Monday, May 22, 2006

Senses of nostalgia

I remember being annoyed when an English prof in my undergrad days opined that there must be a circuit in the brain programmed to switch off at age 25, making it impossible for a person to appreciate new styles of music, but as I age he is seeming more and more to have been onto something. It's not that I have no appreciation for new music, but I respond to the sounds of my youth with more passion and intensity than I do to anything more contemporary. In my year of iPodding I have been constantly borrowing CDs from the public library to rip and upload, many of them albums I either used to own on LP or tape (my LP collection has languished in Toronto since I moved away in 1997--actually since my record player died a few years before that--and my tapes have gone to magnetic heaven) or that I never owned but knew very well because friends had them. I have also been listening to new music, mostly indie rock, and old music that is new to me, like Townes Van Zandt, but for the most part I've been on a blinding nostalgia trip, getting wrapped up in songs that I had not heard in fifteen or twenty years that I used to listen to every day. One thing that makes my personal experience of music particularly nostalgia-prone is that the CD was introduced just late enough in my adolescence that I already had a big collection of cassettes and records when I got my first CD player (I was fifteen). For me this means that there are thousands of songs that were basically gone, that never entered my mind any more.

The first popular songs that I loved were AM radio hits of the early 1980s. After Neil Diamond's Jazz Singer soundtrack ("Everywhere around the world/They're coming to America!"), the first records I owned were the K-Tel compilation Rock 82 (Juice Newton, Rush, .38 Special, REO Speedwagon, Huey Lewis and the News, Billy Squire, Kim Carnes), then the real breakthrough, Billy Joel's Glass Houses, which was once my favorite album in the whole world. In the few years after that my collection grew. Much of it was music I learned to like from watching videos on Canadian music shows like The New Music (hosted by J.D. Roberts, who as John Roberts has become the new Aaron Brown) and Toronto Rocks. There was Duran Duran, Culture Club, The Police, Genesis/Phil Collins, and Michael Jackson (my brother always liked him better than I did). Eventually my taste became more sophisticated, under the influence of a Rolling Stone subscription and many smart and musical friends, and by the time I started buying CDs instead of LPs or cassettes I had outgrown the top 40 songs and albums of the early part of the decade.

When I listen to this music now, especially to things you never hear any more like Genesis's self-titled album of 1983 ("That's All," "Mama," "Illegal Alien," "Taking It All Too Hard," and "Home By the Sea") I feel immensely satisfied. The pop-rock style is passé and Phil Collins's romantic persona can be a bit much, especially when he cackles lustily after the choruses of "Mama," but I don't care. One thing I love about this record now (and also its followup, Invisible Touch) is how much it sounds like the Police albums of the same vintage, a similarity I never noticed before. Hugh Padgham produced both bands and you can tell that they came from the same shop . As different as they seem, "Synchronicity II" and "Illegal Alien" are almost the same song: "Synchronicity II" has a minor chorus and "Illegal Alien" is mildly offensive, but both songs have the same tempo and rhythm, the same synth, guitar, and drum sounds. Until the past few weeks I always felt more affection for The Police because I liked them better in the 80s. I never owned Genesis; I just listened to my friends's copies and heard the hits on the radio and at dance parties. But I bought Synchronicity when it came out and listened to it like crazy. After Genesis broke up and Phil Collins became a huge pop star we all decided that he was an obnoxious poseur; it took about six or eight more years to get the same feeling about Sting, whose late-80s solo albums are mostly pretty great (that song about the Russians loving their children too, which my friends and I thought was profound, is now unlistenable). To an extent, I love Genesis because I used to listen to Genesis all the time. It was part of the soundtrack of my youth. Genesis was the first band I saw live in a stadium, in 1986, when I was fourteen and had never smelled marijuana. It was fun but it was really my friends who worshiped the band, not me. Now I can't get enough. Nostalgia isn't rational.

And it seems to work differently with different senses. Lately I've been trying to make the same kind of trip back in time through my tastebuds and it isn't working. At the movies I tried Milk Duds and they were disgustingly chewy, sticking in my back teeth and making my mouth feel all tense and weird. So I had some Junior Mints instead and they were sickly sweet and artificial tasting. I used to love Milk Duds and Junior Mints. At a burger and custard place I had a cheeseburger and a chocolate malt and the combination, which I had been dreaming about for weeks, seemed idiotic. The malt was too sugary and the dessert-with-your-main-course thing was so unappealing. I didn't even finish the malt and I felt a bit silly to have ordered it at all. Then the other night we went to Boston Market, which reminded me a lot of a Canadian restaurant chain called Swiss Chalet that also serves rotisserie chicken. The poultry was juicy and well seasoned, but, well, too well seasoned. It was salty and the skin wasn't crisp. The sides were plentiful but amped way up on salt and fat. I loved this kind of meal in the days when I used to listen to Genesis, but the distance in time has made me accustomed to a very different kind of eating. The old kind of food no longer appeals to me even as the old kind of music really does.

Why today do I like to listen to "That's All" over and over again but not to have a burger and a chocolate malt? It seems counterintuitive but I think it might be because post-sell-out Genesis is actually good and a burger and a malt is actually not. Feel free to spread the word.

More music: my brother on indie rock and racism.


Blogger ch said...

Awesome post and great music!

2:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm. There are a lot of things you can eat that are as evocative as the soundtrack of your life, but it is true that things we taste are more often not as we remember them than the music is. I'm not sure why that would be. Of course, the recorded music is much more certain to actually be exactly the same, having been recorded.

I guess I must reluctantly support the 25 year old theory. Turns out I actually believe that the music of my (much more distant) youth truly was superior to later (and a lot of earlier) popular music.

But then a wide selection of the really best popular music was actually played on the radio then, by disc jockeys who were permitted to follow their personal taste. And much of the stuff everybody listened to seems to have a lot of staying power-the Beatles, Aretha, the Band, Dylan, Otis Redding, Van Morrison, Stax-Volts soul, Muddy Waters, et al.-were all on AM Radio. Often.

A lot of the tv we thought was good disappoints, though. Turns out that MASH, for example, was really crappy.I Love Lucy has a lot more staying power.I couldn't believe how terrible MASH was when I watched an episode recently. Actually, there's a fair amount of the pretty popular music of my era that seems embarrassing and dire now too-like the Doors, oy. And poor Janis.

5:12 PM  
Blogger mzn said...

Thx, chigbee.

Lindy, I always thought the same thing of the 60s even though I was born in the 70s. But while I recognize the greatness of all the acts you mention I have to say none of them except the Beatles, who I remember hearing from an early age, has the power to take me back quite the same way as the early 80s pop acts.

We can't taste the foods of yesteryear but we can look at pictures. Much of the food photography of the 60s and 70s now looks bizarre and some of it looks frightening.
See diet cards of the 1970s (someone directed me to these in the comments of a post a few months ago) and a flickr pool of enthusiastic recreators, which I just discovered.

I guess my larger point is that liking old things because they're old or in a kitschy so-bad-it's-good way is ok, but I can't have real passion for something unless I think it's actually, honestly, good.

6:46 PM  
Blogger the sad billionaire said...

Thanks for the link, mzn! excellent post.

random notes: I thought the use of Billy Joel's music on the "Freaks and Geeks" episode wherein all of the geeks fall in love with the new girl was fantastic.

It was so strange to discover as a youngster that Genesis had been a prog band prior to their "Invisible Touch" top 40 incarnation. I never understood Peter Gabriel's face paint. Did anyone think that was cool? Did anyone ever figure out if Phil Collins was an antisemite? You know what was the worst song of the 1980s? Mike and the Mechanics "In the Living Years." Mike and the Mechanics is a terrible name for a band, too.

What was your relationship with classic rock albums like Jethro Tull's Aqualung, Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell, AC/DC's Back in Black, Zeppelin IV, Disraeli Gears, etc? I now have some great TV associations with some of these-- Tony Soprano singing the title song from aqualung this season on the Sopranos, Rupert Giles grooving to "Tales of Brave Ulysses" on the "Band Candy" episode of Buffy... it is hard to imagine any tasteful application of Meat Loaf.

2:49 AM  
Blogger mzn said...

All the music in Freaks and Geeks is fantastic. I especially like "Come Sail Away" at the end of the first episode and the Grateful Dead album that Mr. Rosso gives Lindsay in the final episode.

I got into that classic hard rock a few years after I got into the top 40 songs and never felt quite as passionate about that edgier stuff. You liked it better than I did, but eventually I became obsessed with Thick as a Brick and memorized the whole album even though I had no clue what it was about (I have always preferred not to pay close attention to song lyrics). Now I must go request that one from the library.

Meat Loaf is funny in The Rocky Horror Picture Show but it is certainly not tasteful.

12:55 PM  
Blogger zoe p. said...

alrighty, here goes.

i think music and nostalgia should be understood in terms of affect psychology. our more mechanistic, learned, patterned responses to affective structures of music itself (if there is such a thing, music has it) and then, on top of that, the cultural and political contexts we associate with the music of our (respective) youth(s).

food and nostalgia, on the other hand, are better explained (in the context of domestic/family type consumption as so oft discussed at this blog) by Freudian psychology, Oedipus, orality, drives, etc . . .

the two different, but compatible pyschological frameworks explain the nuances of differences in the type and kind and character of the nostalgia in both cases . . . i'd posit.

as for MASH, i love that show. if any particular episodes are lame, well, that's the risk of a collective project that evolves over time.

as for indie rock, you know, it might very well be racist, and i'll post on that at fluffy dollars.

3:09 PM  
Blogger mzn said...

Very provocative, zp! I'm not sure about the Freudian stuff but you're clearly onto something important, which is that family is more important when it comes to food. As long as I can remember, my parents have had practically zero interest in contemporary popular music, which was part of what made my discovery of it in the early 80s so exciting for me--it was my first foray into culture that was outside of their purview. They would help me choose books to read, they took me to see plays and movies, and we all would watch television together, but they had no role in guiding my experience of the radio and of records and tapes.

11:59 AM  
Blogger David Amulet said...

Interesting post! I have never thought about the similarities between mid-80s Genesis and Police albums, other than the (for the time) excellent production ... good food for thought.

I appreciate the Gabriel years more from an artistic point of view, but I can't help smiling at most of the Phil Collins-lead stuff. Well, except for total schlock like "Never a Time."

I just wrote a brief post with Phil's comments about a Genesis reunion. I'm still not sure how I feel about that, but I would certainly be at the show if it happened!

-- david

7:02 PM  

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