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Visiting Artist Simon Reynolds Talks Punk, Grime, Pop & Visual Arts

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Simon Reynolds is coming to the Corcoran as a Visiting Artist to meet students and is giving a public talk on April 23 (register now). In part I of his Unveiled interview, he talks about punk, grime, and the connection between pop music and the visual arts.

Simon Reynolds

Photo: Joy Press

What was your first musical love?

My first musical love would be things I heard through my parents, so Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, musicals like High Society and West Side Story. And things heard off the radio like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Yellow Submarine.” The first musical love I made for myself, though, would be punk—specifically, the Sex Pistols, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, X Ray Spex, the Slits.


 What’s the difference between listening as a fan and listening as a critic?

I’ve been doing it as a critic for so long I’m not sure I can remember. I was listening like a critic before I actually was one, because I was such an ardent reader of the British music press and already half-knew that’s what I was going to be when I grew up. As far as I can tell, the main difference is that you listen not just for pleasure but always with the formation of new ideas as a goal. You want the music not just to satisfy but to give you new thoughts and new sensations. So this inevitably creates a bias, a distortion of sensibility.

For instance whenever I have written really rampantly about a new form of music—like, say, grime in the early 2000s, at a certain point I’ll have said everything I’m capable of saying on the subject. Unless the music keeps moving ever onwards, it won’t be able to stimulate new ideas in me. Most genres settle down after a while—even the most exciting and fast-moving ones can’t sustain that pace forever.

A critic—or at least critic of the kind I am—is always looking for the next leap forward, the new development.

People who are just fans, who purely enjoy the genre, will probably stick around longer than a critic-obsessive. But for someone like me, the way I’m wired, I will want to move on. It may well be that genre continues to generate quality tunes, but if the broader contours of the genre or scene aren’t evolving or mutating, then there’s nothing more to say about it. So that is kind of occupational hazard or limitation—that you are not that interested in genres, or individual artists for that matter, who just solidly plug away churning out good-to-great stuff. A critic—or at least critic of the kind I am—is always looking for the next leap forward, the new development. Because it forces your mind to come up with new ideas, new language.

How has technology (LPs vs. MP3s, studio vs. laptop, whatever) changed the way we experience music?

A book could be written about this subject. Well, books have been. And indeed my book Retromania is partly about that. The short answer is that listening has become a lot more convenience-oriented. Our ability to move it around, pause and restart it, share it, make playlists of it, acquire it, check it out without paying for it, has astronomically increased, through mp3s, iPods, Soundcloud, Youtube, etc etc. But something of its aura has been damaged; it has been depreciated, like a currency that’s too common. The idea of the album as a whole work that you reverently listen to, an aesthetic experience that you submit to—that is something that you have to make a really conscious effort to recreate. Especially if you’re listening on the same machine that you also access the internet, social media, etc, on. The temptation is always to multitask and do something else while you listen. Partial-attention syndrome.

Any observations on the link between music and the visual arts?

Again, books have been written, etc. A very good one is Simon Frith and Howard Horne’s Art Into Pop, which is all about the British art school tradition of forming bands. And I explore the same kind of connections in my own books like Rip It Up and Start Again, about postpunk, where so many of those groups, in the UK and in America, were formed by art school graduates. Ian Dury is a great example of this—a pupil of Peter Blake (of Sgt. Pepper’s cover fame), Dury did art teaching himself in his pre-fame days.

Music—or at least pop music—is a visual art in itself.

However I would flip the question and argue that music—or at least pop music—is a visual art in itself. The instances of popular youth music that are purely about the music are quite rare instances—even Deadhead culture, which would seem to be not very style oriented, has a lot to do with light shows and trippy colors (not forgetting the whole tie-dye thing). But specifically in terms of capital A “Art,” pop music has always been as much about clothes, stage moves, theatricality, spectacle… about packaging, album covers, posters, T-shirts, logos, promotional campaigns … about videos and films too.

Pop is a messy hybrid of music, visuals, lyrics, business, discourse. In the early decades of pop and rock, pop stars usually had teams of experts providing these elements: a group would have favorite photographers, or fashion designers they worked with, promo directors, graphic artists doing the logo and the album covers. Groups that took a very active and informed direct involvement in directing all of that were quite unusual—the David Bowies and Roxy Musics and Talking Heads. However as the years have gone by it’s more and more the case that bands involve themselves intensely in all the para-musical aspects of the band. Look at a group like Vampire Weekend, who design their own record covers and clearly have firm opinions about typography and such like. The new DIY artists in underground music often create the whole package themselves—the music, but also the record covers and the little abstract or weird promos they put on YouTube. I guess the software used in all these processes is not only affordable, but the skills required are transferable.


Reynolds is the author of seven books about music and pop culture, including “Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past”  (Faber & Faber, 2011), “Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-84″ (Faber & Faber, 2005),  “Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture,” (reissued in updated form 2012 by Soft Skull; originally published in America as “Generation Ecstasy: Into The World of Techno and Rave Culture,” Little Brown 1998).

In part II of this interview, Reynolds talks about David Bowie, DIY, and graphic design, so stay tuned.