Metal’s Retromania: Part I

Simon Reynolds’ book Retromania attempts to make sense of the nostalgia complex within contemporary music. Released in 2011, from our heady vantage point of 2021 the book comes across as both ahead of its time and premature. The aftershock (or more fittingly ‘lethargy’) of stagnation that gripped the 2000s so tightly can still be felt to this day. I myself went into the book expecting a survey of the first decade of the 21st Century, an attempt to diagnose its ills, and maybe some tentative hints at a way out of this mire.

And in part one function of Retromania is precisely that. For elder millennials who experienced adolescence in the 2000s, the book touches on many aspects of this decade that will resonate deeply. Where was our summer of love? Where was our punk moment? Where was our cataclysmic reckoning with the status quo?

Alumni of this period are not short on anecdotes and theories as to why this period marks a distinctive break with history. I remember reading copies of NME from this era celebrating the “New Rock Revolution” – namely bands like The Hives, The Vines, The Datsuns, The White Stripes – that offered anything but a revolution: a perfect replica of the past. Urgent causes and cataclysmic world events were not in short supply, and all demanded a meaningful cultural response that went unmet. 9/11, the Iraq War, economic collapse, all happened on our watch and all received no lasting musical legacy beyond that Greenday album.

Reynolds is not short on theories of his own. The internet offers unprecedented access to history. The sheer volume and stockpiling of past cultures disincentives the search for the new. The exponential progress of technology has shifted the focus away from the content of culture to the means of its transmission.

But as the book unfolds it becomes far more than an “everything’s shit now” stink piece. This is no mere indictment of 21st Century pop culture. Instead it seeks to subject pop culture to the longer lens usually reserved for serious historical analysis, and uses this to assess movements over decades and cross-generational trends. Where does pop fit within broader historical currents? Can pop culture be used to take the temperature of Western nations as compared to say the Global South or the Far East? It’s an ambitious work that leaves many arguments open ended, implicitly encouraging readers to pick up the various threads and apply them to their own relationship with the zeitgeist.

The book makes a point of calling attention to facets of contemporary music culture that go largely unnoticed by younger readers born in the late 80s onwards. Elements of music journalism such as artists broadcasting their influences (both in interviews and in the music itself), or constructing music criticism around a list historical reference points found in new releases; these are called out by Reynolds as uniquely new phenomena, yet are considered part of the furniture for today’s music journalism.

The documentation, classification, and archiving of record collections as facilitated by the Ipod (and later by Spotify) feed pre-existing complexes for serious music fans, yet allow us to take this collector mentality to the extreme, gorging ourselves on content, leaving metrics of quality as merely an afterthought. And with the advent of sites like Discogs and Rate Your Music, Reynolds argues that a new type of passive fandom has been normalised. We have gone from militant revolutionists and philosophers of the “new”, to passive curators, monks carefully documenting all of recorded music history for posterity.

The book takes some deeper dives back in time. It offers a whistle stop history of post war contemporary music from the perspective of the “retro” mentality. Reynolds discovers the nostalgia complex in more obvious culprits such as Northern Soul and the Mod Revival of the late 1970s, to illuminating the 50s revivalism championed by Malcom McClaren in the run up to the punk explosion, or 20s jazz revivalists of the post war period. Reynolds contrasts these with select pivotal moments in history where all sense of past was lost, and the relentless appetite of the present “annexing” the future gave rise to movements too intense to last more than a few years. Late 60s psychedelia, the 1977 punk “moment”, and British rave of the early 1990s are all singled out for special mention.

Many of the themes unwrapped in Retromania arguably apply more today than ever before. Listing off the facets of modern music fandom that the book put under the microscope ten years ago, it’s clear how little these things have changed, and arguably intensified throughout the 2010s. The idea that musical innovation now amounts to tweaking at experimental and left-field styles rather than radically redrawing the musical landscape rings particularly true, the collector/curator mentality, file sharing, streaming, recording tech itself, mash-ups, sampling, the maligned hipster as a rootless amalgamation of various cultural reference points, and many more.

But underlying it all is the sense that we have lost our sense of a collective future. The longstanding “where’s my jet-pack” cliche illustrates a more sombre malaise. The idea that we are bounding forward together into a better tomorrow exists only as a quaint throwback. The tech is there, in medicine, computing, smartphones, and myriad other ways. But the visible, grand scale visions of utopian city planners, enriched public spaces, the shared sense of humanity striving forward into a future we all have a stake in has been swept away by atomisation. You could point to a plethora of reasons for this, climate change and the unchecked extension of free market dogmas into the public realm being the most obvious.

Yet Reynolds holds out hope that these trends are not irreversible, and may in fact reach a tipping point when we run out of past to revive. This is an idea that takes on a new prescience in 2021. One can only speculate as to the cultural ramifications of lockdown, and the response of the next generation when music scenes are allowed to see the light of day after their long hibernation.

There is…however…one glaring omission from this book: METAAAAAAAAAL.

Ok, let’s dial it back a little before metal’s patented persecution mania sets in. A comprehensive survey of culture is not required to give the ideas in Retromania legs. Reynolds settles on a selection of cultural nodes that make his point most starkly, complete with first-hand accounts of those on the ground at the time, and movements he has a clear knowledge and passion for. Further, metal is something of an isolationist state within contemporary music. Its borders are heavily guarded, the flow of cultural capital strictly regulated. Travelling journalists have to tread the minefields of faux pas with caution.  

This point extends well beyond the music itself. Metal boasts a proud discipline of rigorous self-evaluation, with its own historians, journalists, and critics, all priding themselves on illuminating subtleties and quirks that outsiders would apparently fail to grasp. Such journalism requires specialist knowledge born of years of study. Further, as a cultural neighbour, metal is both ridiculous and dangerous in equal measure. Not only does it permit vulgarity but rampantly celebrates it, along with an at best ambiguous relationship to racism and homicide. All this means that anyone on the outside wishing to go beyond casual references to the world of metal risks getting swept up in a complex web of parallel cultural streams, vocabulary, and mores.

Reynolds – from reading Retromania and his follow up lectures on the topic – is clearly not such a journalist. So this is not written as an assault on the predictable but glaring omission of heavy metal in this book. Nor is it a lament that metal has once again not been taken seriously by the wider muso community. However, many of the arguments made in Retromania could possibly apply more to metal than some of the subcultures singled out in the book.

I’ve been maintaining my status as an amateur critic in the hopes of competing in the Olympics one day, so I cannot hope to mirror Reynolds’ work and refit it into a metal-centric orientation with anything like the breadth and insight that he achieves. However, it may be instructive and revealing to give the analytical framework of Retromania a workout in the fraught setting of metal’s fifty plus years of history. What happens when we pit the ideas of this book against the cultural artefact that is metal?

In order to answer the question, Hate Meditations will be publishing a new mini-series of essays entitled Metal’s Retromania in order to let some of these ideas air out a bit. Check back soon for the first feature.  

Metal’s Retromania Part II: the great explosion

Metal’s Retromania Part III: the eternal return

Metal’s Retromania Part IV: the Icarus factor

Metal’s Retromania Part V: whither is fled the visionary gleam

Metal’s Retromania Part VI: Until the Light Takes Us

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