or the rest of 2005, Stylus will be presenting a series of two to three essays each month in the Pop Playground section centered around an idea or theme related to music. These questions will be open-ended, allowing each writer to make of the subject what they will and to explore it more fully than they might do in a normal review or feature. This month: Nostalgia.
So I look up to the sky / And I wonder what it'll be like in days gone by / As I sit and bathe in the wave of nostalgia for an age yet to come”
“But I remember the future used to be better / Do you remember? The future used to be better”
“Men first feel necessity, then look for utility, next attend to comfort, still later amuse themselves with pleasure, thence grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad and waste their substance”
– Giambattista Vico
Ryoji is keeping me awake; a Siamese cat with a palette of yowls, scrawks, and shrieks to rival any Matthew Herbert record, his murderous, jackknife-throated, jackboot-Fascistic temper in this heat induces in me colorful feline-hickory-smoked BBQ fantasies that may or may not keep me awake long after said sine wave-emulator in furry form wears himself out. I named him after Japanese sound-artist Ryoji Ikeda after our first three days of life together, a single 72 hour marathon shriek that helped acquaint me with the resonant acoustic properties of the cavities and chambers in my own skull; before his feral protestations took on any referential meaning. Since then I have come to understand some of the morphological kibbles of his Siamese mewing (proving out to some degree that Ikeda’s own desired context-less-ness in his music at best succeeds as only a temporary condition—live with any sound and it will become part of the vocabulary of your emotional world, like it or not). I admit I would miss the noise in his absence—I may also miss the cat urine odors and bite marks on my arms, furniture scarred and home recordings marred. But then Charles Simic once waxed nostalgic over WWII: “My mother, brother, and I were being escorted at gunpoint and on foot from one prison to another. At some point we walked past an apple orchard, and our guard let us stop to pick some apples. Not a care in the world. Munching the apples and chatting with the guard.” As age adds another layer of reference, another set of un-revisable actions, parents and friends gone, opportunities lost—and an evolved sensitivity to the passing of time, such that emotional self-awareness causes us to distance ourselves from every moment as it is lived, placing ourselves perpetually in a future where every lived event will be another item in a catalog of sepia-toned archived moments—it seems we can get all bleary-eyed and wistful over any old thing.
We speak of aging
music. Aging music: it doesn’t change, wrinkle, bloat, shit itself, or cultivate Lymphoma. Yet we can routinely identify music that does not age well. And consider Burt Bacharach—whose music aged so not-well that once, all of a sudden, it began aging exceedingly well. What does this say about the way we age in relation to the music? Music-yapping is not precise. But the words we use should tell us something about what we care about, and what the culture industry that packages music wants us to care about, or recognizes that we care about. And what we tell ourselves we care about shapes what we allow ourselves to care about. My inconclusive survey of nostalgic reference in music criticism (yielding neither qualitatively nor quantitatively sound conclusions and not reprinted for your perusal) has indicated that: “derivative” is bad; “re-inventive” is good; “nostalgia” (e.g. blatant reproduction of past forms) is bad; “nostalgia” (e.g. acknowledgement and blatant reproduction of past forms, depending on the day of the week) is good. The way we value the past, regardless of whether modernity, post-modernity, primitivism, or what-have-you happens to be in the production values of the music, seems to come down to who’s using and who’s pushing. And why.
Deriving from the Greek nostos
(essentially, homesickness), nostalgia is a part of the cultural lexicon, overused and spent, and descriptive only to the degree that when someone writes “nostalgic” we only know that some thing is allegedly having something to do with something that happened longer ago then this morning.
What do you call homesickness when it is someone else’s home stuck in your sick sights? What is homesickness when home is a clip-art collage you’d prefer to live in? What is homesickness when home seemed different this morning and you can’t seem to get back? I don’t know that anybody else stays up nights worrying over the distinction between the way music is used in the evocation of both lived and imagined experiences in its audiences, trifling over the semantics of memory within the context of pop music, but then nobody else has to sleep in the same house with my cat. At 3:00 am Ryoji is concerned about the way cultural memory is sentimentally manipulated in service of fashion and commerce. I humor him. This happens routinely. I’m on pills.
M Ward made a record recently, a good record, called Transistor Radio
. It has some good songs, theatrical production, and a lilting tenor. Ward maybe overused that band-pass filter that gates out the bottom and middle frequencies so everything sounds like it’s coming out of an old radio, to impart a sense of antique distance to some of the songs…but then again the whole acknowledged conceit of the LP is that it was a concept record of sorts, in tribute to the self-same radio-nostalgia. It is illuminating to watch a sappy-but-workable conceit at the heart of a song-cycle translate into a heap of reviews that value the record based on a literal, almost mystical interpretation of its central metaphor. But this is not uncommon. One review describes Transistor Radio
as “crafted not simply from folk and bluegrass but also 50’s AM radio [presumably the aesthetic entirety of a decade’s worth of transmissions?
], the saloon cabaret of studio-era Hollywood.” I admit to being woefully under-informed when it comes to “saloon cabaret” but I know that both “saloons” and “cabarets” are powerful thematic evocations of a monochromatic, amusement park, tintype yesteryear. I understand this trope, though it don’t make a lick of sense. Eschewing the economy of the aforementioned review (which attributed only a decade’s
worth of recorded music to M Ward’s palette, another review tells us that Ward is “content letting the spirit of centuries past play his backing band”; it is stylistically vulgar and heavy-handed to overemphasize the point but: “centuries
past”—for real. A third review tells us that “for all its historical reverence and authenticity, Ward never lets Transistor Radio
become buried in novelty retro conceptualism.” The Bush campaign was counseled to build campaign rhetoric around words like integrity
and other positive-context words so saturated as to have little real meaning; ‘authenticity,’ one of “those words,” my favorite of “those words,” is like that. And one notices after watching these things turn long enough, that authenticity
happens to be the fulcrum upon which every good nostalgia trip swings. When is “historical reverence” novelty and when is it not? At any rate, it is clear that these good-hearted reviewers had no ‘specific’ 50’s AM radio memories in mind, no specific “centuries past,” because we are in a territory where good things, authentic
things, are based entirely on a set of values that are merely ‘not of the present’; some old things thrown in a burlap sack together, and that is all that is important. Shorthand criticism for manipulative, reductive devices.
Mary Shelley’s romantic mystification of electrical phenomena is alive and well. There are artistic and investigative communities of people devoted to the exploration of Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), the electro-psychic channeling and mining of the voices of the dead via radio waves. I don’t know if a week goes by that I don’t see the radio represented as a time-traveling, ghost-funneling transmitter in music criticism, and there is a reason for this: it works. It taps into something very deeply held about the lived experience people have with their music. The older the recording, the more clarion it rings. A voice from ‘beyond’ has instant gravity, it stops you…dead…reminds you that you will be (dead). It must have been wonderful and terrifying for the first generation of people who began hearing recordings from the voices of the deceased. It is not a jump to trace every little twinge of nostalgia to this slightly sublimated apprehension of mortality.
And you can bank on the fact that what resonates as a metaphor for understanding music will eventually become a canned technique used by producers to push on those emotional buttons repeatedly, turning one subtle gear in the mechanics of how music means
into a sentimental sledgehammer; turning us into so many teary-eyed rats in a cage. Digital music workstations have scores of Edison-reel VST plugins, “telephone vocal” equalizer pre-sets; the ‘phenomenological distance-fetish’ works and it works so often, so effectively, it’s a plugin: literally, a preconceived, canned, mass-produced artistic gesture drawing on the idea
of specificity (lost) for its power and resonance. Unutterably contrived, and uncommonly effective.
The problem is that the turns and tricks of nostalgia, while good at reinforcing the transitory nature of our lives, are not so good at giving us the tools to deal with pulsing, living organisms and their transactions and conversations. It’s not so good at allowing us to live in our skins. Nostalgia enshrines life, but not does not respect the living. There is no conflict in nostos, the messages in the songs of yesterday are too often lost and disregarded, frozen into the folds of kitsch, inflected with the ‘big themes’ of retrospect eras; the individual desires that formed them all sepia’d out. Hysteria loses its face and its game within the tinted photo-montages of nostalgia. Faces only serve nostalgia when they are whitewashed into faux-universality. The past (and its pop leavings) are rendered untouchable and outside of discussion and our own places in the performer-audience contract as listeners is replaced by a time-travelling fictional stand-in; we become spectators rather than participants in our own listening experience. That’s the problem with the sentimentalizing impulses of nostalgia, they put music outside of dialog with the present, recast it as a collection of historical artifacts, more icons than community-fueled particles in a continuum. Master a song with a cheap trick and you have it: the readymade ghosts of Lake Wobegon days brunching on old-timey lemonade-and-apple pie sentimentality that seals the past in a golden frame and privileges admiration over participation; I call that a front-porch-good-time clamp on the lid of conversation. In its idylls, Robert Johnson becomes a simple Gump-like gimp, a dusty troubadour rather, than the sharp-dressing, blinged-out cosmopolitan entertainer he was. Nostalgic sentiment all too often re-presents its artifacts as an antidote to modern-times, usually to serve as rallying cries for an audience of self-defined anachronisms.
"Nostalgia inevitably reappears as a defense mechanism in a time of accelerated rhythms of life and historical upheavals"
– Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia
There is memory and there is nostalgia. I think of memory as a steadily expanding account of the past. And nostalgia is how memory feels, a real and vital sensation that connects us with our past, culturally and personally. In the personal, felt experience of nostalgia, the provocation of memory-sensations, there is almost always conflict. It is nearly-impossible to describe feelings I have about the past, even to myself. Nostalgia, in my private life, has no authoritative position—therein lies the force of its impact. It is a sensation really, and that’s that. But then there is this other, public
life that nostalgia has—as a subject, an object, and a tool—that troubles me. The public life of nostalgia is a hungry, transitive, moralizing Puritan one: life was better in the golden age
. The problem with the golden age is of course that is fiction. This is no insight, but it seems to bear repeating in the music industry. Perhaps because to admit this does damage to the logic of proven demography (that the music of any given era is not reducible to your memories of it); this is bad for both business and the way we personally sentimentalize the gardens of our listened past. The ‘golden age’ narrative does a disservice to the histories it transforms and shrink-wraps. And shrink-wrapped memories are kitsch: pink and fuzzy or not. The songs on Billboard collections are not kitsch, but the collections are.
Remembering music and remembering experience are very different acts. Clearly we need both. After Sep 11th, 2001, Williamsburg, Brooklyn turned temporarily into an escape-club disaster after-party in a nostalgia-fueled re-fashioned mishmash of the elements that its mostly twenty/thirty-something hipster inhabitants chose to rescue from their 80’s pasts. Club Luxx became overnight a hot-pink potpourri of trucker-hat-t-shirt-writing-on-white-trash chic-ster, Pat Benatar-coiffed, New Order/ESG/Liquid Liquid/Gang of Four-spinning partygoers. Prior to the terrorist attacks, 80’s dance-club nostalgia nights at places like The Culture Club stank embarrassingly of after-hours public accountants and their nostalgic pining for Regan-era preppy-bad-boy values. And then the floodgates opened. Everybody needed the same comfort food at the same time. The post-terror-NYC music scene’s acquisition of the signifiers of the 80’s was a release from the taut post-trauma anxieties from which there were very few moments of reprieve in the back-to-work-back-to-the-mall routine. We played dress up (with our bodies and our music) and found a way to take ourselves (and our anxieties) a little less seriously for a while. As Erik Davis notes, interviewed on the Shovelware
blog, “we turn to adolescence to recover a sense of self, of an earlier nexus of possibility. At the same time, by reveling in the goofiness of the anachronisms we can remind ourselves that all those dreams were a bit misplaced.”
Marketing departments have a different motivation.
Following the public sanctioning of the compressed era, this 80s stew became attractively appropriable territory for the music scene to mine, initially with interesting results. But several years down the road nostalgic quasi-kitsch signplay has become self-serious fashion “earnest kitsch,” and we’re left with late-latecomer, major-label-acquisition-of-the-fad, 3rd generation “electro-clash” bands like The Bravery and The Killers (arguing embarrassingly about who was the more authentic innovator, the first out of the starting gate).
Somewhere along the line in all of the Gang Of Four/Wire- “influenced” namedropping bands (influenced by the bands influenced by the bands influenced by Gang of Four, sounding typically more like the Bunnymen or Romeo Void than Wire) complicated ironies became pure kitsch, and naïve fashion; now totally removed from the source, the source music was rendered irrelevant, and the fact that these influences were never popular in the mainstream to begin with, born of political unrest and commercial resistance, was a trifling detail. Surface emluation was, for a time, desirable; depth of field, passé. If the disco beats in the post-punk scene were, back-in-the-day a reaction against what was considered to be a vapid, mainstream party music, some bands like Liars maintained the sentiments of their inspirational sources—others did not. Killers/Bravery are prime examples (if easy targets) of how nostalgia appropriates for cheap sentiment and discards the heart and flesh of its acquisitions as irrelevant. For a few hooks, this is what we lose. I have nothing against hooks and nothing against openly derivative works. But if these new de-clawed “post-punk” pop singles didn’t parade in post-punk’s brooding and “dangerous” hot pants, by name, I might be more tolerant of them. I comfort myself with the firm belief that both bands will age in pop history’s estimations about as well as the Stray Cats or Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, because these are the cheap fabulists of cultural memory—cartooning the past for a cheap thrill and a single based on established demographic territories (would that cultural history would be as unkind to Wynton Marsalis, Eric Clapton and John Williams).
Most revivalist rockstars, when it is suggested that they might derive from other sources, recoil and protest: We’d never even heard Joy Division before
. Interesting, that. On the one hand pop music relies on its well-constructed historical taxonomy of cool-nodes to maintain its self-importance. But on the other hand it is fueled by the at-odds, but equally important, need for its values to remain based in timelessness, newness, membership in the illusive cult of originality
(there is another one of “those words”). So which is it? A tough place for rockstars to navigate these days, what with all that ‘history’ nonsense. We’re not historians, we’re rockstars (except when historical milestones win brownie points on a press release). Authenticity is an ever more shiftily moving target. And after all if our harmonic vocabularies have not evolved all that much in pop music, and we’re not making leaps and bounds in terms of standard instrumentation over the last 50 years, the whole concept of retrogression becomes rather unimportant and laughable from 40,000 feet anyway. Must good music really be premised on having something new or relevant to say anyway? And relevance to whom?
While it’s relatively easy to dismiss the fireside warmth of nostalgia entirely as “false consciousness”, and I would like to wrap up a neat little thesis on the whole pet-peeving mess, it’s not so easy: always the public versus the personal getting in the way. We are creatures of memory and longing. Those very personal nostalgic emanations, the ones un-conscripted by VH1, motivate a cultivation of past meanings and informing traditions that would in their absence be a great gaping wound in the development of art. Nostalgia is as much a motivator of creative progress and historical continuity as it is a potential eraser. If nostalgia tends to consolidate and replace the past with a current agenda, if sometimes naïve, this is not always a shameful thing. Re-imagination of the past can be a creative and resuscitative act.
Who am I to talk? As a very young teenager I was terminally, embarrassingly, irretrievably Goth (of the most theatric, romantic, and easy-to-laugh-at variety). Velvet gloves, eyeliner, lacy cravats, bows in my hair, combat boots, slave bracelets. My hobbies and interests, like my fashion, had no specific historical agenda. Duchamp was as in-play for me as Baudelaire as John Cage as Throbbing Gristle as Gerard Manley Hopkins as Swans; the important factor, growing up shy and awkward poor trash in a small Midwestern city, was to define a territory of difference, pretending to take control of how fucked and fucked off you were. As far as I was concerned, in the past everybody was better, smarter, and more sensitive (just like me!) than the meatheads I was surrounded by. The gilded past of human history…fucking ALL of it…seemed like the poetic and purposeful Side A to my B-Side life and I was sure as hell living in the decadent ass-end of human history. There was only a lost Golden Age and a meaningless now. The artistic artifacts of the past are always ripe for turning into fetish objects. As a young’n, burned by ‘the living,’ lacking direction and the balanced perspective on history that comes with a little education, curiosity, and…well, maturity…fascination with the dead worked as an expression. It usually does until you have your own dead to deal with.
The thing is that nostalgia, with its worst foot forward, is hungry for objects for which it has no real appreciation or love. It flays the vital forms of the past to spice up the products of the present, or perhaps to consolidate the past into Wal-Mart sized chunks of muzak-fodder. Music does a lot of things to your body and mind, but it is nothing if not a big messy conversation, a temporary agreement on what’s cool and what’s fun and what’s hot and what’s meaningful between members of the audience who are listening; and it’s the conversation that matters to me. Nostalgia is very good at distilling and in the distillation destroys the conversation the way that Forrest Gump mocks history: we may not be smart men but we know what love is (usually the tastiest fish in the only barrel we know). But neither love nor history are that containable, simple, approachable, or monochromatic, and much, if not most, of what there is to love lies in what falls through the cracks.