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Page last updated at 07:15 GMT, Thursday, 2 June 2011 08:15 UK
Is 'retromania' stifling pop culture?

By Holly Wallis
Today programme

What David Bowie and Lady Gaga might look like on stage together
Lady Gaga modelled her quirky image on David Bowie's 70s glam look

Is an obsession with past glories stifling pop culture? Here are 10 reasons why it might be.

We live in an age of pop culture that is "loco for retro" and "crazy for commemoration," according to journalist Simon Reynolds, author of Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction To Its Own Past.

But how long can this nostalgia boom last? Reynolds explains why we could be heading for a cultural catastrophe, when "the seam of pop history is exhausted" and there is nothing left to copy.


Sporting dresses made entirely out of beef and actively looking for a Bad Romance, it is no secret that the flamboyant American singer Lady Gaga is looking for attention. Yet the secret to her spectacle may not be as original as first meets the eye.

Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga: Pop's glam goddess pays tribute to her influences

"She's very media savvy, very culturally savvy. She's knows all about glam rock and she's picking up on the history of shock: people like David Bowie and Alice Cooper," Reynolds explains.

"The cleverest thing she ever did was creating that rumour of being a hermaphrodite. David Bowie said he was bisexual, so she takes it to the next level of glam rock.

"But the music at the end of the day hasn't moved on."


Some would call "mash-up" a bastardised genre. This is because, as Reynolds suggests, it involves slicing together two or more previously recorded songs. "It's head of dog on body of chicken."

Pie and mash
Are mashups nothing more than "digital-data-grey pulp"?

It was popular in the mid-2000s, with artists like 2 Many DJs, who crush-collided the music of Salt N Pepa and The Stooges, among many others.

"Mash-ups mash the history of pop like potatoes, into indistinct, digital-data-grey pulp, a blood-sugar blast of empty carbohydrate energy, flavour-less and devoid of nutritional value."

"This is a barren genre - nothing will come from it. Not even a mash-up."


Retromania can come in the most surprising forms and Reynolds describes his puzzlement at the transformation of gritty singer Plan B.

Plan B performs on stage at The BRIT Awards 2011
Plan B: Reborn soul-man

Once found performing songs about psychopaths on the grime scene, this seemingly hard act turned his attention to soul.

"He used to play alongside the likes of Dizzee Rascal. And the next thing I know is he has this Motown-style album - who knew he could sing?"

Phil Collins had a huge hit in the 1980s with You Can't Hurry Love, previously a hit in the 60s for The Supremes. "We're having another iteration today with Plan B, Adele, Duffy and Amy Winehouse. It just shows you can have a re-revival."


The BBC's decision to rerun vintage episodes of Top of the Pops is a prime example of our penchant for past times.

Rather than cherry-picking repeats of the most memorable performances, BBC Four is giving viewers the chance to watch whole episodes from 1976.

Our Kid on Top of the Pops in 1976
Owzabouthatthen? Our Kid was just one of the delights of TOTP

"On one level it's very interesting and shows you how much rubbish, middle-of-the-road stuff there was apart from all the punk, which didn't really affect TOTP.

"It'd be really odd if you could go back in time and tell people in the 70s that we're watching these episodes. They wouldn't be able to understand why anyone was interested."


Award-winning English electropop duo La Roux have enjoyed instant success, recently taking home a Grammy for their debut album, Quicksand.

La Roux
La Roux's Eleanor Kate Jackson: Folkie-in-waiting?

But for Reynolds, its striking, red-headed singer Eleanor Kate Jackson has an even more synthetic feel.

"There's a quote from La Roux recently that really cracked me up, 'cos I thought it was pretty cheeky of her.

"She said, '80s synth pop is so over, it was my thing and I'm bored of it. If I see anything more (that's) 80s-themed I'm going to bust,' which I just thought was a bit unnerving.

"I wonder what she's going to do now? Write folk music or something?"


Everyone has a favourite album, but can nostalgia ever go too far?

Simon Reynolds believes it can. "One trend of retromania is the album covers thing, where someone doesn't just cover the song, but the whole album."

Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips performs at the 2008 VH1 Awards
In the pink: The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne

Probably the most high-profile example is The Flaming Lips' reproduction of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.

"It seems a curious thing to do to cover the whole of someone's album - every single song. I really wonder why a band as talented as the Flaming Lips would do that?

"There's a certain romance about retromania in music… I'm just puzzled how it ended up like this."


Music is not the only thing that gets trapped in the past - movies are not far behind. You do not have to look far to find a remake of an old classic, or the resurrection of a period drama.

Janet Leigh in Psycho
Janet Leigh in the original Psycho: Gus Van Sant's remake was not highly rated

Most extreme perhaps is Gus Van Sant's conceptual cover of Hitchcock's horror film Psycho.

"He did it shot by shot. He actually recreated every shot - doing the same camera angles and everything. I thought - wow, what a lot of trouble you've gone to.

"But why? What does it add to the world?"


Sometimes, acts choose a range of eras and genres for their palette.

"One of my favourite musicians is Ariel Pink - and he uses a real jumble of past music. He has 60s psychedelia, 80s MTV pop, 70s soft rock like Fleetwood Mac. He describes it as retrolicious."

Ariel Pink
Ariel Pink: Master armpit player

The LA-based recording artist produces and plays almost all of his own music, and is noted for creating drum sounds using his mouth and sometimes his armpits.

"He goes to a lot of trouble to make records that suggest a particular period. Every era of music has a sort of date stamp and he's adept at jumbling those codes."


Musicians' identities seem to be increasingly linked to their influences.

Mumford and Sons are an English folk rock band who have gained popularity throughout 2010, appearing on US network television in December.

Mumford and Sons perform at the 2001 BRIT Awards ceremony
Mumford and Sons wear their influences on their sleeves

"These guys mystify me.

"It just seems like the Antiques Road Show of music. This stuff was already revived in the 60s, and again in the 90s. It's the third or fourth go-round for blue-grass - they call it Americana."

Whatever your thoughts on Mumford and Sons, they certainly have roots in the past.

"If it was rooted in British folk you might understand, but apparently it was inspired by them watching a Coen Brothers sound track so there's something about it that makes it even more removed."


And some artists even get retromania over their own work.

Van Morrison performed and recorded his whole album, Astral Weeks, at LA's Hollywood Bowl in 2008.

Van Morrison at the 2005 Glastonbury Festival
Van Morrison performed his album Astral Weeks at the Hollywood Bowl

"Astral Weeks is one of the masterpieces of rock. Lots of people would almost see it as a sacred work. But he did it again in perfect sequence. So there's this terrible version called Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl, which is just really tawdry."

And this "whole album" phenomenon is a huge trend, with many older bands reforming and re-recording.

"Having said that, I now live in LA, and if he had done it while I was there I might very well have gone, because it's Van Morrison."

Do think pop music is stuck on repeat? Which are your favourite artists who hark back to a bygone age? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook or using the form below.

Yeah, and our local orchestra plays Beethoven every year, can you figure it? Maybe some stuff is worth hearing again.
Joe, Birmingham, UK

Music by its very nature is not infinite. There are only a finite number of notes, and a finite number of combinations of those notes. Given that many of those combinations sound awful, there is a limited number of melodies that can be written. Don't you find yourself today when you hear a new song saying "that sounds a lot like...". Eventually uniqueness will be impossible, and hence song writers of today take the easy path and just mash up stuff they have heard before.
Robbie, Bournemouth

Music used to be exciting because so much was fresh and new. No more. There are no great new riffs - just forgettable ones - no exciting new sounds. No original new melodies. No exciting new identities. just rehashes of old ones. The X Factor eneration has taken over. Frightening thought - has everything that can be done, now been done?
Alan Merricks, Oxted England

I have never heard such a load of rubbish in my entire life. It's insulting to those producing music today, as there are many artists producing a vast array of music. Never has music been as diverse as it is now. Invariably this means that there will be some music that sounds like a throwback to a bygone era, (and I don't see why this is a bad thing) but there is a constant stream of new music which is completely unlike anything heard before.
Ian, Newcastle

The more things change the more they stay the same.... a good song is timeless. I remember a song by the The Coral "Dreaming of You" and Mark Radcliffe commented that this song could have been released any time in the last 40 years and would have been a hit.
Darren P, Leeds

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