The Trouble with Contemporary Music Criticism
Retromania, Retro-historicism, and History
Two hundred years before the release of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, people were losing their shit over a different sort of robot entirely. This one was known as the Mechanical Turk, and it was built at the end of the 18th century by a guy named Wolfgang von Kempelen. The Mechanical Turk comprised a puppet dressed in Turkish robes, sitting on top of a box containing an apparently complex set of mechanics. And it played chess. The Turk was so good at chess, in fact, that it toured the world for the best part of a century before it was finally destroyed in a fire in 1854. It played for Emperor Joseph II, Frederick the Great, Charles Carroll, and Edgar Allen Poe, and it actually beat Napoleon Bonaparte, Benjamin Franklin, and Catherine the Great. On one tour of the UK, it won 45 out of 50 matches, and it played them all with a one-pawn handicap.
The amazing Mechanical Turk turned out to be an elaborate hoax of course. The machine’s interior was an ingenious system of smoke and mirrors, expertly designed by Von Kempelmen to conceal the chess master, a small hunchback nestled snugly inside.
In the realm of contemporary music criticism, there is an equivalent of Von Kempelen’s Turk, a criticism machine that is making the rounds of contemporary music circuits, amazing a largely unquestioning audience.
The contemporary music critic machine plays its game by confronting and demystifying any and all contemporary music as nothing but a series of historical references — well-known dance outfits from the 1990s, not so well-known German synthesizer duos from the 1970s, and totally obscure British sound recordings from the 1960s. We read this criticism and are impressed at its apparent rigor and erudition — never realizing that, concealed within the box, something else is pulling the strings.
Contemporary music criticism has become infected by its own version of retromania — in other words, its own obsession with the past.
In 2011, Simon Reynolds introduced the world of music criticism to the notion of “retromania.” The idea was that, more than ever before, contemporary music is concerned with being “retro,” with repeating its own very recent past. In justifying this central claim, Reynolds detailed numerous examples, both pop and experimental, that referred either explicitly or implicitly to music of bygone eras: the eternal return of 60s- and 70s-era garage rock, Amy Winehouse and Adele’s ludicrously successful neo-soul, the onslaught of 90s Eurodance recently unleashed by David Guetta et al. on the world’s charts. And in the global underground: chillwave, hypnagogic pop, hauntology, hipster house. In each case, Reynolds’ diagnosis was almost entirely negative. For Reynolds, retromania is a sickness, a form of cultural malaise. With each passing year, he worried, the pulse of the present is growing increasingly faint.
Reynolds’ book struck such a chord both with the public and in critical circles, because his account married perfectly with a way of thinking that has dominated critical discourse about music since at least the 1960s. This approach is premised on the twin ideas of “novelty,” on the one hand, and “historical progress,” on the other.
In Retromania, as in so much of the music critical tradition, including Reynolds’ own previous work, music is at its best — indeed, achieves its core social function — when it confronts the listener with the shock of the “new”: the exhilaration of experiencing a soundworld totally unlike anything they have heard before: the thrill of having ‘been there’ at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop, techno, or rave. Moreover, this shock, this experience of radical novelty, is not only a historical experience, but also an experience of history as such — albeit a specific type of history. In Reynolds’ terms, the excitement of new music is the experience of being on the very edge of the present as it hurtles into the future: it is the experience of the essential truth of human historical existence as constant progress and change.
The retromania of contemporary music, characterized so astutely by Reynolds, fundamentally challenges this way of relating to music. Its contemporaneity consists precisely in its repudiation of progress, its refusal to create new sounds: in some cases by shamelessly or irreverently copying or reframing, and in other cases by carefully paying tribute to or unarchiving the music of the past. Either way, a denial of the inevitability or desirability of change. And this is why Reynolds condemns it.
In the wake of Retromania, the world of music criticism has undeniably become increasingly “retro-sensitive.” The contemporary music critic hears retro everywhere.
Of course, with the likes of YouTube, Wikipedia, Spotify, The Pirate Bay, Discogs, and a vast data-sea of blogs at their disposal, it is increasingly easy for them to do so. Struggling for a reference? Google it! Wondering which precise Ash Ra Tempel record the new Emeralds record sounds like? Spend just a few minutes surfing YouTube!
The sort of retro-historicist criticism we are describing is more than just bland and uninteresting writing. It is an approach that not only has its roots in but also conceals an ideological commitment that blinds us to what is most interesting about contemporary music.
The result is a now almost ubiquitous form of music criticism which we call “retro-historicism.” It can be found in the printed music press of The Wire, NME, and Rolling Stone, and most predominantly, of course, on the web. In essence, its critical project is the reduction of music criticism to a form a historical list-making: a mechanical exercise in influence fishing, the mere identification and cataloging of historical reference points before moving on to pass judgment, as if that were in any way sufficient.
All this is not a tribute to or a continuance of Reynolds’ project, but a depressing performance of precisely the approach to music he condemned. Contemporary music criticism has become infected by its own version of retromania — in other words, its own obsession with the past. Although, rhetorically, such criticism’s appeal to history projects a certain kind of critical rigor, it is our belief that retro-historicism involves nothing less than the abandonment of the critical task.