With the recent release of his book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, veteran music critic Simon Reynolds has become something of a go-to guy for commentary on the recent wave of nostalgia that’s been sweeping across the pop landscape. The 90s are having a moment, as you may have heard, and one of the main reasons is the upcoming 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind, which has already been celebrated by Spin, is currently being celebrated by Rolling Stone, and later this month will be celebrated by organizers of England’s Reading Festival, when they screen, in full on the final day of this year’s fest, Nirvana’s famous 1992 performance on the very same grounds.
Reynolds had a piece published over at Slate yesterday, called, “Grunge Nostalgia: Why We Should Let Kurt Cobain Rest in Peace,” in which he argues that 1) our collective pining for the early 90s is being driven by an industry that’s nostalgic for, more than anything else, a time when rock was the dominant force in mainstream music, and 2) that if our obsession with the past continues, there will eventually be no new pasts to fetishize. He also touches on the notion that the internet (and its unique, scary ability to allow people to stay in their own highly specialized corners) is playing a role in phasing out the type of monocultural phenomena that can inspire widespread nostalgia. It’s required reading, to be sure, and there’s simply no way you’ll read a better closing paragraph all day, I promise.
There is one small problem with the piece, though, which admittedly doesn’t affect its larger points very much at all, but is still worth noting. As Reynolds digs into the affect all of this will have on the future of pop, he has this to say:
That is why it is so hard to see what, from the last dozen years or so of rock, could be the focus for future commemorative or revivalist impulses. Can you envisage the 20th anniversary of the Strokes’ debut album, or the White Stripes’s breakthrough LP, White Blood Cells, being celebrated? Spin will not be able to put either group on the cover under the legend “The Album That Changed Everything,” because neither record came close to Nevermind’s paradigm-shift. (Remember the droves of grunge-lite copyists like Silverchair and Bush? The undignified way that even superestablished bands like Metallica tried to de-metallicize their sound and image? How Axl Rose disappeared into a bunker of botched self-reinvention for 15 years?)
But if you think back to the early-00s, right after the Strokes and the White Stripes had their moment, you’ll remember a sudden uptick in copycat bands like The Hives, The Killers, and Jet—fairly obvious corollaries to Siverchair and Bush. If there wasn’t, to use Reynolds’ term, an “Epochal Self-Image” on par with what happened when Nevermind came out, well, there was at least something similar, albeit on a smaller scale. This may just be a matter of Reynolds reaching back a few years further than was really justifiable in trying to prove his otherwise salient point.
Many of you will of course also remember that on the very same day Spin released its track-by-track tribute to Nevermind, Stereogum gave the Strokes’ debut, Is This It, the same treatment. And you’ll note how easy it is to imagine the same thing happening in 2014 with Arcade Fire’s Funeral, or in 2019 with Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. It seems likely, then, that this is how nostalgia will work as we move deeper and deeper into the internet era: it will kick in sooner and for relatively small groups of people with a shared interest, and thus largely nowhere near the cover of any big glossy music magazines, should any of those still exist in the future.
One thing that hasn’t been touched on very much throughout recent discussions is the degree to which hip-hop has remained largely immune to the phenomenon. Carl Wilson mentioned it briefly in his outstanding Times piece, but I’m not sure I agree with his reasoning. “It’s hard to sentimentalize subjects like crack and the Rodney King riots,” he argues, and well, yes, that is definitely very true. But I think there’s something else at play too.
Hip-hop has been around for roughly 30 years, which puts it at the same point in its lifespan that rock and roll was at in the mid-80s, long before widespread nostalgia really took hold, when the very notion of looking back with wide-eyed reverence still seemed to fly in the face of everything the genre was supposed to be about in the first place. Enjoy it while you can, hip-hop fans. You’ve probably got about 15 years until it all comes crashing down, at which point you’ll find yourself reading an absurd amount of crap about how important Watch the Throne was.