The Trouble with Contemporary Music Criticism
Retromania, Retro-historicism, and History

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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.

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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critic machine plays its game by confronting and demystifying any and all contemporary music as nothing but a series of historical references — well-known dance outfits from the 1990s, not so well-known German synthesizer duos from the 1970s, and totally obscure British sound recordings from the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.

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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.

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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.

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Consider, for instance, the critical reception of Planet Mu founder Mike Paradinas’ latest record, released midway through 2013. Titled Chewed Corners and released under the µ-Ziq moniker, everyone rushed to agree that it was “retro,” and the mechanical retro-historical gears started turning. The Guardian placed the album alongside the year’s other prestige act retro-releases, Daft Punk and Boards of Canada, without more. Boomkat touted it as a “recalibration,” a form of “reconnection” with rave tradition. PopMatters called it “revelatory rave, the sort of nuanced nostalgia that only someone who was there ‘back in the day’ could conceive of.” And for Allmusic, the record “reflected Paradinas’ knowledge of, and pleasure in, over three decades’ worth of electronic music.” How exactly, or why this would make the record worth listening to, nobody cared to say. In each case, it was sufficient to name the historical period being engaged and move on.

But the winner of the prize for the most intellectually redundant yet rhetorically pompous response to Chewed Corners goes to Pitchfork. After pointing out that Paradinas’ last EP XTEP apparently bore the influences of “chillwave, italo disco, piano house and plenty else besides…” we learn that “‘Taikon’ and ‘Twangle Melkas’ draw on Kuedo’s Vangelis-via-Southern-hip-hop schtick; ‘Tickly Flanks’ owes a debt to the sugar-rush hardcore-footwork hybrids of Machinedrum, though it’s a little torpid in comparison to its forebear. ‘Wipe”s syncopated rhythms nod to UK funky, while ‘Houzz 10’ could be a symptom of the recent house revival.”

This type of review says so little it might as well read: #ChewedCorners #Paradinas #chillwave #italodisco #pianohouse #hiphop #hardcore #footwork #UKfunky #house = 7.1/10.

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The sort of retro-historicist criticism we are describing here 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 so much of the best music being released today.

The fact that by and large we fail to notice this ideology is simply evidence of the extent to which it is entrenched. This is how ideology always works, of course. It is at its most effective precisely at the moment it disappears from view. Ideology always takes the form of the chess master inside the box; it’s always what’s inside pulling the strings.

Popular art today is made for a population consisting of spectators, whereas avant-garde art is made for a population consisting of artists, who could be anyone.

Retro-historicism is driven by the same basic ideological commitment that we described above as underpinning both Reynolds’ recent account and so much of the music criticism of the past 50 years: the idea of historical progress itself.

For the retro-historicist, as for Reynolds, once upon a time musical history unfurled itself like a ribbon, genres begetting genres, innovation stacking on innovation, each new generation constantly repudiating and then supplanting the one that came before. And then slowly but surely, over the course of the last 20 years or so — which is to say more or less contemporaneously with the explosion of the world wide web — the ribbon of history started folding back on itself in its interminable cycles of recursion and self-reference. And because for the retro-historicist, this way of relating to music isn’t the result of any particular philosophy of history, isn’t contingent in any way, but simply how things are — an ideology-free zone — there’s no real alternative but to keep pointing out that we’ve “been there,” “done that,” “heard this before” while grimly clinging on to the hope that one day the ribbon will begin to unfurl again.

There are alternatives.

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Of course, a confrontation with the ideology of progress is not something new.

In an essay published in e-flux journal in 2010, the philosopher and art critic Boris Groys reminds us that the modern era, and particularly modern technology, constantly confronts us with the “inevitable” movement of progress: iPhone, iPhone 2, iPhone 3, iPhone 4, iPhone 4S. The obvious problem with such an approach is that it quickly becomes self-defeating. The iPhone 5 was always already superseded, obsolete. The real truth of its existence is the anticipation of the newer and better iPhone 6. What is new today will be old tomorrow, just as what is old today was new the day before. And the logic of progress suddenly starts to seem less exhilarating, more interminable.

As Groys explains, the early-20th-century artistic avant-garde attempted to address this problem of the destructive progress of history. How to make the art of the future when that art is always, necessarily, rendered old? The answer was to stop creating the art of the future altogether. Only then would it be possible to produce something lasting, art that truly resisted the destructive forces of progress.

So what we see with works like Malevich’s Black Square and Duchamp’s Fountain is a shift from a logic of “invention” to one of “discovery,” a total repudiation, in other words, of progress and originality as such. These are works that no longer attempt to be “new,” but rather to discern and to manifest something about the “conditions for the emergence and contemplation of any other image,” any other work, in general.

The iPhone 5 was always already superseded, obsolete. The real truth of its existence is the anticipation of the newer and better iPhone 6. What is new today will be old tomorrow, just as what is old today was new the day before. And the logic of progress suddenly starts to seem less exhilarating, more interminable.

So, in Malevich’s case, what is being demonstrated is the necessity of the relation between image and frame. In Duchamp’s, the act of exhibition itself. And in both instances, these fundamental gestures immediately become inescapable. After Malevich, whenever we see an image, we now also see, in a certain way, the black square, because any painting would also be a black square if it were erased. Likewise, after Duchamp, whenever we attend a museum, we now know that it is the institutional conditions that produce the “artwork” at least as much as the artist. It is precisely the act of placing the urinal in the gallery and naming it art that makes it so. And in both cases, Groys shows us that it is the very “weakness” of the work — its refusal to manifest the will of the artist, precisely its refusal to be inventive or original, the fact that literally anyone could have done it — that guarantees its timelessness.

For Groys, the avant-garde attempted to overcome the tyranny of time’s progress by making not “strong” masterpieces of art (Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath, Van Gogh’s Wheatfield With Crows), but works (a urinal signed and dated, a black square) whose transcendence consisted precisely in their weakness.

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It is not hard to see how one might run a similar argument in relation to music.

Think of Cage’s 4’33” or Eno’s Music for Airports. Here are two pieces of music that reproduce Groys’ logic almost exactly. 4’33” is just about the “weakest” work imaginable. Even less than a black square on canvas, it consists of precisely nothing. The “art-content” of the work is zero, an absence of innovation. But, as we all know, this is exactly what makes it unique, what guarantees its position as one of the most significant musical works of the 20th century. With 4’33” Cage is pointing, first, to the impossibility of silence and, second, to the act of listening itself: which is to say to the very conditions that make all music possible.

Brian Eno’s Music for Airports is also an incredibly “weak” work, so weak, in fact, that it is hardly there. Musically, Music for Airports is totally uninteresting, which is precisely why it is interesting and even important. Whereas the effect of 4’33” is to draw one’s attention to the presence in “absence,” the effect of Music for Airports is just the opposite: to transform “presence” into absence, to tend to disappear. Eno’s “discovery” of ambience (and it is worth noting that, for both Cage and Eno, the artist’s “discovery” is in actuality a kind of appropriation: from acoustic engineers at Harvard in the former case, and from Erik Satie and Buddhism, in the latter) alerts us to the question of attention, and in doing so points once again to one of the primary conditions of musical experience per se.

So both Cage and Eno can be read as having refused the progressivism of their respective traditions. In both cases, the strength of their works consists precisely in their weakness. They are important because they refused to “advance,” choosing to alert us to the conditions of any such advancement instead.

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As Groys notes, for the general public today, avant-garde art (from Malevich to Cage) is seen as non-democratic and elitist: we’ve all heard ourselves, our parents, or our friends stand in front of an allegedly important work of modern art and cry disdainfully, “I could do that!”

For Groys, however, this is precisely the point. Because avant-garde art is comprised of weak gestures, anyone can do it, which makes it fundamentally democratic. Popular art today is made for a population consisting of spectators, whereas avant-garde art is made for a population consisting of artists, who could be anyone.

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We could run an identical argument in relation to contemporary music’s avant-underground.

Take, for instance, the 2012/13 experimental micro-genre vaporwave. Here is a genre that is democratic in exactly the sense envisaged by Groys. Vaporwave is democratic because, in principle, anyone could do it. At its most basic — which is also to say at its most radical — vaporwave consists of nothing more than an act of reframing, normally of some chintzy piece of forgotten muzak dredged up from the depths of the web. Sometimes, admittedly, this is accompanied by a bit of artful chopping and screwing, but such techniques are also democratic in the sense that they are available to anyone with Ableton and a computer.

Vaporwave is a particularly “weak” genre, in other words, because “by dramatically foregrounding the act of appropriation, precisely by refusing to be ‘original,’” what vaporwave does is make “the listening experience all about that original; maybe even about the discourse of originality itself” (ref). Vaporwave is not itself muzak, in other words, it is about muzak. And as a result, it forces us to reconsider the extent of our commitment to a whole series of apparent distinctions: between “-sic” and “-zak,” high and low, art and commerce, culture and trash. It forces us to consider the conditions of contemporary musical listening and production per se.

Here’s the rub. Because vaporwave is so weak, because it is democratic, it will never be genuinely popular: at least not to the general public. Its audience has been and will no doubt continue to be primarily other producers of vaporwave, on the one hand, and critics, on the other. This is why both groups are accused of being elitist: for being democratic at the level of production, not reception.

Daft Punk is, in a way, the musical counterpart to Reynolds’ retromania, accidentally exposing how old both their conceptions of the ‘new’ really are.

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But vaporwave’s weak gesturers are not the only contemporary musicians challenging the notion of a history as the endless progression of one damn thing after another.

Jim Jupp, the man behind the UK musical entity Belbury Poly and co-founder of Ghost Box Records, is all about crafting new and weird historical narratives. As the retro-historicist would duly note, Belbury Poly’s music contains samples from and references to library music, psychedelia, prog, and of course the creation, in the 1950s, of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Like the Mike Paradinas album, all these references feel nostalgic, in an indeterminate sort of a way.

Of course, Jupp is acutely aware of all of this. Belbury Poly’s deliberate blending of samples with evocative and referential newly recorded materials deliberately makes us question our sense of nostalgia. How, after all, can we feel nostalgic for a past that we never experienced, or indeed that is not even a past? The array of historical references further disrupts our sense that this music emanates from a coherent musical narrative: as he noted in an interview for The Wire in 2009, “Not just for Belbury Poly but for the whole of Ghost Box, it’s 1958-1978 and it’s all at once, we take little slices through that continuum.”

Belbury Poly’s real material is history itself: it is the sound of history being chopped, screwed, sampled, and reenacted to form a complex miasma, in which odd moments of the past leap into and disrupt the present, at the same moment as the present stumbles blindly into a previously unknown past.

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Of course, not all contemporary music engaged with history is so interesting.

Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories is, very obviously, attempting to establish a specific kind of relationship with history. Its tracks refer back to a bygone era of music, both at the level of style (“Get Lucky’s” disco groove) and, even more explicitly, at the level of content (Giorgio Moroder’s almost documentary-style reminiscences about the birth of synthesizer disco in “Giorgio by Moroder”).

Already it is clear that Daft Punk are taking a more theoretical approach to history than the simple historical list-making of the retro-historicist: the function of this album is not merely to reference the past, but to adopt a critical attitude toward it, to couch its references in a value system that preferences the birth of disco as an era of newness that we have lost. The album, as we all know, was also an argument: to “give life back to music” and “do it right,” but to do so by going back in time.

As with Reynolds’ argument, encoded in this injunctive is the idea that music should sound new and progressive. But paradoxically, for Daft Punk, this can only be achieved at one remove, by self-defeatingly re-enacting the period of music history when this was apparently best embodied.

Daft Punk is, in a way, the musical counterpart to Reynolds’ retromania, accidentally exposing how old both their conceptions of the “new” really are.

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So, the lesson of Cage, Eno, and now vaporwave, Belbury Poly, and even (if read critically) Daft Punk is that history need not be conceived of as an endless hurtling into the future. Indeed, the important thing about these musics is that they not only concern history, but assume a critical position in relation to it — they both critique certain conceptions of history and offer new ones.

Critically speaking, one of the interesting aspects of contemporary music is that, at this crossroads of retromania, retro-historicism, and historically concerned music, it is the music that is largely beating criticism to the critical punch.

When Reynolds looks to contemporary music, he does so from the perspective of a narrative of progress. He is searching for the moment of the new that confirms — again and again and again — history’s exhilarating sense of directionality. But in doing so, he misses what is most interesting about so much contemporary music: the fact that so many of these musicians are concerned precisely with undoing such conceptions of history. They are engaged, in other words, in a conceptually different task: not moving history forward, but formulating new histories entirely.

Unlike Reynolds’ positive attempts to progress a critical project, however, the retro-historicist conceals its progressivism — tucks it neatly away inside the box — and then seeks to profit from its concealment. Not only is it fooling itself and us, but it is also missing the best of contemporary music because it simply doesn’t have the critical tools to articulate what is good and interesting about it.

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Critically speaking, one of the interesting aspects of contemporary music is that, at this crossroads of retromania, retro-historicism, and historically concerned music, it is the music that is largely beating criticism to the critical punch.

The best in contemporary music is already encouraging us to see the trick of the retro-historicist machine and thus to understand its contingency as a method of encountering the history of music. We need to heed the call.

[As you may have noticed, this piece takes its inspiration from Walter Benjamin’s Theses on The Philosophy of History. Although Benjamin also uses the analogy of the mechanical Turk to develop a critique of naïve historicism/progressivism, it is worth noting that we have significantly amended the logic of that analogy for our own purposes. If you haven’t read the original already, you should… preferably while listening to Daft Punk.]

  

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