2011: Dispatches from the Pop Museum The Future Is Not What It Used to Be

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2011 was the year nostalgia swallowed its own tail. Our collective need to gaze toward the past and to exhume our own cultural memories reached a crisis point. Our lust for anachronization and reenactment, for historical invocation, finally caught up with itself. No matter how much we attempted to reinvest the past with meaning, to privilege the lost and marginalized, to plunder and sample the audio ghosts of bygone eras, we bumped up against the irrevocable limitation of time’s arrow: The past is a limited resource, and we seem to have used it up. The appearance of an iPad on the sleeve art for James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual would seem to be an omen of this crisis. Are we now experiencing nostalgia for the first generation of an Apple product when we’re still only in the second generation? With an increasing number of the most visible indie and underground acts bearing some relation to the past, whether through a conscious evocation of a shared cultural history or through the studied use of vintage gear and lo-fi production to create a forgery of memory, it does seem as if there might be some substance to the claim that culture has become a feedback loop. Instead of reinvention, we have become a culture of citation. Instead of ripping it up and starting again, we’ve become hypnotized by our own dreams playing back repeatedly on a tiny video screen. Has pop music become a museum?

“For many hardened leftists, postmodernism seems to prematurely herald the death of futurism, erecting a garish, Las Vegas/Disneyland-style resort on its bones.”

This is certainly the thesis of Simon Reynolds’ Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction To Its Own Past, a book whose arguments reverberated throughout musical critique this year. As usual for anything written by Reynolds, the book is entertaining and erudite, drawing on an impressively vast array of examples to illustrate the endlessly self-referential hyper-stasis of contemporary culture. In a bravura critical stream-of-consciousness, Reynolds touches on a wide range of phenomena — rock museums, reissues, reunion tours, revivalism — to diagnose the so-called “febrile sterility” of the the retromaniacal ouroboros of pop culture. The book is by turns fascinating and frustrating, as Reynolds calls upon a myriad of high-flown philosophical ideas — Badiou, Barthes, Baudrillard — in order to produce what is essentially an extremely verbose and literate recapitulation of an old man wagging his finger and muttering “You kids today!” In fact, you could sum up Reynolds’ entire project with another familiar harangue of an older generation: “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Indeed, throughout the text, the retro-activity of the 00s is consistently compared unfavorably to past periods of innovation — punk, hip-hop, rave, etc. — that Reynolds argues actually succeeded in creating sounds that were novel and futuristic. In many ways, this argument is seductive, and indeed the underlying rhetorical foundations of his thesis are undeniable. This should not distract us from the fact that it is also ridiculous and wrong.

It is true that postmodernism has decisively arrived in the realm of pop music, but this is not sufficient cause to begin eulogizing the death of originality. Part of the problem with Retromania is the problem with all arguments in which a stubborn structuralist thinker attempts an intellectual takedown of postmodernism. Many have tried, from Fredric Jameson to Slavoj Žižek, to convince us that postmodernism represents little more than a protracted capitulation to the logic of late capitalism. In its conceptual employment of irony, pastiche, kitsch, and appropriation, postmodern art sounds the death knell for the utopianism of the modernist avant-garde, who touted authenticity, originality, and formal purity as the escape hatch from capitalist relations. For many hardened leftists, postmodernism seems to prematurely herald the death of futurism, erecting a garish, Las Vegas/Disneyland-style resort on its bones.

“Instead of ripping it up and starting again, we’ve become hypnotized by our own dreams playing back repeatedly on a tiny video screen.”

In 1983, Juan Atkins fused Afrofuturist funk with the machine rhythms of Kraftwerk and created techno, a sound alive with newness, promising a utopian future in which social inequality was rendered obsolete by the widespread availability of democratizing technology. In 2011, Daniel Lopatin used democratized technology to sample and loop a 1980s TV advertisement for a popular soft drink, creating a track in which the sample’s ghostly, deterritorialized relation to a piece of cultural detritus from the past would appear to be the only “point.” Given the extremes of these two approaches, it’s easy to see why many critics have become disenchanted with postmodernism in pop music. However, this disenchantment stems from a conservative impulse, a kneejerk reaction to music that is drawing on a different set of values to stage its own solutions to the problems of late capitalism. To simply dismiss this music as unproductive nostalgia, or worse, to use it as the cornerstone of an alarmist thinkpiece about the death of originality, is to miss the point entirely.

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