Why do we feel nostalgia? And are infinite entertainment choices changing the way we look back?
Certain problems never disappear. Sometimes that’s because there’s no solution to whatever the problem is. But just as often, it’s because the problem isn’t problematic; the so-called “problem” is just an inexact, unresolved phenomenon two reasonable people can consistently disagree over. The “nostalgia problem” fits in this class: Every so often (like right now), people interested in culture become semifixated on a soft debate over the merits or dangers of nostalgia (as it applies to art, and particularly to pop music). The dispute resurfaces every time a new generation attains a social position that’s both dominant and insecure; I suppose if this ever stopped, we’d be nostalgic for the time when it still periodically mattered to people.
The highest-profile current example is the book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, written by the British writer Simon Reynolds (almost certainly the smartest guy to ever earnestly think about Death in Vegas for more than 4½ minutes). Promoting his book on Slate, Reynolds casually mentioned two oral histories he saw as connected to the phenomenon (the grunge overview Everybody Loves Our Town and the ’80s-heavy I Want My MTV). Those passing mentions prompted writers from both books to politely reject the idea that these works were somehow reliant on the experience of nostalgia (nostalgia has a mostly negative literary connotation). But this is not the only example: The music writer for New York magazine wrote about this subject apolitically for Pitchfork, essentially noting the same thing I just reiterated — for whatever reason, this (semi-real) “nostalgia problem” suddenly appears to be something writers are collectively worried about at this (semi-random) moment. The net result is a bunch of people defending and bemoaning the impact of nostalgia in unpredictable ways; I suppose a few of these arguments intrigue me, but just barely. I’m much more interested in why people feel nostalgia, particularly when that feeling derives from things that don’t actually intersect with any personal experience they supposedly had. I don’t care if nostalgia is good or bad, because I don’t believe either of those words really applies.
But still — before a problem can be discarded, one needs to identify what that problem is. In my view, this dispute has three principal elements. None of them are new. The central reason most smart people (and certainly most critics) tend to disparage nostalgia is obvious: It’s an uncritical form of artistic appreciation. If you unconditionally love something from your own past, it might just mean you love that period of your own life. In other words, you’re not really hearing “Baby Got Back.” What you’re hearing is a song that reminds you of a time when you were happy, and you’ve unconsciously conflated that positive memory with any music connected to the recollection. You can’t separate the merit of a song from the time when you originally experienced it. [The counter to this argument would be that this seamless integration is arguably the most transcendent thing any piece of art can accomplish.] A secondary criticism boils down to self-serving insecurity; when we appreciate things from our past, we’re latently arguing that those things are still important — and if those things are important, we can pretend our own life is equally important, because those are the things that comprise our past. [The counterargument would be that personal history does matter, and that the size of one’s reality is the size of one’s memory.] A third criticism is that nostalgia is lazy, lifeless, and detrimental to creativity. [The counter to this would be that even those who hate nostalgia inevitably concede it feels good, and feeling good is probably the point.] There are other arguments that can be made here, but these are the main three; if you’re “pro-” or “anti-” nostalgia, a version of your central thesis inevitably falls somewhere in this paragraph. And in all three cases, both sides of the debate are built around that magical bridge between art and the experience of being alive. It’s always based on the premise that we are nostalgic for things that transport us back to an earlier draft of ourselves, and that this process of mental time travel is either wonderful or pathetic (because that’s certainly how it feels).
But what if this is just how we explain it? What if nostalgia has less to do with our own lives than we superficially assume?
What if the feeling we like to call “nostalgia” is simply the byproduct of accidental repetition?
Stare at a photograph of someone you dated long, long ago. The emotional reaction you’ll have (unless you’re weird or depressed or kind of terrible) is positive; even if this person broke your heart, you will effortlessly remember all the feelings you had that allowed your heart to be broken. This is real nostalgia: You are looking at something that actively reminds you of your past (and which exists solely for that purpose), and you’re reimagining the conditions and circumstances surrounding that image. But you’re probably not judging the quality of the photo. You probably don’t think, “You know, it’s impossible for me to tell if the composition and framing of this picture is professional, because I remember too much about the day it was taken.” You probably aren’t concerned with overrating the true inventive prowess of whoever snapped the photo. The picture is just a delivery device for the memory. This is why thinking about old music (or old films, or old books) is so much more complicated and unclear: It’s not just that we like the feeling that comes along with the song. We like the song itself. The song itselfsounds good, even if we don’t spend a second thinking about our personal relationship to when we originally heard it. Yet we still place this sonic experience into the category of “nostalgic appreciation,” because that seems to make the most sense.
Except that it doesn’t.
It doesn’t make sense to assume any art we remember from the past is going to automatically improve when we experience it again, simply because it has a relationship to whatever our life used to be like. We may not even remember that particular period with any clarity or import. These things might be connected, but they might also be unrelated. Obviously, some songs do remind us of specific people and specific places (and if someone were to directly ask you “What songs make you nostalgic?,” these are the tracks you’d immediately list). But so many other old songs only replicate that sensation. The song connects you with nothing tangible, yet still seems warm and positive and extra-meaningful. It’s nostalgia without memory. And what this usually means is that you listened to that particular song a lot, during a stage in your life when you listened to a smaller number of songs with a much higher frequency. It might have nothing to do with whatever was happening alongside that listening experience; it might just be that you accidentally invested the amount of time necessary to appreciate the song to its fullest possible extent. What seems like “nostalgia” might be a form of low-grade expertise that amplifies the value of the listening event.
Here’s what I mean: For at least one year of my life, I had only six cassettes. One of these was Ozzy Osbourne’s Bark at the Moon, which (as an adult) I consider to be the third or fourth-best Ozzy solo album. But it’s definitely the Ozzy release I’ve listened to the most, purely because I only had five other tapes. It’s entirely possible I’ve listened to Bark at the Moon more than all the other Osbourne solo albums combined.
Now, the first song on side two of Bark at the Moon is titled “Centre of Eternity.” It’s a bit ponderous and a little too Ozzy-by-the-numbers. It means absolutely nothing to me personally and doesn’t make me long for the days of yore; until I started writing this essay, I hadn’t listened to it in at least 10 years. But as soon as I replayed it, it sounded great. Moreover, it was a weirdly complete listening experience — not only did I like the song as a whole, but I also noticed and remembered all the individual parts (the overwrought organ intro, how Jake E. Lee’s guitar was tuned, when the drums come in, the goofy sci-fi lyrics, etc.). There may be a finite amount one can “get” from this particular song, but — whatever that amount is — I got it all. And this is not because of any relationship I’ve created between “Centre of Eternity” and my life from the middle 1980s, most of which I don’t remember or even care about. It’s because the middle ’80s were a time when I might lay on my bed and listen to a random Ozzy song 365 times over the course of 12 months. It’s not an emotional experience. It’s a mechanical experience. I’m not altering the value of “Centre of Eternity” by making it signify something specific to me or my past; I’ve simply listened to it enough to have multiple auditory experiences simultaneously (and without even trying). The song sounds better than logic dictates because I (once) put in enough time to “get” everything it potentially offers. Maybe it’s not that we’re overrating our memories; maybe it’s that we’re underrating the import of prolonged exposure. Maybe things don’t become meaningful unless we’re willing to repeat our interaction with whatever that “thing” truly is.
And this, I think, is what makes our current “nostalgia problem” more multifaceted than the one we had 10 years ago. This process I just described? The idea of accidentally creating a false sense of nostalgia though inadvertent-yet-dogged repetition? That’s ending, and it’s not coming back.
In the year 2011, I don’t know why anyone would listen to any song every day for a year. Even if it was your favorite song, it would be difficult to justify. It would be like going to the New York Public Library every morning and only reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Music is now essentially free, so no one who loves music is limited by an inability to afford cassettes. Radio is less important than it used to be (which means songs can’t be regularly inflicted on audiences), MTV only shows videos when no one is watching, and Spotify is a game-changer. Equally important is the way modern pop music is recorded and produced: It’s consciously designed for digital immediacy. Listen to the first 90 seconds of Rihanna’s album Loud — if you don’t love it right away, you’re not going to love it a month from now. There’s also been a shift in how long a critic (professional or otherwise) can be expected to hear a product before judging its value. This is especially true for albums that are supposed to be important; most meaningful responses to Radiohead’s The King of Limbs and Kanye and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne happened within 24 hours of their embargoed release. When someone now complains that a song is being “played to death,” it usually just means it’s been licensed to too many commercials and movie trailers.
Now, no one can irrefutably declare that this evolution is bad, good, or merely different; it seems like it will (probably) be negative for artists, positive for casual consumers, and neutral for serious music fans. But it’s absolutely going to change what we classify (rightly or wrongly) as “nostalgia.” It won’t eliminate it, but it will turn it into something totally unlike the way things are now.
Of course, if you hate nostalgia, this seems like good news. “Excellent,” you probably think. “Now I won’t have to listen to people trying to convince me that Pearl Jam’s No Code is awesome, based on the argument that they used to listen to Pearl Jam in high school.” From a practical standpoint, there’s no historical loss to the genocide of self-made nostalgia; the Internet will warehouse what people’s minds do not. (Since the Internet is a curator-based medium, it’s also a naturally backward-looking medium.) People won’t need to “remember” Pearl Jam in order for Pearl Jam to survive forever; in 500 years, we will still have a more complete, more accurate portrait of Eddie Vedder than of Mozart or John Philip Sousa or Chuck Berry, even if no one in America is still aware that a song titled “Jeremy” once existed. It’s uncomfortable to admit this, but technology has made the ability to remember things borderline irrelevant. Having a deep memory used to be a real competitive advantage, but now it’s like having the ability to multiply four-digit numbers in your head — impressive, but not essential.
Yet people will still want to remember stuff.
People enjoy remembering things, and particularly things that happened within their own lifetime. Remembering creates meaning. There are really only two stages in any existence — what we’re doingnow, and what we were doing then. That’s why random songs played repeatedly take on a weight that outsizes their ostensive worth: We can unconsciously hear the time and thought we invested long ago. But no one really does this anymore. No one endlessly plays the same song out of necessity. So when this process stops happening — when there are no more weirdos listening to “Centre of Eternity” every day for a year, without even particularly liking it — what will replace that experience?
I suspect it will be replaced by the actions of other people.
Connectivity will replace repetition. Instead of generating false nostalgia by having the same experience over and over, we will aggregate false nostalgia from those fleeting moments when everyone seemed to be doing the same thing at once. It won’t be a kid playing the same song 1,000 times in a row; it will be that kid remembering when he and 999 other people all played the same song once (and immediately discussed it on Twitter, or on whatever replaces Twitter). It will be a short, shared experience that seems vast enough to be justifiably memorable. And I don’t know what that will feel like, and I don’t know if it will be better or worse. But I’m sure it will make some people miss the way things used to be.