Image courtesy of wishing bird
Nostalgia is an interesting beast. It’s one of the few emotional responses that (at least, from my perspective) implies stasis. It’s a coping mechanism, rather than a tipping point that forces action, akin to eating an irresponsible amount of macaroni and cheese to counterbalance a shitty day at work. Nostalgic feelings act like a natural anti-depressant, an evolutionary phenomenon that makes a lot of sense — especially now, in an age of economic uncertainty and countless individuals and entities alike teetering on the fine edge between getting by and destitution. It’s also a phenomenon that’s spawned a ton of think pieces (hey, including this one!) and prompted cultural outlets the world over to cash in on our anxieties and assuage us with soothing pop culture tonics from our childhood. TeenNick (of the Nickelodeon cable family) recently started rebroadcasting the network’s beloved 1990s programs, including “Doug”, “Clarissa Explains It All”, and “All That.” MTV and VH1 both have “classic” channels that actually show music videos. And more and more musicians are being alternately praised and criticized for strip-mining past decades of pop music for reference material.
Ideally, popular music should strike a balance between the new and the old: Familiar enough to be accessible, new-sounding enough to not seem rehashed. If you’re listening to a pop song that does its job well, your mindset should ideally be constantly waffling between novelty and nostalgia. It’s a little weird that some of the artists making this throwback music are too young to have ever actually associated a backlog of positive memories with the music they’re reworking. But our brains are fluid and fickle critters. Memories can be altered or overwritten on the power of suggestion. So it’s not really a stretch to say that you can get nostalgic about things you’ve never actually experienced. A great song from a time period you’ve never experienced can imbue you with warm and fuzzy feelings for something you never experienced.
Pitchfork’s Eric Harvey wrote a relevant piece on artists (mostly those huddled under the chillwave umbrella) using old, amateur photography in their videos and album covers. These images are typically from an anonymous source, from a time long before these musicians would be old enough to remember and get sentimental about that time period. The crux of Harvey’s argument is that this fixation on old photography (and new photography techniques designed to make the output look like old photography, like Hipstamatic and Instagram) is a response to wanting something tactile, physical to associate with the music. It’s something that used to go hand in hand with the listening experience, but in the age of the mp3 this has become nearly obsolete. In a world where everything seems unstable and ephemeral, we’re finding it more and more important to capture moments, preserve them, and turn them into shared memories. Critic Nitsuh Abebe expands on that point: much of the associated references with chillwave bands are visual, that it’s less about them poring over the music than it is about taking visual cues from the videos, television shows, and advertisements of the era. True to his argument, oftentimes these songs strike hollow, empty — as much about the material trappings and associated ephemera of an age as the music itself.
Abebe refers to chillwave bands as being sort of shamanistic in nature, approaching the creation of music with a collector’s eye, bringing back treasures of the past with no commentary other than “hey, look at these slap bracelets! Old TV shows! A keytar!” No art exists in a vacuum; it’s impossible for musicians to escape the influence of other musicians, and so you can easily (and pretty accurately) argue that popular music is an exercise in re-writing the same themes and/or melodies over and over again. But there’s definitely a way to do it without it being an exercise in museum curation. What passes for genre reference these days sometimes comes out like making a copy of a copy of a copy; when you do it with tapes, they gradually lose their fidelity, and when you do it with songs (or entire genres), they gradually lose their integrity.
To me, that’s the dividing line between nostalgic music that works and nostalgic music that doesn’t. Decontextualizing it, removing the history behind the art depersonalizes it. You’re hearing the fake, the tacked on — the Urban Outfitters-ization of songs, where the aesthetics are borrowed but never imbued with new meaning. In order for nostalgia to take root, other people have to relate to it. That’s why at its best, the nostalgia-pimping music of 2011 uses the old as a framework for writing a new story.
Frank Ocean very literally does that with “American Wedding,” writing a new story over the melody and backing from the Eagles’ oft-maligned “Hotel California.” The song itself is an interesting choice; the Eagles aren’t a band with a lot of cool-kid cache, but for the story Frank writes over the melody, “Hotel California” makes a lot of sense, thematically. Both the original and Frank Ocean’s version convey the same mystical relationship to a situation and its material trappings. True to their respective time periods, the weird, psychosexual relationship in “Hotel California” gets filtered through a lot of half-remembered dreams and ends on a nebulous, almost mystical note, while “American Wedding”‘s love story is characterized by brand names and real talk, summarily collapsing in a heap of returned possessions and broken promises. It’s a ballsier — and more appropriate — choice than sampling. He’s telling roughly the same kind of story, but one that uses its nostalgic origins as a framework for a thoroughly modern tale. The song’s from his 2011 mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. “Ultra” means “beyond” as well as “extreme” — what Ocean’s doing is less extreme nostalgia and more moving beyond nostalgia, using the past as a springboard for his own story, rather than obsessively categorizing and referencing it. It’s a song the listening public has latched onto in a major way; YouTube is crawling with homemade music videos and eager teenagers singing the song. Ocean’s hit a nerve with his formula, producing a song that impels nostalgia and creates shared memories.
Dan Bejar repurposes the past in a more underhanded way. Apart from Bejar’s voice and songwriting, there’s not a singular sound that defines a Destroyer album. Each sounds slightly different than the last. Destroyer’s 2011 album Kaputt rebrands the band as Bejar’s vehicle for yacht rock adapted for a new generation, all smooth saxophones and mellow tone. What sets Destroyer apart is that Bejar takes into account that once upon a time, there was nothing ironic or kitschy or YouTube-parody worthy about this kind of music; Hall and Oates and Michael McDonald weren’t writing with the intent to soundtrack themed parties and “peacock” unsuspecting ladies wearing a captain’s hat; they were writing insanely popular music that at the time was the predominant cultural force in music — not Elvis Costello or The Clash or Blondie or other better-remembered relics of the late 1970s/early 1980s. Bejar doesn’t approach the genre in a sly, knowing way; the lyrics are rife with references to other songs (“Mother Nature’s Son”, “Message In A Bottle”) and there might be a smooth-ass sax break around every corner, but he’s treating 1970s soft rock with sincere appreciation, not as a curio to smirk at.
Nostalgia in pop music isn’t new, but it’s a force that’s taking on additional meaning in the information age. With the ability to create and access more content than at literally any other point in human history, there’s more to consume and more (and a wider variety) of art to influence us — and thus, the lines between different artists and sounds associated with different time periods get muddied. It’s easier to be nostalgic when everything ever created is only a 0.05 second-Google search away. Destroyer’s “Blue Eyes” ends “Don’t be ashamed or disgusted with yourselves/ I’ve thumbed through the books on your shelves.” That is to say, all of us are products of what we consume — and the more we consume, the more we risk losing momentum. But if artists like Frank Ocean and Dan Bejar are any indication, nostalgic pop music doesn’t always have to be a sepia-toned collage.