After promising to post notes on Simon Reynolds' book Retromania I keep putting it down because it's so depressing. The nut concept, repeated over and over, is: after psychedelia in the '60s, prog and punk in the '70s, hiphop and house in the '80s, and rave and jungle in the '90s, why oh why* was there no new fresh, exciting, original music in the '00s?
My answers are:
1. Because, you, Reynolds, lost the passion and ability to make the case for "new" music. You're the critic but your job isn't just to complain that earlier generations were better.
2. Because all those earlier movements had one or two "stars" who broke through and were relentlessly promoted by businesspeople. Something like the chiptune scene could have been pushed to the forefront but the '00s also saw the collapse of "the industry" in favor of all the micro-trends Reynolds discusses. Malcolm McLaren even tried to play his old Sex Pistols svengali role with chiptunes but there was no industry to back it up and ram it home through relentless airplay and marketing. There was no Bit Shifter on Johnny Carson moment.
Reynolds excels at documenting all the backward-looking trends of the last decade -- we already discussed re-enactments -- and even the pre-'00s history of backward-looking trends. He makes intriguing sociological/semiotic observations about a couple of these:
The British "trad jazz" movement of the '50s. These folks eschewed bop or anything that smacked of "art" in jazz by keeping alive the freewheeling fun and danceability of New Orleans jazz of the '20s. Problem was they only knew this music through records. Reynolds quotes Hilary Moore that when playing live, the trad jazzers would faithfully mimic the "distorted instrumental balance and faulty intonation" of the music reproduced on vinyl 78s. Wish there was more detail about this but it takes your mind in weird directions.
The UK's "Northern Soul" movement fetishized classic Motown singles. Because American soul music had already moved on to funk and slower tempos, the Northern Soulsters tried to mine gold from the same overworked vein of older, almost-hits from Motown. Because the Motown "system" cranked out so many of these in search of a single monster hit, there was enough material to keep the UK scene alive for years. Reynolds: "Northern Soul found a strangely liberating gap within this system; it transformed redundant waste into the knowledge base and means-to-bliss of a working-class elite."
Again, pretty thought-provoking. Nuggets like this make the book useful even if its conclusions are repellent.
*Richard West: "[Daniel DeFoe] was the first master, if not the inventor, of almost every feature of modern newspapers, including the leading article, investigative reporting, the foreign news analysis, the agony aunt, the gossip column, the candid obituary, and even the kind of soul–searching piece which Fleet Street calls the ‘Why, Oh Why.'"