Thursday, June 13, 2013

essay for Sleek magazine, Germany, early 2012

by Simon Reynolds

“Brand New You’re Retro”, sneered the British rapper Tricky back in 1995.  This taunt, directed at some unknown adversary, could easily be repurposed as a general indictment of pop culture in 2012.  Tricky’s cutting catchphrase conveys just how often the superficial appearance of freshness and novelty masks recycled derivativeness and stale familiarity. 

Another line in the song “Brand New You’re Retro” speaks of “a dread of the past and fear of the future.”  There’s no shortage of future-fear at the moment:  anxious uncertainty rules the day, tomorrow looks less and less likely to be an improvement on the present.  A shaky Eurozone; nuclear war in the Middle East looms as a possibility; economists wondering whether economic growth is an unsustainable dream;  an environment that, frankly, looks fucked. But “dread of the past”? Quite the opposite! Here in the 21st Century, we’re obsessed with 20th Century pop culture, mesmerized by its mythic giants and fascinated by all its obscure corners and forgotten figures.  Perhaps it makes perfect sense: future-fear and nostalgia are two sides of the same coin, in precarious times people look back to a past that was more stable. But if you’re the kind of person, like me, who looks to popular culture for forward-looking energy and the promise of endless renewal,  all this retrospection and rehashing just adds to the gloom. 

Take pop music. The 2000s were consumed by a long Eighties revival that took in synthpop, postpunk, and most recently goth/ industrial/EBM (with acts like Zola Jesus, and Xeno & Oaklander). Now, right on cue, we’re seeing the start of Nineties-retro: bands inspired by  grunge (Yuck, Joy Formidable, EMA), shoegaze (Cults, M83),  and early house (outfits like Miracles Club and Teengirl Fantasy,  labels like  100% Silk and Ecstasy Records).  Yet you couldn’t say that current music is unified by a dominant “Nineties-flashback” character, because virtually every other decade of pop history is getting ransacked too.  “Revival simultaneity”, I call it: a temporally confused music scene where Fifties rockabilly-influenced artists like Dirty Beaches coexist with Sixties garage inspired bands like Thee Oh Sees, Sixties psychedelia-homaging outfits like Tame Impala,  late Sixties folk-rock-oriented ensembles like Fleet Foxes, 70s raunch rock resurrectionists like The Black Keys, 70s punk invoking groups like Wild Flag, 80s hardcore rejuvenators like Fucked Up.... and on....  and on.  Disparately dated, diversely derivative, these groups have created a musical landscape that lacks anything that could be construed as a Zeitgeist. What, one wonders, will future generations find in this era that’s distinctive enough to be worth reviving? Or even feel nostalgic about?

“Pop will eat itself” , a saying coined by the British music journalist David Quantick in the Eighties to describe the effect of sampling on music, has spread so far and wide that it’s a cliché now.  In the trendy Manchester market Afflecks Palace, I saw a T-Shirt slogan that declared “Fashion Will Eat Itself”. But the truth is that fashion was munching on its own flesh long before rock and pop got into auto-cannibalism. Fashion started revisiting its own history as early as 1967, but in recent years its cycles of recycling seemed to rotate ever faster.  Every few years it seems, grunge and Goth, Sixties style and Seventies chic, come around again. Punk, apparently, is next up, with black leather and spikes strutting down runways soon courtesy of fashion houses like Gaultier, Burberry, McQ, and Balmain. Meanwhile, vintage clothing just keeps getting bigger, to the point where high street clothes manufacturers have started slapping the word “vintage” onto their merchandise even though they’re obviously brand-new rather than original garments from the past. 

Vintage chic extends beyond clothes to retro-styled décor and accessories of every kind imaginable: the hip fad for archaic appliances like manual typewriters and outmoded formats like cassette and vinyl; period-look spectacles;  beards and moustaches beamed in from 1969 or 1975;  retro toys, retro games,  and even retro sweets.  ETSY, the online marketplace for handcrafted goods, is where the fetish for “dead media” and antiquated production techniques converges with nostalgia for childhood to form the  aesthetic I call “cutesy-poo”:  posters depicting reel-to-reel tape recorders, belts whose buckles are made from the plastic shells of cassettes, notepads with covers repurposed from 1970s school textbooks and children’s fiction paperbacks,  letterpress cards and silkscreen T-shirts that juxtapose birds, deer,  or narwhals with turntables, typewriters, or cassettes. Then there’s the huge  vogue for digital photography apps like Hipstamatic,  Instagram, and ShakeIt, which give your pictures the period ambience associated with the film stock and cameras of the  ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s.  The popularity of this kind of ersatz-analogue “instant nostalgia” has led to gadgets like Fuvvi’s The Bee, a miniature-sized simulacrum of the Super 8 camera that digitally simulates the grainy, jerky look of 8mm home movies.

Dead media and archaic formats have featured in cinema, like last year’s Super 8, a homage to early Eighties Spielberg centered around kids who are amateur movie-makers and which features clumsy appearances of Walkmans and other antiquated technology from that decade.  But obsolete media are also at the fore of a separate trend in movies that The Guardian newspaper dubbed “retrovision”:   films that aren’t just set in the past but are made in the style of that era, to the point of deliberately adopting the technical limitations of the time.  Hence Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, a pair of 1970s-style horror movies with digitally-faked production defects and even fictitious trailers for similar films to play in the middle of the double bill.  Michel Hazanavicius studied the camera angles and stylistic quirks of the silent movie era to make The Artist, his own mute and monochrome version of that bygone genre.  The approach has crept into TV too: Mad Men, not content with fetishizing the clothes, furniture, décor, and cigarette smoke of the early Sixties, is also shot on film to enhance the time travel effect, at a time when high definition digital cameras are the norm in TV.   Retrovision, though, is separate from two other backwards-looking trends in mainstream movies: the endless stream of remakes and cinematic adaptions of TV shows of yesteryear, and movies that are heavily referential (and reverential) to past eras of movie-making, such as Drive, an exquisitely put-together piece of nothing that homages Walter Hill’s The Driver from 1978.

Retrospection in pop culture isn’t a new development, off course. There have been revivals in pop music going back as far as the early Seventies (when Fifties rock’n’roll made a comeback), while film-makers like George Lucas and John Carpenter often make witty, affectionate nods to the Hollywood pulp movies that thrilled them as kids.  What’s new is the scale and intensity of the looking-back: the mania in “retromania”. In the Nineties you started to get a new breed of geek-scholar forming indie bands or making independent movies: figures like Quentin Tarantino, who’d worked as a video store clerk, or Pavement, who worked in record stores.  In those pre-filesharing days, it was only people whose day jobs gave them unlimited access to the artform they were obsessed with and the time to listen to a huge diversity of the genre’s output,  who were able to develop a special kind of meta-consciousness that  would  lead them to make music or movies dense with references and allusions. But the Internet has made all that hard-earned knowledge available to all, and at zero cost, for those who are prepared to download illegally (which is almost everybody).  

Having total access and instant access to all this previous creation makes it very tempting to kick-start the creative process by reworking something you’ve found, rather than attempting to dream something completely new into existence, ex nihilo.  If you’re not feeling terribly inspired, what better way to get the juices flowing than by flicking haphazardly through the archive until you find something you think most people won’t have seen or heard, or that you can tinker with slightly until it’s “new enough”?  Or if you’re feeling slightly more energetic, you can take a bunch of separate old things and combine them into a new-ish composite. It’s easy to tell that this is how a lot of  “creatives” today operate just by looking at the fonts and imagery used on so many album sleeves, book covers, band flyers, etc. Digital technology not only makes it all too easy to roam the online archive looking for “inspiration”, it vastly facilitates the procedures of cut-and-paste,  tweaking, processing, and so forth.

People who work with visuals—fashion, design, pop video—seem to have the least amount of qualms when it comes to appropriation.  Designers don’t hesitate to recycle, say, the modernist typography and graphic style of the early 20th Century.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen the famous slant-wise Constructivist poster by Rodchenko--a Bolshevik woman shouting agit-prop—get ripped off: it’s been used in countless flyers for concerts, on record sleeves (most famously Frank Ferdinand’s debut album), and book covers (most absurdly, on a business self-help book Recommended: How To Sell Through Networking and Referrals). As for pop video...  Let’s look at the case of Beyonce’s “Countdown” video, controversial because of its borrowing of moves from an experimental ballet choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.  But the video was omnivorous verging on indiscriminate in its appropriations, managing to also cram in allusions to Audrey Hepburn in Funny Girl, Monica Vitti in Modesty Blaise, Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, and Diana Ross in the  Supremes.


Quotation and homage go back a long way in the arts,  it’s true.  But what was once a sophisticated, marginal and relatively infrequent practice has escalated to the point where it verges on becoming a dominant, epoch-defining sensibility. Digital culture is synonymous with practices like mash-ups,  YouTube parody, fan fiction, videos woven out of found footage (such as Lana Del Rey’s promos for songs like “Video Games”).  The ever-growing vastness of the online archive, combined with the speed and slickness of techniques of sampling, cut-and-paste, etc, has led to a situation where creativity has been supplanted by recreativity as the new paradigm for culture-making.  Visiting a California art college recently, I met a young performance/video artist whose work involved him singing the entirety of the musical Hair under the blazing desert sun: a project that combined the camp of  Glee or vogueing with the physical ordeals undergone by 70s artists like Chris Burden.   When it comes to parody and reenactment, the possibilities for recombination are limitless. But what is this kind of work really saying? What is it actually bringing into the world?

In his famous prose-poem manifesto Junkspace, the architect Rem Koolhaas argued that  “regurgitation is the new creativity; instead of creation, we honor, cherish, and embrace manipulation.” And yet what Koolhaas characerises as a gigantic cultural garbage heap, might also be conceived as something  more like a flea-market: a disorderly sprawl, the bulk of which consists of worthless detritus, but which always holds out the possibility of finding  strange treasure. A hell of a lot of ideas and images, personae and styles, were churned up during the 20th Century: maybe it makes sense that artists are now less interested in making the totally  new and more attracted to strategies of sifting and sorting, mixing and matching.  Some of the best musicians of the last half-decade—Ariel Pink, Vampire Weekend, Oneohtrix Point Never, Gonjasufi, Grimes, Gang Gang Dance, and many more—are effectively rag-pickers who pore through the mountainous debris of 20th Century pop culture, whether it’s digging for weird records in thrift stores or trawling through YouTube for vintage video clips.  

Filtration, pattern recognition, an ability to surf the choppy sea of information and chart a unique and personal course through the ocean of overload: this is what is required of the modern artist.  Baudelaire, writing in the context of the 19th Century city with its bombardment of stimuli, described the modern artist as “a kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness”. Today you would have to update the metaphor and talk of the contemporary artist as a search engine endowed with consciousness.  "I can hear everything,” declares a voice at the start of Gang Gang’s recent album Eye Contact. “It's everything time."  The challenge now is turn that into opportunity, not a paralysing predicament.

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