Resisting the Rhetoric in Retromania: Philosophical reflections on popular music criticism (1/4)
Part I: The Analytical Gap
Pete Simpson - Philosophy (EP "Orbit E.P.", 2003)
The aim of this article is not to give opinions on new music and whether I think it is good or bad. My purpose is not to justify my own tastes in music, because taste is irreducibly a matter of subjectivity, even where tastes are shared very widely and over long periods of history. No music has objective – that is to say a priori – aesthetic value without the presence of a listener, and my view is that this is not the appropriate place to argue for why somebody should or should not like a particular piece of music. This article is therefore not a piece of music criticism per se, though it crosses over with one of the wider concerns of music writing proper, and that is the analysis of music as a culturally situated phenomenon. My educational background and my day job are in philosophy, and my angle is therefore philosophical, but there is an overlap in the Venn diagram of the various different approaches to thinking about music.
By virtue of the fact that music is a cultural phenomenon it is hardly surprising that the majority of 'serious', academic or quasi-academic analysis comes from the perspective of anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies and so carries the assumptions and theoretical approaches of these disciplines. Whilst these perspectives have produced and continue to produce a wealth of useful socio-cultural and historiographical documentation, they also have weaknesses that are often overlooked. I suggest that these weaknesses can sometimes create a faulty analysis, hoodwinking the reader and leading him or her to erroneous conclusions that seem plausible but which in fact are not.
The impact of this problem is amplified when these dominant forms of musical analysis migrate from the margins of academia and into the mainstream via music critics writing for papers and magazines and perhaps also writing entire books of their own. The greater the traction that these kinds of analysis acquire, the more that they come to constitute the received wisdom on how it is that music in culture works and what we ought to think about this. In this article I aim to use one popular current reading of current musical culture – what we can call the 'retromania' argument – as an exemplar for demonstrating the ways in which received forms of analysis can be predicated on faulty assumptions, and so lead to suspect conclusions.
Demdike Stare - In The Wake Of Chronos (Album "Elemental", 2012)
Model 500 - Future (vocal) (EP "No UFO's", 1985)
The retromania argument is one that has been popularised by the renowned music writer Simon Reynolds in his 2011 book of the same name and in which he coined the term. The book's success is a testament to Reynolds' skill as a musical historian and reflects the widespread agreement in which the argument is held. It has been fastidiously researched and is so comprehensive in its reach that it is not possible to provide a response to every aspect of it here, so I will focus on one aspect in particular – namely, the impact of increasing ease of access to music via digitalisation and the internet upon creativity and originality.
The central idea is quite simple: our ability to plunder the past is growing as a result of the digitalisation of music. This increased access allows us to revisit music of the past more easily, and so rather than creating new, original, and futuristic music, instead artists increasingly engage in pastiche and ape the past because it is easier to do this than to do anything else. The term 'hyper-referentiality' appears frequently to describe this reversal of perspective towards the past rather than the future and is, so the argument goes, one the key drivers of a diminution in creativity, and consequently a reduction in musical originality. Whilst I understand where this argument comes from and cannot disagree with some of the observations about what digital technology allows us to do, I argue that the normative conclusion – i.e. that new music is shrinking in quantity and decreasing in quality – is incorrect. I am drawn to this view because to my mind the retromania argument is predicated on philosophical beliefs about the nature of time about which there can be legitimate doubt.
The philosophy of time is very difficult to understand, and this is partly because of the high degree of abstraction that thinking about it requires, as I have written elsewhere. For example, the reality of time itself is extraordinarily hard to prove as a matter of logic, and this is problematic. To conclude that time does not exist is deeply counter-intuitive, as a belief in the reality of time seems rational given its apparent omnipresence in our lives. How are we to go about resolving this tension? There is not space to revisit all of these arguments here, though this book and some information about the philosopher J.M.E. McTaggart and his work on the unreality of time may be useful if you are interested in pursuing these questions further. Nevertheless this gap between reconciling the difficulties in explaining time as a matter of logic, and the straightforward way in which we refer to time in everyday life is important here, and so we should focus on it.
(end of the Part I on IV. Part II to be published soon)
Ryuichi Sakamoto – Reversing (Album "BTTB", 1998)
Regis - Slave to the Inevitable (Album "Penetration", 2001)