Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Why Are We So Nostalgic?

In the latest issue of The Wire, David Keenan takes a turn at one of the magazine’s periodic attempts at playing genre taxonomist (see also: post-rock and hauntology). His new genre, “hypnagogic pop,” doesn’t interest me in its particulars all that much, but it does tie into this blog’s unofficial theme: nostalgia. The kids in the bands Keenan writes about were all born in the 1980s, and, according to the article, the pop music of the era seeped into their DNA—even though they’re making weird and noisy music that doesn’t have anywhere near the mainstream appeal of the massively popular MTV hits they’re claiming as influences.

The thing that most caught my attention in the article was the bizarre fact that Don Henley’s 1984 hit “Boys of Summer” is a touchstone for these bands. “Boys” is the kind of incessant radio staple that is less a musical composition and more a grim signifier of the cultural stagnation I was alluding to in this post. If you’d asked me five minutes before reading the article what I thought of the song, without hesitating—or really thinking about it much—I would have told you I hated it. But the incongruity of a bunch of early twenty-something weirdoes taking the song as an important sonic blueprint made me look it up on YouTube.

“Boys” has a cinematic lushness that is emotionally appealing; like a lot of ’80s hits it sounds like it was designed to play over a bittersweet movie’s closing credits. Twenty-five years after the fact, the song’s primitive digital gloss has managed to accrue a patina of strangeness and a naivete it actively avoided at the time of its creation. There’s something about the production that is on the one hand alienating and slickly machine-like and on the other melancholy and haunting.

But what’s most striking to me is that here we have a bunch of young musicians taking a song as a nostalgic key to their youth that is itself about nostalgia for one’s youth. But not just anyone’s youth; Henley’s lyrics are about aging and they’re fairly specific about who is growing older: baby boomers. Henley sings, “out on the road today, I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac / A little voice inside my head said, ‘don’t look back. You can never look back.’”

Anxiety and guilt over ’60s radicals turned ’80s sell-outs was a common cultural trope back then, but more to the point, I wonder if this little feedback loop of nostalgia is symptomatic of why our current moment is so suffused with nostalgia. Anyone who grew up in the ’80s grew up in a climate of constant reminiscence over The Sixties (don’t worry: this isn’t going to be a tiresome rant about boomer cultural dominance, I promise). In other words, anyone born after 1975 or so, grew up in a profoundly nostalgic time, and therefore indulging in nostalgia for your youth can lead to nostalgia for nostalgia, as is the case with “Boys”. Perhaps we’ve also been conditioned for nostalgia—programmed into a preciosity about the past, especially our own, through repeated exposure to things like “Boys of Summer”, A Christmas Story, The Wonder Years, Happy Days, etc.

I think I mentioned in a comment to an earlier post that when I was a kid I didn’t realize Happy Days was made in the ’70s—I thought it was an authentic document of the ’50s much like all the other shows I was watching on Nick at Nite (Donna Reed, et al). I think as we go forward, and as the internet transports almost all cultural production to an eternal now, that kind of temporal blurring will become characteristic of our time.

I don’t think I’ve answered the question posed in the post title, but as I’ve mentioned to a couple of people off-blog, nostalgia is emerging as the guiding concern of Elephant Rock, so this won’t be the last word on it. Whether it can be chalked up to a generational accident of birth, the internet, the cultural decay of late empire, or me entering my curmudgeonly old man phase rather early, how people process, think about, and use the past defines my perspective on the present.


  1. Hmm, hypnagogic pop? That's a mouthful. I suspect that when the youth culture embrace the term, it will be shortened. Maybe hypnapop. Or hyp-pop. Yeah, that sounds good, hyp pop.

    I agree: when you start to analyze your nostalgia, it gets weird and complicated. As well as "Happy Days" (can't italicize in this comment), there was "Back to the Future," "Grease," "Peggy Sue Got Married"... ug, we were swimming in old people nostalgia and we didn't even know it.

    This post clears up a long-misremembered lyric for me. I always thought the chorus of Boys of Summer was "after the poison somehow had gone." It's George Harrison's "Wake Up, My Mom Sat On You" all over again.

  2. I have a feeling hypnagogic pop won't attain the level of cultural currency that post-rock did. On the plus side, "hauntology" is actually pretty interesting--and I like the music way more than hyp pop--though way too difficult to summarize.

    Yeah, when I was coming up with those examples I suddenly realized the list was insanely long: I could have made a whole post just listing Vietnam-era movies.

    I think Boys of Summer had sort of hybridized with The Boys Are Back In Town for me until recently when I was exposed to the latter repeatedly by the radio.