In defence of pastiche and retromania

‘In a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.’ – Frederic Jameson

‘The twentieth century’s closing scenes having witnessed the apparent end of history rather begged the question of what on earth we were meant to do from now on. The same instability and uncertainty which has produced a loss of faith in political orthodoxies, and analytical paralysis in the face of a multiplicity alternatives, has also produced a splintered and disintegrated culture at a loss as to how to define itself and, given the apparent imminence of disaster, unconvinced that it’s worthwhile bothering to do so.’ – Rhian E Jones

I’ve been intending to write about vaporwave for some time, but I’m glad I have refrained from doing so until now, as two pieces I’ve recently read have led me to completely reassess my thoughts on the genre, and by extension what I believe to be the misunderstood role of what is commonly identified as pastiche and retromanic tendencies in modern music.

The first comes from the recently published update of Simon Reynolds’ book Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture. When discussing Zomby in the final chapter (new to the book’s 2013 revised edition), Reynolds digresses into a discussion of the apparent prevalence of genre pastiche in contemporary electronic music, saying that:

‘Making genre pastiches is a low-intensity activity that provides some of the satisfactions of art-making (the craft side, the technical challenges of getting a period sounds) without the more challenging and draining aspect (the spark of inspiration, the envisioning of something-new-under-the-sun).’[1]

I’ve long felt uneasy about Reynolds’ conception of what he terms retromania, or ‘pop culture’s addiction to its own past.’ But this passage has led me to reject Reynolds’ cynicism towards the concept, as I believe it to be based on a misunderstanding of the artistry and sincerity with which such a music is created, which leads me to the second piece I’ve recently read – Adam Harper’s recent follow-up to his excellent 2012 essay on Vaporwave for Dummy.

For those not familiar with the genre, its principles are evocatively laid out in Harper’s original article on the subject, especially in the opening paragraphs. Apologies for quoting at length, but it’s so great that I just have to include it all:

‘Global capitalism is nearly there. At the end of the world there will only be liquid advertisement and gaseous desire. Sublimated from our bodies, our untethered senses will endlessly ride escalators through pristine artificial environments, more and less than human, drugged-up and drugged down, catalysed, consuming and consumed by a relentlessly rich economy of sensory information, valued by the pixel. The Virtual Plaza welcomes you, and you will welcome it too.

This is the world broadcast in brutal high-definition by a new faction within underground art-pop that’s exploring the technological and commercial frontiers of 21st-century hyper-capitalism’s grimmest artistic sensibilities. Wearing manic caffeine grins or concealed enigmatically behind corporate muscle and mirror-shades (or both), musicians such as Fatima Al Qadiri, James Ferraro,Gatekeeper,INTERNET CLUB,New Dreams Ltd. and many more are performing the next step in techno-capitalism’s disturbing and disturbingly logical sequence. They let flow the music that lubricates Capital, open the door to a monstrously alienating sublime, twist dystopia into utopia and vice versa, and dare you not to like it.’

The 2013 follow-up essay, a revision – and in many ways a retraction – of the original article, contains one passage in particular that stands out to me, and has led me to radically alter my views on the genre:

‘Many of the people I’ve introduced [vaporwave] to personally have expressed the strongest disbelief that it could be a positive and sincere sound, but the incredible thing about vaporwave is it’s not emotionally or aesthetically detached, not superficially ironic. Who was I to imply that the work of these bold new producers wasn’t sincere?’

Like others, and like Harper himself has somewhat admitted, I had underestimated the importance of the sincerity of the producers to understanding the aesthetic they’ve developed. I was initially rather suspicious of the genre, for although the way in which the music ‘lets flow the music that lubricates Capital’ excited me, the ambiguity as to whether this ‘musical Capital’ is being celebrated or subverted kept me distanced from enjoying the music on a purely aesthetic level.

I had previously taken the view that the possibility of the architects of the genre simply just enjoying the aesthetic of Fukuyaman musical detritus negated any notion of the source material being subverted through its recontextualisation. But through Harper’s reassessment I’ve come to realise that its precisely the sincerity with which this is expressed that makes the music so vital and forward-thinking, rather than merely regressive, pastiche-laden and celebratory.

What’s more, I’ve also come to realise that stripping music of its context and retaining all that you find aesthetically enjoyable is a subversive act. It’s as close to a completely recuperation-proof detournement as it’s possible to get, as by definition there’s not really anything of substance in the music to recuperate in a way that diminishes the power of the artwork.

While not always as consciously as with vaporwave, this magpie-like plundering of disparate styles is the defining feature of contemporary music. While this should be an exciting way of expressing creativity in era of information saturation, it is often met with cynicism, if not outright derision. In Energy Flash, Reynolds goes on to express confusion at the concept behind Friendly Fires’ 2011 song ‘Live Those Days Tonight’ for the kaleidoscope of similar yet temporally distinct styles of dance music that intertwine in the song and accompanying video:

‘The music pastiched early-nineties house, but the lyrics opposed nostalgia and celebrated ‘going out dancing in 2011’, but that in turn was undercut by a video spliced together out of vintage rave footage. Huh?!?’[2]

The mistake here is neglecting the empowerment involved in appropriating styles that are appealing to the creator. That they invoke a temporal dissonance (an inauthenticity, even) for those who experienced or are aware of the source material is of no concern – it is simply not relevant for both the music’s creation and its consumption. As Scott Baldwin writes so lucidly in a recent article:

‘I’ll never forget a Brian Eno quote from the early 80s; “I don’t think you have to be a musician to make valid music.” I would add that I don’t believe you have to be a ‘producer’ to make valid tracks. I am now, and have always been, a champion of making new music out of pre-existing music. Remixing. Dub, hip-hop, house, chillwave. If it sounds good, I don’t give a fuck how much or how little work went into it.’

Furthermore, I would contend that the idea that the past is being fetishised (or even invoked, at least on an intentional level) in music that can be labelled retromanic is hugely overstated. Nobody, I believe, in the act of creation, is actually saying ‘I want to make music that sounds like it comes from 1989, 1992 and 2001 all at the same time’ (unless you’re Disclosure). In the case of Friendly Fires the music works because it’s based on an attitude of ‘if it sounds good, fuck it’ with no care or reverence for the sanctity of the styles it appropriates.

On a similar note, Channel 4 News ran an item last week about the apparent resurgence of 80s fashion and culture (tenuously tied to the publishing of previously classified Downing Street papers from 1983).

The piece hints towards the notion of young people appropriating aesthetic properties of bygone eras regardless of their original context, but I just don’t believe that young people give a shit what era their clothes are supposedly echoing – they just simply look good, and a pleasure is found in curating a distinct style. There’s no inherent properties of 80s culture that those interviewed enjoy, care about, or even know about. The overarching theme seems to be ‘this music sounds good to me now, in 2013. Do I care about its origin or its legacy? Not really’. No context necessary, no questions asked.

What is termed retromanic and regressive could easily be seen as iconoclastic and innovative. This is most explicitly apparent in the aforementioned vaporwave genre, which is, at its heart, the struggle to make music in the oppressive, claustrophobic cultural milieu of late capitalism taken to its logical conclusion. When buried in cultural debris, making something aesthetically valid out of its components seems a perfectly reasonable, logical, empowering response.

Granted, Reynolds’ previously-mentioned point about genre pastiche stems from a discussion of Zomby’s Where Were U in ’92? record, which if viewed superficially is as explicit an exercise in pastiche and retromania as you can get. However, despite the title and the overt allusions to dance music of days gone by, the record fits perfectly with the desire to appropriate rather than regress, so it’s unfortunate that Zomby’s record should be dismissed as pastiche. As jonny mugwump writes in his review of the album for The Quietus:

‘Every texture and every nuance is immediately recognisable, an instant memory rush. But, far from being a facsimile, it all ends up sounding a bit well, weird. Zomby treats rave the way early Young Gods treated metal. All the sound sources are perfect but it’s put together in a way that could only have been now. It’s not quirky or jerky, each song rolls and flows and punches the air but somehow what should feel like pastiche seems a million miles ahead of the aforementioned Malice [in Wonderland, a record discussed earlier in the article]’

The to key seeing the underlying aesthetic of all the music discussed here as more than retromanic is in understanding that this creativity cannot be based on nostalgia, because for young people today there is no such thing as the past or the future, which Reynolds nails in Retromania and Energy Flash respectively.

No past:

‘The presence of the past in our lives has increased immeasurably and insidiously. Old stuff either directly permeates the presents, or lurks just beneath the surface of the current…We’ve become so used to this convenient access that it is a struggle to recall that life wasn’t always like this; that relatively recently, one lived most of the time in a cultural present tense, with the past confined to specific zones, trapped in particular objects and locations. Our relationship to time and space in this YouTubeWikipediaRapidshareiTunesSpotify era has been utterly transformed. Distance and delay have been eroded away to nearly nothing.’[3]

No future:

‘What [I call] NOW!-ism is a version of the attitude that’s been plastered all across popular culture in the 2010s and recently crystallized in the slogan YOLO: ‘you only live once’…It’s pure rave, this spirit of living for the apocalyptic now, and the fact that it’s been mainstreamed at a time of financial crash and chronic unemployment makes sense in so many ways. Because the other side of the YOLO coin is NO FUTURE. Maybe young people are partying like there’s no tomorrow because it feels like there is no tomorrow. When there’s not even shitty jobs around or when (if you managed to get to college) you leave university saddled with student debt and unable to get on the first rung of the career ladder leading to even a basic conventional life of marriage, house, kids… it’s really hard to construct a positive mental image of the future.'[4] [5]

I agree with Reynolds here, so it’s a shame he seems to view the music made under such conditions with a degree of cynicism and negativity, rather than seeing it as a desperate shot at creativity in an environment where none seems possible (or at least worthwhile).

In my view, music stripped of its context, mined for its aesthetic essence and reshaped to produce something new is perfect for the cultural climate of today. Music that so firmly expresses NOW so vehemently is as exciting, vital, and above all prescient as music gets.

A vaporwave(ish) selection

MACINTOSH PLUS – リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー

The user comments below the video are just perfect, and fit right in to all I’ve discussed:

‘wat is the point, i like it i just have no clue’

‘I feel like I’m stuck in a purgatory that has taken the form of a mall.’

‘Does this song even need meaning? Is meaning even necessary if just the sound of the music is enough to make you feel good?’

‘if vaporwave is recycled cultural trash then i wholeheartedly support the recycling of cultural trash into weird ass music. there is nothing better to listen to when you’ve stopped caring about everything lol’


Real Player 7 – Push

Oneohtrix Point Never – Nobody Here

James Ferraro – Memory Theater

[1] Simon Reynolds, Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture (London: Faber and Faber, 2013), p.708

[2] Ibid, p.709 

[3] Simon Reynolds, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), p.56-8 

[4] Simon Reynolds, Energy Flash, p.727

[5] Reynolds goes on to discuss Ke$ha here; there’s a great article written by Robin James that looks at Ke$ha’s music and the cultural logic of YOLO that’s well worth a read (and is also intertwined with more thoughts from Reynolds).