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Forty-plus rock critics must stop. They must stop now. They must close their Microsoft Word documents mid-keystroke. They must quit Tumblr mid-mouse click. They must recognize what they are—withered scribes accepting paychecks to judge music not made by or for their demographic—and, hands in the air, step away from the home row of their laptops. They must not pass go or collect $200. They must not slam the door on their way out.
But it’s tough to ask Simon Reynolds to cease fire. Born in 1963, the author of Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 has smartly documented rave and post-Rotten rock ‘n’ roll for more than two decades. As ready to marshal Jacques Derrida as Lester Bangs in articulate defense of the music he loves, Reynolds has proven an oasis in a desert of smug Vice reviews—a spritelier version of Greil Marcus for music-lovers tired of reading boomer-friendly encomiums to Van Morrison or Bob Dylan. Unfortunately, Retromania, in which Reynolds wistfully argues that pop music can no longer advance because it’s stilted by nostalgia, never surpasses crankiness to prove its fusty thesis.
“The surge decades of the sixties and nineties were each followed by a period of going-in circles,” Reynolds writes of the 1970s and aughts, “directionless phases” during which “it can become a real struggle to recall that pop hasn’t always repeated itself.” Surprise: The artists Reynolds believes broke ground (The Sex Pistols, The Talking Heads, Aphex Twin) are part of his own youth, while those he feels tread water (Oasis, The White Stripes, Lady Gaga) are active today. Reynolds’s take on technology—that advances in digital recording made sampling and mash-ups, or “pseudo-creativity based on a blend of mild irreverence and simple pop fandom,” ubiquitous—does show that musicians today have tools that the Beatles did not. But Reynolds can’t explain why Puff Daddy sampling “Every Breath You Take” is philosophically different than the Fab Four covering Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethhoven.”
“When I look back at the development of pop and rock during my lifetime,” he writes, “what perplexes me is the slow but steady fading of the artistic imperative to be original.” Especially given Reynolds’ embrace of critical theory, this is a difficult argument to shoulder.
Who can say what motivates musicians—especially contemporary artists whose legacies are evolving? Igor Stravisky upended Western classical music by deploying Russian folk melodies. Charlie Parker reinvented jazz saxophone by emulating Western classical music. And Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic blues were still blues. Did these artists merely ape what had gone before, or pay respect to it while making something new? Did they create out of an “imperative” to be original, or as cynical exercise? Even Reynolds’ beloved Sex Pistols played “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”—a song by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart made famous by The Monkees.
Clever chestnuts like “the avant-garde is now an arrière-garde” won’t prove that we’ve reached the end of music just because Reynolds says so. “The question could be applied to all postproduction art: isn’t it sterile?” Reynolds concludes. If this premise is granted—if decades of art can be dismissed as backward-looking even though all art is backward-looking—popular culture is on a slippery, reductionist slope.
Isn’t punk tuneless? Isn’t hip-hop just a guy talking over a beat? Aren’t middle-aged rock critics lame? Reynolds should be smart enough not to ask these questions. The answers won’t please him.