What is Nostalgia?
Say what ya will about the evil that the chokingly knotted military-industrial government and resulting 24-hour global stop-and-shop hath wrought, the fact is that there is more good music available to listeners now than there has been at any point in, well, history. On my desk, I have two recordings, which I listened to back-to-back today. The first is a series of singles by the Mississippi Sheiks, a folk-country outfit who recorded during the Depression. The other is a recent live show by The Slip, caught in their native Rhode Island in early June, and pressed nearly instantly to CD and issued by Kufala. Is listening to either – both frozen moments in time, one from the early ’30s, one from last month – any more an act of nostalgia than the other?
With music dislocated from its performers via recordings and portable listening gizmos, 21st century listeners perceive music in a fundamentally different way than our ancestors (and even our parents). Technological flexibility has allowed for a new kind of personal, non-repeatable sensory experience. In Great Moments in Rock and Roll, artist Joel Orff’s deeply personal collection of visual vignettes from the rock life, Orff illustrates a sweet story of this kind of listening in child-like black and white: ‘It was a beautiful night in July and we were pretty stoned. / ...we had hooked up three pairs of earphones to one casette [sic] player and walked around listening… / ...to some improvised instrumental music… / ...that we’d performed and recorded ourselves….’ With illustrations of three figures walking through a dreamy townscape, the comic literally presents a worldview.
It is one in which novelty plays a great role. Simply put, there is a large price put on the uniqueness of experience. It is an irony (or maybe it makes perfect sense), of course, that this move towards novelty comes in an age in which music is easily and perfectly reproducible. Everything needs to work double-quick to prove that it is one-of-a-kind. Even the most elaborately constructed pop spectacles (or political conventions) strive for the feeling of spontaneity as much as actually improvising musicians. The reason to stage (say) a Super Bowl Half-Time blow-out featuring (say) Brittney Spears and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith double-teaming (say) a wicker reindeer is because it might create a new sensation. That, of course, pushes the creative problem of novelty far out onto the axis of crass shock and awe (so to speak). On the other side, the problem manifests itself in the idea of noble progress.
That idea – that there will always be a cutting edge – absolutely guides much of the development of rock music, but is also often balanced out (even nourished) by music that makes its point in being distinctly comfortable, that produces warm ‘n’ fuzzy feelings in its audience such that they wanna listen again and again and again. An album that’s had a great impact on my life – leading to many moments like Orff’s – is Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea — a mix of music that comforted me when I was young (Aeroplane has often been dubbed the dreaded ‘Beatlesque’) and the more experimental sound experiments that grabbed me around the time of my college graduation.
It is undoubtedly special to discover something "new" — be it a disc just released, a gloriously molding piece of obscurity, or simply an unearthed classic. An uncomfortable effect occurs when somebody is hit in the right way by an album, only to discover that artist’s more contemporary material doesn’t quite hold up to that. Likewise, when a musician or band works for any length of time, what is novel to him will also change, and his sound will morph as a result. But what if the old hasn’t quite worn out its emotional welcome yet with the listener or the musician? What if listening to or playing the same ol’ music over and over again really does trigger rich experiences?
Music is transportational. Each album is a memory of a different time and place, some version of the reality the musicians existed in. Each is capable (at its best) of co-habitating, for the duration of its playing, with the present day. But (to use a perhaps tired example) – assuming somebody is listening to it openly and honestly and not just as an automatic equation of the Beatles and the ’60s – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band means something almost wholly different to somebody who bought it when it was issued in 1967 as it does to a kid who just bought it last week. For that matter, it literally is a wholly different artifact. What was once available on vinyl is now available on CD and (even if unofficially) mp3, which changes the way the music is listened to (not to mention subtle changes in the sound itself). Brian Wilson’s teenage symphonies to God, tailored in mono for primitive car radios, now come blasting out of tinny computer speakers.
Oddly, or maybe not, they sound really good in that context. Other recordings sound wonderfully mysterious today as well — fuzzy blues and country 78s cleaned up and reissued, unmarked reggae sides… even the white bread folk revival sounds bizarre in the light of ever-changing recording technology. So what is nostalgia, then? Is it only listening to something because of past memories it sets off, as opposed to be willing to genuinely create something new?
Recorded music is such a durable medium precisely because it mysteriously thrives on the endless reproduction of the same sounds simultaneous to assuming that whoever is listening will get something different each time he listens. It’s fairly pompous to assume that this will bear out, but – miraculously – it does. It’s a bit of a paradox, I s’ppose. The German theorist Walter Benjamin wondered whether mechanically reproducible art (especially film) could have what he called (roughly) an "aura." It absolutely does, not because the medium is the message, but because the medium is an equal part of the message.
The value of a work of art is entirely derived from the person looking at it (be it the artist himself or a member of his adoring/non-existent public). The only person who can decide if something is nostalgia is the listener himself, in the way he chooses to appreciate or discard it. It’s a question most have to confront sooner or later, not just having to do with music, but culture and life at large, if they are going to engage in it. If albums are memories, then there’s not room for all of ‘em. Some slip away, accidentally forgotten, and life moves on.
So, what should I listen to? Something old? Something new? Something I know really well? Or something I’ve never listened to before? Should I listen to the Sheiks or The Slip? Well, neither, actually. I’m listening to The Decemberists right now, and maybe – after this – I’ll listen to the Fiery Furnaces record my roommate burned me. That’s some good shit. But who knows, really? It’s music, and – as long as I’m thinking about the choice – it’s still a choice.