22 February 2012

Retromania notes 3: the critique that disappears?

Thoughts prompted by Retromania's sheer quantitative scope. The first is that, arguably, the more examples of retro Reynolds marshals from the aesthetic width, geographical breadth and chronological depth of pop music, the more it begins to seem an inherently retro form: always and already nostalgic, from Chuck Berry's rehearsals of teenage lust, and the 'high school' genre as discussed by Nick Cohn in Awopbop onwards. In other words, it threatens to move beyond being persuasive and into a zone where the critique essentially disappears and you almost have to disavow pop music itself as a futuristic form except in a very small number of strictly exceptional cases.

There's a lot of truth in that model. One of the things that troubles me about it is the way it seems to acquiesce or feed into the strange complacency or faux wisdom of the twas-ever-thus brigade. People who, when challenged with the moribund state of genre X, insist everything moves in cycles, the critic must just be too old or out of touch to enjoy it, as if there is always a fixed and stable quotient of good/innovative music out there, like some kind of mathematical constant. Even though genres and forms do dissipate, dismantling themselves entropically, as the energy of their original algorithmic arc plays itself out completely. Even though pop music as we understand it simply did not exist in 1932, and we have no right to blindly assume it will continue to exist as we know it indefinitely. At almost every level the means to produce, distribute, obtain, and consume/absorb (and then discuss/dissect) art has been transformed in the last half century. This now is new, and we have to talk about why its music might not be (or if it is, then talk about how to articulate its newness, and why it should be that this new-newness requires explication and advocacy at all if it's so fresh and unprecedented).


Tendenzroman said...

You've hit the nail on the head with the arguments either way. I had a conversation with Simon last summer in which the following were all mentioned:

-I argued that pop's history was always synthetic rather than ex nihilo creative.
-He countered that younger generations see the past through their own retro perspective and reduce past creativity to 'twas-ever-thus where it's not warranted.
-I countered by accusing older generations of a certain jadedness in their approach to music, of not reading music in the terms it demands in order to see its new-newness, to borrow your term.

I think there's some mileage in the idea that when seasoned critics looks back on their careers, they condense all the exciting moments retrospectively into this white-hot mass: not really a nostalgia for the future but a retrospective condensation of past futurist energy which the peaks and troughs of living in the present can't compete with.

I think about Retromania a lot, it's a compelling subject, but I sometimes wonder if all the time I spend meta-hand-wringing wouldn't be better spent just ignoring it and diving headlong into sifting, thinking and coming to terms with the present, building a canon. What critics have always done, basically. I think the vast, nebulous exponential spread of culture - it's difficult on an unprecedented level now to get a measure of the present - has something to do with the fact that critics have yet to come to a convincing set of terms and canon of now/new, rather than it necessarily being the case that now just isn't new.

Zone Styx Travelcard said...

yeah, could say loads in response to this but I've got a couple of other fragments to post, today if i get a chance, which sorta cover it (or some of it)