. Link


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Very interesting read, although I do disagree to a point about music.

I've loved the past 5 years of music. It's totally a step away from what came before. Yes there are a lot of throwbacks, but there has also been an incredible amount of evolution in sound. I don't think Reynolds was looking in the right places if all he really found to be distinct is skrillex.
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You know what isn't new or creative? Being an old guy (and I am one), and complaining about today's music. His argument is "kids these days, they're not doing anything new. Why, back in my day...." EVERY generation makes that argument! There is so much innovation going on right now, it's scary. But there is a LOT more music being produced overall, so you have to seek it out! He obviously doesn't. Music (and the arts in general) evolves. There are very few instant innovations, and most of those involve technology. He talks about punk rock like it suddenly came out of nowhere. Maybe it got popular fast, but it's not like somebody just invented it! And then he goes on to pine about the past, that punkers were edgy because they couldn't play their instruments, but now they're good players. Guess what: that's INNOVATION! If it were stuck in the past, they'd all still be crappy players!

He cites uber-pop examples to make his point, like Lady Gaga. When has pop music ever been innovative??? He makes mention of dub-step as being innovative (basically, arguing against his own point), but then makes the CLASSIC old guy argument: it's not listenable! Hmm, what did so many people back in the 60's say about the Beatles: who can listen to that noise? Then, after he's done complaining about our obsession with the past, he goes on to talk about what he collects, and THE PAST. Arg.
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