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July 30, 2011

Past Due

Simon Reynolds’s Retromania looks back at a pop culture that has, for years now, done nothing but look back.

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By Nitsuh Abebe

The problem with talking to adults about music used to be all the reactionary lectures: Music was better back then, they’d say, and the best thing young people could do was study the history. ­London-born critic Simon Reynolds is a family man in his forties, and a read through his new book, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, might leave you with the suspicion that things actually were better “back then”—but only because we’ve taken those lectures too literally. “There has never been a society in human history,” he writes, “so obsessed with the cultural artifacts of its own immediate past.”

He’s hardly the first to worry that pop culture, instead of churning into the future, now just swims around an ocean of ideas from yesterday. It’s been decades since design, fashion, and music started treating history as a closet to be rummaged—savvy artists piecing together styles and references for equally savvy audiences to decode. (Anyone who’s enjoyed a Tarantino film already knows this drill.) And revival culture, as Reynolds shows, stretches back to postwar jazz, if not beyond. Still, the rise of the Internet and file-sharing has helped make the past decade feel particularly flat and static—­especially to a forward-looking critic like Reynolds, who’s still best known for chronicling the U.K.’s relentlessly futurist rave scene.

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