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.
At this point it’s probably safe to say that nothing is going to knock the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds out of its throne at the uppermost reaches of the Twentieth Century rock canon anytime soon. Exactly how revered it should be, though, has become a fairly heated arguing point. For people like me, who all their lives blindly believed in what publications like Rolling Stone told them—that, at last count, Pet Sounds is the second greatest album of all time—hearing the passionate dissention reign down on Brian Wilson’s magnum opus is a little jarring at first, if not altogether shocking. I could not understand where there was any room for criticism; it’s pretty hard to imagine anyone under the age of sixty-five walking into a room where “God Only Knows” is playing and screaming that it be turned off.
But the more I became exposed to the Pet Sounds backlash, the less dismayed by it I was. As with many other misunderstood anti-canon debates, the criticism of Pet Sounds lay not with the music itself, but with its universal, unquestioned deification. To the ears of many, Pet Sounds, with its simple song structures and lyrics, is wholly unremarkable. Additional resentment seems to stem from the fact that, as Pet Sounds’ mammoth reputation continues to grow, almost everything else in the Beach Boys’ extensive discography—including fan favorites such as Smiley Smile, Wild Honey, Sunflower and Surf’s Up—has become almost completely overshadowed or forgotten. For example, there are times when I think that Friends is my favorite album of theirs, but until I actually sought it out for myself, I hadn’t heard anything on it. I’d assume that’s the case for most modern day first-time Friends listeners.
The disparity in perception towards Pet Sounds can be partially attributed to the varying musical backgrounds of each individual listener. Virtually everyone who gives it a spin it is aware of how acclaimed it is, and someone who’s hearing it for the first time early in their life (as I did) is bound to be more impressed than a grizzled aficionado who’s been around the block a few times. In short, both camps are separated by the differences in their respective degrees of nostalgia for Pet Sounds. That it was so ground-breaking when it came out is why it’s still highly regarded today. That its revolutionary aspects at the time of its release are now standard fare in contemporary terms is why so many people just can’t get their heads around its current level of esteem. These are two simplified interpretations of Pet Sounds, and which one a person sides with depends on how nostalgic for it they are.
Nostalgia is one of the few aspects of rock criticism that is yet to be fully captured and quantified. Rock critics are supposed to be, above all else, objective when evaluating a piece of music. Yet it’s easy to see how nostalgia could interfere with objectivity. Obviously, nostalgia is never a problem when new pieces of music are reviewed, but when all-time lists are compiled, or anything else that contributes to the establishment of a hierarchical rock canon, it’s impossible for nostalgia not to influence the input of each individual critic. Someone who was affected by Pet Sounds at a young age inevitably would give it higher marks than a more experienced listener who came around to it largely to see what all the fuss was about.
Is this a bad thing? I would argue strongly that the answer is no. As with any other historical field, informing emerging generations of the achievements of prior sonic trailblazers is vital toward gaining understanding of contemporary artists. Few people would argue this point, but it merits stating, as some of the most important musical breakthroughs of the past are easily forgotten. For example, Brian Wilson found one of the most startling facets of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, which is credited for inspiring Pet Sounds, to be that it was devoid of filler, so he set out to make an album full of quality songs for himself. While this doesn’t make the material on Rubber Soul sound or age any better, the fact that it, along with other early Beatles LPs, motivated artists to make complete albums of their own should never be forgotten. Young people don’t really listen to Chuck Berry or Little Richard anymore, but that doesn’t mean their discographies shouldn’t be respected and/or explored.
Historical implications aside, my main take on nostalgia is that it’s incredibly fun. Critics’—and everyone else’s—individual tastes and preferences are inextricably tied to their personal experiences. Listening to music wouldn’t be remotely enjoyable if this weren’t the case. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of recalling musical memories from my childhood. “Possum Kingdom” by the Toadies will always be one of my favorite songs. And anytime you catch me preening, saying things like, “I’ve been listening to Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh a lot lately,” feel free to slap me and remind me that, deep down, I’ll forever be the kid who knows almost every word on Aerosmith’s Get a Grip.
Ultimately, though, I fear that as time goes on nostalgia is destined to become a distant, bittersweet memory for me—that I’ll eventually become nostalgic for nostalgia itself. And what a sad, pathetic condition that would be. My point is that as I delve further into life as a critic and discover increasing amounts of new artists and genres that I’ve never heard or heard of before, I fear that my relationship with music will continue to devolve into one not of personal fulfillment, but of pure consumption. I fear that down the road I’ll be able to respond to inquiries like, “Name ten records that came out on Def Jux while you were in college” more actively and extensively than ones along the lines of, “Name ten records that you actually liked in college.” A worst-case scenario is that my consumption of music infects my memories of life as a whole, to the extent where I’ll be unable to answer when posited with the question, “Where did you go to college?” (“Magma!”) Of course, I’m exaggerating needlessly here, but it’s undoubtedly more difficult for a critic who listens to well over 100 new releases a year (not to mention loads of unheard material from the past) to fall head-over-heels in love with an album than some twelve-year-old circa 1995 who’s gathered every nickel and dime within sight for a couple months so that they might finally have enough money saved up to purchase Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. They don’t have a choice but to listen to it for the next six months.
Nostalgia is perhaps the most nebulous factor in determining how a piece of music is to be evaluated. It’s tied to age, time, setting, background, and a host of other factors. But nostalgia should be viewed first and foremost as a reminder of what makes listening to music—both new and old—so damn great. It’s a concept that’s inherently centered on enjoyment; people become nostalgic primarily for music that they absolutely loved at one time or another. And why should we listen to music at all if we don’t love it?
By: Ross McGowan
Published on: 2005-08-10