Simon Reynolds’ Retromania – Pop Culture’s Addicition to its own Past gives a good overview of the intensified retromania of the last decades. He describes nostalgia’s integration in 1950’s pop culture, and the ‘memory boom’ of the 1990’s that made retro more … modern. You know, archive fever and cheap hard drives and all that.
Retromania focuses on a sort semiotic nostalgia. It’s about our relationship to content. We’re likely to accelerate and maximize this ‘content retromania’ as Reynolds suggests in an article. But there is also a material retromania that revolves around machines and formats. It’s obviously popular to use typewriters, Moogs and cassettes and delve into medium specifics. Gradually they are emulated, sampled and commodified into plugins and filters. Sometimes they even become specific signifiers, like the needle scratching across the vinyl record signifies interruption in sitcoms. Or an icon of a floppy disk means ‘save’.
From where I’m standing, it seems that retromania is moving away from content and towards the material. Songs are easy to find, records and machines are not. Reynolds writes plenty about collectors. I think that future collectors might have things like old firmware, ancient software versions, algorithms, or maybe a full multimedia set-up with Windows 95 and Netscape to browse like it’s 1997.
These things are usually described either as nostalgia or appropriation. Nostalgia is bad and appropriation is good, lulz. Nostalgia is non-intellectual and melancholic, appropriation is social and political. Oneothoprix Point Never is quoted in the book to have said that it’s about a desire to connect, not to relive things which I think illustrates this artificial separation quite well.
Reynolds doesn’t mention chipmusic in his book. But who can blame him? While techno, rock and punk emerged from extatic periods of the new, chipmusic was never really new and exciting. When the term chipmusic emerged around 1990, it referred to Amiga music that sounded like previous C64-music. 10 years later, micromusic.net was also looking back quite a lot.
So – chipmusic was always “retro”. From the start. That’s why it doesn’t really make sense to call it retro. To say that micromusic.net or the 1990s Amiga demoscene was retro, doesn’t really compute. Reynolds talks about two kinds of retromaniacs which I think capture the tension in the chip scene:
The revivalist dissident chooses an era and stays there. Some people still listen to the same chipmusic hits from the 1980s, and love it. It’s some sort of neo-conservatism, a rebellion against the new in mass culture, a freeze in the past. Lots of demoscene vibes here…
Time-warp cults focus on unsuccessful parts of an old era. Go back, and change the future. This reminds me of the 00’s chipscene mantra of “making something new with the old”. And it also makes me think about media archeology and all kinds of lo-fi practices in the context of Phine Artz. It’s not old (nostalgia) — it’s new and fresh! (appropriation). Retrofuturism, I suppose.
I think it’s two useful concepts. If I would have to choose one of these, I would choose revivalism. It feels more honest, somehow. For me it’s not about going back to a certain time/culture. It’s more about the machines. The sweet, smelly machines.
Anyway. We don’t have to choose sides. So nevermind that. We should probably look into stuff like hauntology and retrogardism instead. THE FUTURE IS THE SEEED OF THE PAST as the Slovenian IRWIN/NSK/Laibach said. Perhaps the difference between the past and the future is not so important after all..
Like Reynolds hints in the book – pop culture seems to go in cycles much like the economy. Growth through novelties. Unlimited progress. Forever young. Would’ve been great to read more about that in the book. About cycles rather than linear movements. Because that’s what really makes retromania interesting. If capitalism is going down the drain, so is pop culture.