Rethinking retromania: temporality and creativity in contemporary popular music

Within music criticism and journalism in recent years there has been a growing fixation with what has come to be known as ‘retromania’, or ‘pop culture’s addiction to its own past.’[1] The overriding thesis of this critique is that recent technological and cultural circumstances have led to something of a regression in the creative impulses of musicians, leading to a lack of innovative styles and an overreliance on pre-existing forms as the inspiration for ‘new works’. This criticism has been particularly championed by Simon Reynolds, who articulates his misgivings about contemporary pop music as follows:

Instead of being about itself, the 2000s has been about every other previous decade happening again all at once: a simultaneity of pop time that abolishes history while nibbling away at the present’s own sense of itself as an era with a distinct identity and feel.[2]

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Commodification and popular culture

(Originally written December 2013)

In order to fully understand the extent to which popular culture today is commodified in comparison to previous eras it is essential to recognise the various developments of capital not as distinct phenomena, but as part of a continual process of accumulation, expansion and consequent abstraction. It is crucial to note, as David Harvey writes, that:

Capital is a process and not a thing. It is a process of reproduction of social life through commodity production, in which all of us in the advanced capitalist world are heavily implicated. Its internalised rules of operation are such as to ensure that it is a dynamic and revolutionary mode of social organization, restlessly and ceaselessly transforming the society within which it is embedded. The process masks and fetishizes, achieves growth through creative destruction, creates new wants and needs, exploits the capacity for human labour and desire, transforms spaces, and speeds up the pace of life.[1]

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John Lewis, art and advertising

With the recent hype surrounding the latest batch of Christmas-themed TV adverts, it is notable how their reception appears to have displaced ‘proper’ art. I have witnessed, on social media and elsewhere, more excitement, anticipation and discussion regarding these adverts (particularly the ubiquitous offering from John Lewis) than I have any film, TV show or song in recent memory. While this is not inherently a bad thing – it’s not that I’m precious about people paying more attention to advertising than capital ‘A’ Art – the way people are coaxed into venerating content that exists solely to extract money from them is rather sinister.

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Spectatorship, accelerationism and art’s critical potential

(Originally written November 2013)

To gain an understanding of the way in which art can itself be an agent of cultural critique it is vital to explore the true nature of spectatorship, how this relates to the production and reception of meaning in art and, ultimately, how a lucid understanding of these two issues contribute to a recognition of art’s actual critical capacity. Here we will identify art’s critical potential through a focus on the implications of Jacques Ranciere’s analysis of spectatorship, while also drawing upon Adorno’s exploration of meaning in art, and identifying how their work relates to a burgeoning accelerationist aesthetic evident in some contemporary artistic practice. The manifestation of this critical potential in contemporary art will be explored through the works of musicians James Ferraro and Daniel Lopatin, as well as a selection of the multitude of artists following in their wake.

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In defence of ‘pastiche’ and ‘retromania’ (or, creativity in the time of YOLO)

‘In a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.’ – Frederic Jameson

‘The twentieth century’s closing scenes having witnessed the apparent end of history rather begged the question of what on earth we were meant to do from now on. The same instability and uncertainty which has produced a loss of faith in political orthodoxies, and analytical paralysis in the face of a multiplicity alternatives, has also produced a splintered and disintegrated culture at a loss as to how to define itself and, given the apparent imminence of disaster, unconvinced that it’s worthwhile bothering to do so.’ – Rhian E Jones


I’ve been intending to write about vaporwave for some time, but I’m glad I have refrained from doing so until now, as two pieces I’ve recently read have led me to completely reassess my thoughts on the genre, and by extension what I believe to be the misunderstood role of what is commonly identified as pastiche and retromanic tendencies in modern music.

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Manic Street Preachers – Rewind the Film (ft. Richard Hawley)

To kick-start the promotion for their upcoming eleventh studio album, the Manics have just released the new record’s title track, ‘Rewind the Film’. It’s a great song, and the addition of Richard Hawley is a perfect touch, but the real emotional weight lies in the accompanying video. The film depicts a day in the life of Trehafod in the Rhondda Valley, and is described by Michael Cragg in The Guardian, somewhat brazenly and patronisingly, as ‘[following] an elderly man around a dilapidated village, before he and the locals enjoy a cheery game of Bingo.’

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The hyperreality of tourism

Disneyland_plaque

Plaque at the entrance of Disneyland

Tourism, in its essence, is the process of attempting to reconcile fantasy with ‘reality’. One becomes a tourist through presupposing what a certain location might be like to see or experience, and then visiting there in the hope that this fantasy is accurate. As with all fantasy, however, a place in actuality will never compare to a place as imagined through convoluted, mythologised sources – be they films set in that location, poetry proclaiming its beauty, even (or especially, perhaps) the brochures designed purely to get you to go there in the first place. In Platonic terms, as a crude representation of an object (or in this case, a location) a fantasy can never approach the reality of a place because it is so far removed from the source. To adapt an idea from The Republic:

‘we must inquire whether the poets, whom these people have encountered, are mere imitators, who have so far imposed upon the spectators, that, when they behold their performances, they fail to perceive that these productions are twice removed from reality, and easily made by a person unacquainted with the truth, because they are phantoms, and not realities.’[1]

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