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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.]

Most Read