More on Retromania

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.'"

retromania vs phone art

Simon Reynold's new book Retromania suggests a causal relation between two conditions: (i) that for the past 10 years we've had easy access to a cornucopia of past expressions in the form of digital archives such as YouTube and iTunes and (ii) that art and music are trapped in a backward-looking malaise. Unfortunately item (ii) is just wrong--once a critic reaches this place of boredom no advocacy is possible and every trend becomes grist for "hyper-stasis," as Reynolds calls the current moment of high speed technological change and stalled paradigm-shifting.
We don't lack for exciting developments right now, but rather the ability to recognize, articulate or even proselytize for new work, in particular without lapsing into the techno-boosterish cliches of the art-and-technology websites such as "cutting-edge," "game-changing," etc. In music, new gear and software give us new sounds--the difficulty is finding a common frame of reference for describing them, when people have only the vaguest idea how anyone else did something. In the art arena, a few months ago we spent several threads yelling about whether GIFs did anything that Flash or YouTube couldn't do. This wasted energy from discussing specific examples of how GIFs are currently being used.
"Phone Arts" or "blog art" almost by their very nature couldn't be in a book called Retromania unless you were indulging in perverse nostalgia for the art of one day ago. With "phone art" we know most of it is made on Apple products but perhaps not which programs are used, or how "easy" an effect is. Easiness isn't really even the point since the work is by its nature disposable and ephemeral. But one thing we could agree on is that a group blog of mostly abstract art that is "phoned in" is not an artifact of the past.
Reynolds writes mainly about music but he mentions a recent Frieze panel where experts weighed in on the relationship of YouTube-era accelerated meme-exchange and garden variety postmodernism, so it's fair to say his concerns are larger. Speaking of crossing disciplines, one bristles at his pairing throughout of such purely cynical, commercial phenomena as the boomer TV show remake glut with artists' complaints about the difficulties of being original, if the latter is even as common as Reynolds suggests. The issues of the suits and the avant garde may sometimes converge but that's not enough material for a book.

Update: Ongoing rewriting for clarity, style, and sussing out the main point.

bibliography (books on music)

Jim Aikin (ed.), Software Synthesizers
Jim Aikin (ed.), Power Tools for Synthesizer Programming
Tim Barr, Techno: The Rough Guide
Tim Barr, Kraftwerk: From Dusseldorf to the Future (with Love)
Brian Belle-Fortune, All Crew Muss Big Up: Journeys Through Jungle Drum & Bass Culture
Sean Bidder, House: The Rough Guide
Pascal Bussy, Kraftwerk: Man, Machine and Music
Pascal Bussy and Andy Hall, The Can Book
David Byrne, How Music Works
John Cage, A Year from Monday
Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen
Chris Cutler, File Under Popular
Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction
Bruce Gerrish, Remix: The Electronic Music Explosion
Peter Hammill, Killers, Angels, Refugees
Eric Hawkins, The Complete Guide to Remixing
Chris Kempster (ed.), History of House
Colin Larkin, The Virgin Encyclopedia of Dance Music
Simon Reynolds, Generation Ecstasy
Simon Reynolds, Retromania
Curtis Roads, Microsound
Ira L. Robbins (ed.), The Trouser Press Guide to New Wave Records
Mark Roberts, Rhythm Programming
David Rosenboom, Biofeedback and the Arts: Results of Early Experiments
R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape
Peter Shapiro, Drum'n'bass: The Rough Guide
Peter Shapiro (ed.), Modulations: A History of Electronic Music: Throbbing Words on Sound
Dan Sicko, Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk
Rick Snoman, The Dance Music Manual: Tools, Toys and Techniques
Allen Strange, Electronic Music: Systems, Techniques, and Controls (2nd ed.)
David Toop, Rap Attack #3
David Toop, Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds
Nigel Trevena, Lou Reed & The Velvets
Tony Verderosa, The Techno Primer: The Essential Reference for Loop-Based Musical Styles
David Walley, No Commercial Potential: The Saga of Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention (original and updated editions)
Marc Weidenbaum, Selected Ambient Works Volume II (33 1/3 series)

PC Music -- the label -- update

About a year ago the PC Music label was covered, here, on this blahg. It's taken that much time for it to get the full-blown Pitchfork treatment.
It was blaringly obviously interesting on first listen but apparently the dancecrit neckbeards had to debate it.
Simon Reynolds, who is showing disturbing fogey-ish tendencies for such a young dude, made some sneering comments on his blog.

...whether you should even go deep with something so determinedly shallow as the PC Music aesthetic is debatable. But then these sort of operations are never content to just be blank, are they? They can't resist showing how thought-through and conceptual the whole thing is. Pointing out the references, the precursors, the intent.... Just like the art world.

Reynolds had done such a wonderful job explaining '90s dance music but since the mid-'00s he's been on a "there's nothing new under the sun" kick, with his semi-depressing book Retromania. If PC Music were actually something new/fresh/challenging he'd have to deny it because it blows his thesis out of the water. In any case, he can't hear the quality, and that's kind of sad.

remix declared uncool (again) 2

JL emailed about the Brad Troemel essay mentioned earlier:

Part 1 confuses the terms "remix" and "mashup"...

Troemel enjoys his sneer at "mid-2000s bloghouse mashup bands like Girl Talk, Danger Mouse, Justice, Digitalism, and 2 Many DJs" without explaining that mashups were a particular type of digital mix where two or more tracks could be pitch-shifted and beat-synched to sound like one. That was certainly a gimmick that dated quickly whereas if you are just shuffling tracks around or doing general studio editing a track could be completely remade and better than the original. That was true in the '90s and it's true now -- there's always a certain amount of crap overstating the claims for editing. Troemel's equation of remixing with exhaustion of content echoes Simon Reynolds' young fogeyish "there's nothing new under the sun" arguments in the book Retromania.

Part 2 pretends there is no longer a mainstream culture (I guess the rest of middle America has caught up to NYC and is finally "down" with multiculturalism) or vast problems with copyright.

Right, Troemel says "Today’s DMCA warnings sent to dorm rooms pale in comparison to the aggressive lawsuits previously brought forth for taking without asking." Megaupload, anyone?

His point about the vapidity of "open source" gets dangerously close to a point I read elsewhere ... about the term "open government" -- how it used to mean transparency but now means machine-readable XML files from the Department of Agriculture... "Open source" is a corporatist term popularized in the late 90s as an alternative to "free software," because cloaked in that term's ambiguities was Richard Stallman's political statement about human rights.

"Free" confused people because Stallman meant free as in free of repression and censorship and Silicon Valley said "hey we can't just give stuff away." Troemel turns this confusion into another opportunity to smirk: "The Open Source logo is, for the digital generation, what the Coexist bumper sticker is for baby boomers — a harmless if meaningless display of one’s standing as a good liberal." The dig about the Coexist bumper sticker is pure Rush Limbaugh and again, could use a fact-check as to whether it's distinctly "baby boomer" or just a-generational new-age sentiment.

The point of Troemel's article seems to be "the remix is dead, long live the remix" along with taxonomical analysis of various types of remixes. Fine, whatever, am not sure we needed this. What upsets people about Troemel's writing isn't its outrageous controversy but its peculiar combination of theoretical convolution and factual error.