We’re lame!

Or not. I don’t know. How can we be sure?

Even though the premise seems like a set-up for easy present-bashing in favor of a twisted nostalgia for a period when new music was, you know, good, I’m looking forward to reading Simon Reynolds’ recent book, Retromania. Part of the blurb on Amazon makes it seem like Reynolds simplifies popular culture’s current nostalgia for any era except this one to ask the question, “Is this retromania a death knell for any originality and distinctiveness of our own?”

I haven’t read the book yet, but based on Reynolds’ recent Slate article, “The Ghost of Teen Spirit”, I think his argument will be much subtler than this.

My favorite bit from the article (about 3/4 of the way through) argues that current nostalgia for the early 90s is at least partially a product of that decade’s position on the cusp of the internet boom, at the tail end of the dominance of major media outlets that had the power to create a sense of an era. Forgive me for the extensive quote:

[T]he media organs of the analog system generated what you might call the “Epochal Self-Image”: a sense of a particular stretch of years as constituting an era, a period with a distinct “feel” and spirit. That sense is always constructed, always entails the suppression of the countless disparate other things going on in any given stretch of time, through the focus on a select bunch of artists, styles, recordings, events, deemed to “define the times.” If we date the takeoff point of the Internet as a dominant force in music culture to the turn of the millennium (the point at which broadband enabled the explosive growth of filesharing, blogging, et al.), it is striking that the decade that followed is characterized by the absence of epochal character. It’s not that nothing happened … it’s that so many little things happened, a bustle of microtrends and niche scenes that all got documented and debated, with the result that nothing was ever able to dominate and define the era.

The failure is bound-up with the erosion of the filtering function of the media and its increasing inability to marshal and synchronize popular taste around particular artists or phenomena. The Internet works against convergence and consensus: the profusion of narrowcast media (blogs, netradio, innumerable outlets of analysis and opinion) and the accelerated way that news and buzz get disseminated, mean that it is harder and harder for a cultural phenomenon to achieve full-spectrum dominance of the attention economy. Now triumphant, the digital system has interfered with our very sense of culture-time.

This last sentence in particular resonates with me. Our culture delivery system itself now prevents us from having a sense of our own era. *This* is why there’s no song of the summer, people!

8 responses to “We’re lame!”

  1. AWB says:

    That’s an interesting theory, and it resonates with me, too. I was in high school across the mid-90’s, and it always felt like there was a dominant aesthetic, that being mostly grunge, which is sort of a weird thing to be anyone’s dominant anything in high school. But I dutifully wore no makeup and took care never to buy new clothes except band T-shirts. There were of course the pretty girls who shopped at real stores, but no one ever confused them for being cool. There were people who listened to “pop” in the 90’s, but the stuff on the radio all the time was weird rock. I was talking to someone yesterday about the cultural differences between us and our college students, and I said they started for me when I was teaching my first class at 22. I mentioned something about how it used to be so uncool to buy first-hand clothes, and the room fell silent. A girl in the front row said quietly, “That’s disgusting. Clothes… someone else has worn?” And I responded, just as incredulous, “They wash them.”

    My issues with the theory are two-fold:

    1) In absence of a culture, there is always commercialism. Part of what internetting does is surround us with advertisement at all times by placing our attention not on the content or purpose of our use of tools, but on the names of the tools themselves. My students don’t say “I’m listening to this new album by [whoever]”; they say “I’m listening to my iPod.” I’m not talking on my phone; I’m talking on my Blackberry. The medium is the message in a more intense way than ever before, such that it seems almost silly or indulgent to talk about what music you’re listening to, or why. It’s totally socially acceptable to talk about the product you bought to listen to your music on.

    I do an exercise in my poetry course in which I ask students to send me pop songs they think might be interesting for poetic analysis. (I mean, inclusive of rap, rock, country, R&B, whatever–no hymns, children’s, or classical.) Maybe one in 20 will send me a song that came out in the past five years. Half will send rock or rap from my high school years. (There’s this great song by this band called Nirvana that I really like?) and the other half send classic rock, like from the 70’s. As much as they find anti-corporate culture “disgusting,” they sure do like our tunes.

    2) But isn’t there a culture, and maybe we just don’t like it? Or maybe what’s happening right now is just too hard to see because we’re in it? There have been a few retrospectives recently of the 2001 era, and the kinds of movies and music that were popular in the years after 9/11/01, and it’s pretty fascinating to see that there really was something going on then. There’s a weird hysterically earnest energy in that period that feels autoerotic and kind of embarrassing to watch. Will we not be better able to see 2011 ten years from now?

  2. Rachel says:

    Oh, wow. So much to say here.

    I have been following the press for the Reynolds book for a while now. In most interviews he comes across as a grumpy old punk, which sort of undermines his argument for me. People were making this “retromania” argument in the early 80s, though now we can look back on that era and see how incredibly innovative it was. The music of that decade, for all its splintering into micro-genres and synthetic “fakery,” still holds up. Pop will (and did) eat itself, and the world did not end.

    Nevertheless, I share some of his frustration, and I pin it here: pop music is simply not a major part of youth culture anymore. Ever since the birth of rock and roll in the 1950’s, and to an even greater degree in the 60s, pop has been a mouthpiece for youthful rebellion. It has been central to developing a sense of time/place/selfhood for me as much as it was for my mom’s generation. But kids now are just as likely to wax nostalgic in 20 years about video games or internet memes. Mass culture has migrated elsewhere.

    There’s no less music or fewer musicians; on the contrary, there’s more to discover than ever. Only someone who came of age in the era of major record labels could possibly express dismay at the idea of microclimates of taste, especially when delivery platforms are not prohibitive for artists. And hasn’t this rarification of taste always been the case, to some degree? How many people were actually involved in the East Village punk scene, or postpunk Manchester/Sheffield? Those scenes were tiny and exclusive, and only loomed large long after the fact.

    Most people now, young and old alike, are overwhelmed at the sheer amount of music bobbing on the seas of pop culture. Most will not take the time to find what truly speaks to them. This is how we end up with Katy Perry–which, I admit, is kind of depressing. Maybe equally depressing is that there’s simply not enough hours in the day to listen to all the amazing music that’s being made. I have over 500 albums on my desktop that I haven’t even uploaded into iTunes yet! That is crazy and makes me miss when my entire CD collection fit on one shelf under my dorm bed.

    But the bright side of the taste diaspora is that “cool” and “uncool” are now archaic terms. Whatever you groove on, that’s OK! I just discovered the Sia song “The Fight” this morning and have listened to it maybe 30 times. I resisted this artist for a long time because I thought she was deeply uncool. And then I was like, “Oh, fuck it, I’ll give her a try.” The joke was on me, because the song rules.

    One thing I do miss is listening to music in public venues. Thanks to the iPod, it has become way too much of a private experience. Much of my early taste was formed at the roller rink. And if I had a time machine, I would set it to the late 70s and go dance to Larry Levan spinning at the Paradise Garage (after stuffing y’all in the machine along with me, of course).

  3. F. P. Smearcase says:

    I was going to say more or less what’s in item 2 chez AWB, above. You can’t know the aesthetic of the time you’re in.

    Maybe equally depressing is that there’s simply not enough hours in the day to listen to all the amazing music that’s being made.

    I have decided to find this comforting instead, in that it lets us off the hook. Now I shall google that article about how you could never possibly read and listen to everything, because that’s when I decided it’s fine, and that it’s silly to try to consume ALL THE CULTURE.

    With apologies to Dave for linking to NPR, here it is.

  4. Tim says:

    Yay for long and substantive comments! Thanks to you both.

    AWB, your first point might actually help support Reynolds’ argument that we are living in a pop culture moment free from a sense of its own epoch. When we listen to iPods, Pandora, and Spotify, we focus on the consumer technology not the music. As to your second point, it may be fair to say that we are in a particular “era” but just don’t know it right now (sometimes historical eras aren’t identified until they’re over with), but having lived through a few different earlier pop culture eras — disco, punk, new wave, grunge — during which everyone was aware of what was going on (even if there were only a few participants, as Rachel pointed out with punk) it’s hard for me to see the viable possibility of a coherent style being named. Part of Reynolds’ point is that disco, punk, etc. were elevated to the status of epochs by major media outlets whose market share was so dominant that they had the power to do so. I remember Newsweek and Time stories on all of these phenomena, but Newsweek and Time (let alone Rolling Stone and Spin) have such a small portion of the media market (even though they all have strong web presence, too) that they will never be able to proclaim a particular kind of music as defining our current moment.

    Moreover, I’d even say that digitial technology has done a lot of work to re-write the dominant narratives of disco, punk, etc. Many smaller media outlets are returning to the 60s, 70s, and 80s to sift through and bring recognition to the music that was generally ignored by major media at the time (part of what was suppressed in order to create the coherent narratives Reynolds cites). Look at what digitial media have done for Arthur Russell, for instance, and what Numero Group and many other re-issue labels have done for dozens of regional record labels and smaller scenes. There are hundreds of websites devoted to digitizing and sharing LPs that had tiny numbers pressed, no distribution, and no press coverage when they were recorded. In some cases, these records have been picked up and re-issued by smaller labels after they have been revived by small groups of fans. These artists are getting recognition around the world that they never would have received had it not been for the web and filesharing.

    Rachel, I don’t really read Reynolds as being a fuddy duddy in the Slate article, though some of the blurbs for the book do make it seem that he might be and some of the things he says (about Reading, for instance) can be interpreted that way. I see his argument more as being aimed at the fuddy duddies who claim that there’s no good music these days and that’s why the kids love [insert whatever music from an earlier era]. He explains the lack of “era” on splintering of popular culture as driven by media technology. So true, I think that music has a much smaller slice of the youth popular culture pie now, and that contributes to the lack of a feeling of epoch.

  5. Tim says:

    Whoops, thanks to you, too, FPS! You commented whilst I was composing. I’ll check the link. I waver between comfort and discomfort with the amount of music available. I think I could set my iTunes going and it would run for more than a week nonstop. That’s sort of silly, but I’d never delete any of it.

  6. lane says:

    i love the idea, and look forward to talking about it in person!

  7. lane says:

    ok, got through the comments.

    yeah too much stuff for anyone thing to rule. U2 is the last “greatest band in the world”

    but this whole thing also points out the demographic boundaries of this discussion:

    “but having lived through a few different earlier pop culture eras — disco, punk, new wave, grunge — during which everyone was aware of what was going on”

    “everyone” being middle class, white, college educated, suburban…. yeah the “us” the “we”

    One great thing about the current age is that Jann Wenner’s version of the “us” has collapsed so that “we” don’t really have the sense that “we” are at the cultural center. Some goofy teenager in India COULD produce something that speaks to the kids in Iowa and get it to them. So the “we” is expanded, hopefully.

    And yeah Rachel’s point is interesting. We went from the era of Madonna/Bono/Dr. Dre to the era of Steve Jobs.

    And that’s what he really wanted anyway!

  8. lane says:

    Oh, and musicians… most of them are happy with the death of Jann Wenner. But not so happy about the loss of wages. The old ones miss the old system, but the young ones don’t seem to really care.

    For me, THIS is the era defining sound, image, style:


    presented in the era defining delivery mode.