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Past-Tense Pop

WHO WANTS YESTERDAY’S papers?” sang Mick Jagger in 1967. “Who wants yesterday’s girl?” The answer, in the Swinging 60s, was obvious: “Nobody in the world.” That was then. Now we seem to want nothing more than to read yesterday’s papers and carry on with yesterday’s girl. Popular culture has become obsessed with the past—with recycling it, rehashing it, replaying it. Though we live in a fast-forward age, we cannot take our finger off the rewind button.

Nowhere is the past’s grip so tight as in the world of music, as the rock critic Simon Reynolds meticulously documents in Retromania. Over the last two decades, he argues, the “exploratory impulse” that once powered pop music forward has shifted its focus from Now to Then. Fans and musicians alike have turned into archeologists. The evidence is everywhere. There are the reunion tours and the reissues, the box sets and the tribute albums. There are the R&B museums, the rock halls of fame, the punk libraries. There are the collectors of vinyl and cassettes and—God help us—eight-tracks. There are the remixes, the mash-ups, the samples. There are the “curated” playlists. When pop shakes its moneymaker today, what rises is the dust of the archive.

Nostalgia is nothing new. It has been a refrain of art and literature at least since Homer set Odysseus on Calypso’s island and had him yearn to turn back time. And popular music has always had a strong revivalist streak, particularly in Reynolds’s native Britain. But retromania is not just about nostalgia. It goes deeper than the tie-dyed dreams of Baby Boomers or the gray-flecked mohawks of Gen X punks. Whereas nostalgia is rooted in a sense of the past as past, retromania stems from a sense of the past as present. Yesterday’s music, in all its forms, has become the atmosphere of contemporary culture. We live, Reynolds remarks, in “a simultaneity of pop time that abolishes history while nibbling away at the present’s own sense of itself as an era with a distinct identity and feel.”

One reason is the sheer quantity of pop music that has accumulated over the past half century. Whether it is rock, funk, country, or electronica, we have heard it all before. Even the edgiest musicians have little choice but to produce pastiche. Greatly amplifying the effect is the recent shift to producing and distributing songs as digital files. When kids had to fork out cash for records or CDs, they had to make hard choices about what they listened to and what they let pass by. Usually, they would choose the new over the old, which served to keep the past at bay. Now, thanks to freely traded MP3s and all-you-can-eat music services such as Spotify, there is no need to make choices. Pretty much any song ever recorded is just a click away. With the economic barrier removed, the old floods in, swamping the new.

Reynolds argues that the glut of tunes has not just changed what we listen to; it has also changed how we listen. The rapt fan who knew every hook, lyric, and lead by heart has been replaced by the fickle dabbler who cannot stop hitting Next. Reynolds presents himself as a case in point, and his experience will sound familiar to anyone with a hard drive packed with music files. He was initially “captivated” by the ability to use a computer to navigate an ocean of tunes. But in short order he found himself more interested in “the mechanism” than the music: “Soon I was listening to just the first fifteen seconds of every track; then, not listening at all.” The logical culmination, he writes, “would have been for me to remove the headphones and just look at the track display.” 

Given a choice between more and less, we all choose more, even if it means a loss of sensory and emotional engagement. Though we don’t like to admit it, the digital music revolution has merely confirmed what we have always known: we cherish what is scarce, and what is abundant we view as disposable. Reynolds quotes another music writer, Karla Starr: “I find myself getting bored even in the middle of songs simply because I can.” 

As all time is compressed into the present moment, our recycling becomes ever more compulsive. We begin to plunder not just bygone eras but also the immediate past. Over the course of the last decade, writes Reynolds, “the interval between something happening and its being revisited seemed to shrink insidiously.” Not only did we have 1960s revivals and 70s revivals and 80s revivals, but we even began to see revivals of musical fashions from the 90s, such as shoegaze and Britpop. It sometimes seems that the reason things go out of fashion so quickly these days is because we cannot wait for them to come back into fashion. Displaying enthusiasm for something new is socially risky, particularly in an ironical time. It is safer to wait for it to come around again, preferably bearing the “vintage” label. 

For musicians themselves, the danger is that their art becomes disconnected from the present—“timeless” in a bad sense. The eras of greatest ferment and creativity in popular music, such as the mid-60s and the late 70s, were times of social discontent, when the young rejected the past and its stifling traditions. Providing the soundtrack for rebellion, rock musicians felt compelled to slay their fathers rather than pay tribute to them. Even if their lyrics were about getting laid or getting high—as they frequently were—their songs were filled with political force. Those not busy being born, as Dylan put it shortly after taking an axe to his folkie roots, are busy dying. 

Now, youth culture is largely apolitical, and pop’s soundtrack is just a soundtrack. Those not busy being born are busy listening to their iPods. Whether it’s Fleet Foxes or Friendly Fires, Black Angels or Beach House, today’s bands are less likely to battle the past than to luxuriate in it. This is not to say they aren’t good bands. As Reynolds is careful to note, there is plenty of fine pop music being made today, in an ear-boggling array of styles. But drained of its subversive energies, none of it matters much. It just streams by. 

Retromania is an important and often compelling work, but it is also a sprawling one. Its aesthetic is more Sandinista! than “Hey Ya!” But Reynolds is sharp, and he knows his stuff. Even when his narrative gets lost in the details, the details remain interesting. (I didn’t know, for instance, that the rave scene of the early 90s had its origins in the trad-jazz fad that preceded Beatlemania in England.) Reynolds might also be accused of being something of a retromaniac himself. After all, in worrying about the enervating influence of the past, he echoes the complaints of earlier cultural critics. “Our age is retrospective,” grumbled Emerson in 1836. “Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe?” Longing for a less nostalgic time is itself a form of nostalgia.

But Reynolds makes a convincing case that today’s retromania is different in degree and in kind from anything we’ve experienced before. And it is not just an affliction of the mainstream. It has also warped the perspective of the avant-garde, dulling culture’s cutting edge. It’s one thing for old folks to look backwards. It’s another thing—and a far more lamentable one—for young people to feed on the past. Somebody needs to figure out a new way to smash a guitar. 

Nicholas Carr is the author, most recently, of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.