When Simon Reynolds first started talking about not finding anything absolutely new in modern music, I didn't really know what he was talking about. Not a diss (yet), the revered blissed one has (by my rough calculations) been 'pop aware' for a good 15 years longer than I have. Given that enormous backlog of experience, I wasn't going to start arguing, was I? I just took him at his word.
The failure of Retromania is that I'm still left unsure about what exactly he's on about. The book is correctly characterised on the back cover as a 'debate starter' rather than an open-and-shut case, but for large stretches it doesn't even feel like an argument. In fact, I was taken aback when Reynolds describes Retromania as a 'critique' at the end of the book, since I found it difficult to separate the normative/polemical from the descriptive (and convincing) account of music culture past and present. Retromania is quite messy anyway - jumping around to address a bunch of stuff beyond retro. Reynolds makes clear that the Introduction, which poses a long list of questions, was written first, and that what follows is an exploration of the answers. This gives a good idea of the way Reynolds approached this project, though does leave you to do more of the work of gathering together the mass of stuff you get into a coherent whole. The Female Eunuch, which I'm in the middle of at the moment, is similarly sprawling, but at least Greer bothered to map out how it all fits together at the start.
Retromania gives you a great overview of different ways music makers have engaged with the past. What I'm unclear about is exactly what Reynolds is missing - what his 'nothing new under the sun' actually means. His language is quite loose on the subject - 'forms', 'develompents', 'ideas'. Nothing specific on the sounds or arrangements that provided those future shocks so sorely craved. Instead we get a list at the end, which (perhaps consciously) recalls the apex of 'Losing My Edge' where James Murphy is reduced to shouting out names of bands he's experienced before everyone else. The only definition I could find is more of a 'telltale sign': 'genuinely modernist music' can be identified by the 'pressure it puts on writers to come up with new language and new concepts' - an imperfect measure iteslf, and one which leaves open the possibility that the failing isn't with the music so much as with the writers around it.
In fact, there are unexplored explanations for the sensation of 'nothing new under the sun' (and it's noteworthy how the words 'feels' and 'seems' often prefix Reylolds's most outrageous claims) lurking within the text. The central distinction he draws is: 'a rapid movement within a network of knowledge as opposed to the outwardbound drive that propelled an entire system into the unknown'. But that unknown could just be another network of knowledge that was previously difficult to access but is now easily available. Reynolds talks about how hip hop 'seemed to come out of nowhere fast' in the early 80s, even though its 'historical roots can be traced back to the mid-seventies Bronx'. A modern example of this phenomenon would be footwork - also (I gather) a genre with a rich history but one only unearthed as something totally new and alien by entrepid adventurers in the Night Slugs / Planet Mu camps. Can't the retromania curse just be one of perspective - our vastly expanded perspectives making the shock of the new rarer?
Another, for me more interesting, path not taken is hinted at when Reynolds talks about the 'linear model of progress' being 'transposed from science and technology, where it does apply, onto culture'. Maybe it shouldn't have happened, but actually, why not? When you get right down to it, what is the driver of musical innovation? Forget what Spengler has to say on the matter, it is safest to assume that if you take human ingenuity in aggregate, it would remain a constant through history. What changes is the means of production and their availability. Applied to music, what this suggests is that new 'forms' and 'developments' can ultimately be reduced to human ingenuity ('ideas') being applied to new technology - the expensive electronic experiments of the post-war avant-guard, the recording studio rock of the 1960s, the dissemination of personal computers in the 90s. This latter development has vastly widened the range of possible sounds music makers can create and manipulate, leading to a new normal identified by John Calvert as a stream of constant tiny innovations rather than the surges and movements Reynolds is after.
As important to the 'what is new' question is the 'why is the old shameful' question. This one Reynolds tackles head-on and yet I am still left wondering. In a telling phrase, he describes the way 'music has been depleted of meaning through derivativeness and indebtedness', as if 'meaning' depended on badly-defined notions of 'innovation', 'originality' or 'the momentous'. To be fair, Reynolds is actually a careful and sympathetic guide through the many ways music makers have engaged with their tradition and used the past to generate relevant meanings for their own situation. (A footnote, and btw where the fuck are they in this book: one interesting ommission in Retromania is the 'hardcore continuum' or 'nuum', where 'roots' are as important as 'future'). Point is, he knows very well that 'meaning' in music can be classified in all kinds of ways other than the originality index.
The 'great yearning' for the new is for Reynolds a 'habit of a lifetime' of a 'dyed-in-the-wool modernist', and he leaves it at that. The personal or psychological reasons behind this attitude are skipped over, but I'm detecting a certain post-structuralist whiff around the language of being trapped 'within a network' rather than driving into the unknown. My guess is that Reynolds elevates music above all other creative pursuits for Nietzschean reasons: being fundamentally a non-representational artform, it can plunge beneath surface-level interpretations and articulate the undefinable, the bedrock Real of our existence. Recall Foucault's distress at being bound by language and looking for freedom at its limits - in the pornography of Bataille for example. For Reynolds, perhaps music is the vehicle by which you can escape history and arrive at that final fronteir. To reduce it to just another artform, subject to the same interplay of influences and the same range of intentions would be similarly distressing. And yet Retromania provides a brilliant articulation of just this creative process, and the way it has changed with the arrival of the internet. Accepting this development isn't 'settling for less' - there never was anything more. The future isn't out there, it has always been with us. And our technology has allowed us to create and access it like never before.