Never before have we been so obsessed with our immediate past. The questions “what is retro?” and “why are we into retro?” are being reopened, as innovation takes a little break to browse around in second-hand stores.
For many people ‘retro’ itself is old hat. Which of course it is in a way – by definition. So why talk about it in a forum dedicated to innovation? Never before in history has there been a society so obsessed with the cultural products of its own immediate past. This thesis is advanced by Simon Reynolds, a British cultural theorist and prominent music journalist who is somewhat of a celebrity in his profession. A contributor to leading publications like The New York Times, Village Voice, Spin, The Guardian, Rolling Stone and The Wire, Reynolds’ book on our consumer culture’s retro craze has gained the attention of Germany’s Arts-section newspaper columnists. While the book mainly examines pop music, his argument appears relevant as a debate-starter in all areas of Western culture, as the New Musical Express points out.
Reynolds says music and fashion are quintessentially ephemeral pursuits. Soundtracks and actors’ clothing heavily stamp movies as being from the particular time of their release – just think of Melanie Griffith’s hairstyle in Working Girl, for example. Styles are sometimes deliberately employed to create a historical framework, like in Back to the Future (1985), where Marty McFly’s 1980s Nike shoes are projected into the future as hi-tech, self-drying sneakers, and when he travels back in time to the 1950s, his down vest is thought to be a life jacket.
In the age of retromania, such clear temporal demarcations no longer seem possible. Fashion designers Anna Sui and Marc Jacobs are now recycling the styles of a decade before it’s even over; cinemas are running remakes of former blockbusters, retro computer games are a big hit, and so are retro food, retro musicals, retro advertising, retro interior design, and so on. Looking back at the past decade, Reynolds now inquires: Is our culture so nostalgic because there’s nothing new anymore, or is there nothing new because we have become so nostalgic?
Reynolds believes media consumption habits and distribution channels (YouTube, MP3 for iPod) are behind this retro mania. And he is concerned that we have fallen victim to our ever-increasing ability to save, organize, immediately access and share vast quantities of cultural data. It is a curious paradox that technical progress and digitalization compel us to look into the past, employing our iPods like a time machine, or oldies radio station. Reynolds thinks hipsters are the biggest retro freaks. Formerly pioneers and innovators, they have now become curators and archivists who prefer to venture no further than their own record collection. Yet this observation has in some way to do with the author Reynolds himself, as digital time travel can also be a fun, creative and exploratory way of studying cultural material. The author must be aware that there is no escaping digital culture at this point, and he clarifies that his retromania theory should not be understood as postulating some kind of decline or regression. After all, as a pop-culture writer he is part of retro culture, admitting that at home he spends hours watching YouTube rockumentaries.
Why is the retro trend so enduringly popular? Does retro mean putting innovation on standby? Or being satisfied with what you have, so you no longer reach for the stars? No it doesn’t. For retro is carried by an inherently progressive force, as it is a cultural ‘side effect’ of digital progress. In the midst of the innovation process, retro allays consumers’ fear of digital progress by harking back to ‘better times’. The function of retro in a coolly technological, digitalized world is obvious – to generate the warmth we need to incorporate our past and the human element into this unfamiliar world of tomorrow. The iPhone app ‘8mm Vintage Camera ” for example allows shooting video in a retro style. The image is blurred, overexposed and flickers. Some 25 effects are available for simulating the look of different decades. Even big brands and products are going retro, referring back to their own history or ‘glory days’ of the company or industry. Lufthansa, for example, has applied a retro-look paintjob to some of its fleet in a move to establish continuity in an industry greatly concerned with safety and confidence.
The age of sampling is now unfolding at top speed. Pre-existing content is being recombined and refined. And this impacts consumer behavior. Consumers nowadays are more aware of what suits their personal taste and like to mix fragments from the cultural archive to suit their preferences. The interesting thing about retro culture is that it is only concerned with the relatively recent past. In an article appearing in the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung Oliver Herwig elaborates on how our young digital culture generates retro products like the Motorola Razr, a recent design classic now revisited in a no-features mobile phone called “Gleam” that can only be used for calling. “The good things of yesterday are back with us,” writes Herwig, “Like old friends they reappear in our lives, saying they were only away for a little while” – which makes clear how the new waves of retro differ from nostalgia or fixations on ‘vintage’ or antiques.
Whatever is retro is constantly changing (which is why it’s wrong to think the clothes you just sorted out might come right back into vogue soon). Herwig says that retro products, “show us that human beings are behind all the hyper-modern technology we have today. Retro relieves our fear of life’s accelerating pace, the fear of not being able to keep up with the world or being old at age 40.” Small wonder then that the technology and telecommunications industries are now discovering retro. Though Reynolds expresses concern about how what a revival of a revival might look like and if that’s even possible, the current retro fascination is mainly about enthusiastically exploring our cultural heritage using nearly unlimited data storage capacity and easily accessible communication channels in a creative, sophisticated and productive way.