“I cannot walk through the suburbs in the solitude of the night without thinking that the night pleases us because it suppresses idle details, just as our memory does.”
Jorge Luis Borges
Memory is nothing if not a collision of creation and fact: the perpetual struggle between actuality and imagination. There is always something tangible and factual at the heart of each memory, but the contextual world is one of modality. Ever changing: the colour of that car, what that person was wearing, minute details that ebb and flow. These things are all subject to change over time because they are overcome by imagination. When my Grandmother was in the hospital, for example, she remembered meeting my brother’s fiancé on a bus a few years prior—but to her that bus ride was from Clyde Bank to Glasgow and not the city bus in London (where the meeting actually took place). These details are an extension of imagination and how it corrupts memory. In many ways this is how nostalgia works. Avoiding a purely clinical, Freudian framework, nostalgia is the erosion of actuality in favour of compartmentalized emotions. Over time we elude precision of memories in favour of a broader spectrum of general feelings that umbrella over periods of our lives.
Music plays an important role as an agent of nostalgia; platitudes such as “the soundtrack of our lives” are not entirely without merit. As we compartmentalize our more nostalgic memories, so does it seem that we compartmentalize the music connected with these periods in time. A personal anecdote may better illustrate my point. The song “Linoleum” by NOFX always reminds me of the last day of high school. That last lunch hour where we signed each other’s uniform shirts with black sharpies, how the sun spangled off the beige brick and blue fascia ribboning of the school building. There were laughs, and hugs, and possibly a few tears and there was certainly that feeling of the threshold: our lives were changing and our group of friends were to split asunder forever. The fact that “Linoleum” had nothing to do with any of these events or emotions was entirely irrelevant. It merely blankets an entire era of my life and therefore reminds me of a specific, life-altering moment.
But therein lays the central question of the role nostalgia plays in our attitude towards music. I never listened to “Linoleum” that day, nor did anyone else during that lunch hour. In fact, the only song I remember listening to was “The Beast and the Dragon Adored” by Spoon on my walk home after the final bell. Imagination overcomes actuality and places “Linoleum” flittering in the background of this particular memory. At the same time it erodes away the contextual; the fact that this “life-changing” moment that has been fetishized by countless run-of-the-mill films was followed by a boring afternoon of watching television and a weekend spent with those people “I would never see again,” merely cements the imaginative ability of nostalgia. This is to say that nostalgia doesn’t so much lie to your memory as it more or less veils the mundane. If this be the case, is “nostalgic” a positive descriptor of music or a negative one?
On the one hand, familiarity seems an important aspect in making certain music as great asit is to us. I was driving home the other night along a country road at sunset with the blue palate of the sky melting to copper and the breeze rustling just gently enough through my car window, and “Holocene” from Bon Iver’s newest came on. It wasn’t nostalgia in the classic sense, but the same feelings applied. There was the vague sense of remembrance and warmth—flashes of happy moments in my life, real or imagined. But this only heightens the effectiveness of the song, so what is the problem? Clearly nostalgia brings back happy moments to mind and so nostalgia should only ever heighten the lasting power of music, right? In many ways this is an acceptable end to the discussion of the place of nostalgia in music, but it is certainly not thorough. Because of the way nostalgia is able to corrupt, the idea can also perversely affect the value of music.
On the other hand, I remember a brief row I had with Adam Knott in his perfect score review of Jimmy Eat World’s Futures. His justification fell, quite understandably, with the previously discussed notion of familiarity. It reminded him, presumably, of good times gone by (or bad ones, perhaps, but the overall feeling is of youth, which seems to always be pedestalized); it acted in the same manner as “Linoleum” does for me. I call into question the depth of this nostalgia, however, and whether or not it merely masks itself as something more than it is. “Linoluem” came to mind in the midst of writing this because I actually listened to the song earlier in the week—it is what gave me the idea for this article. I was in a car, driving through a lightning streaked sky that was a brilliant orange, with those friends I would never see again (four years down the road), and we were singing along to the NOFX classic. This is when the moments came flooding back to me in full—abridged memories that only covered the highlights. But there is an intrinsic problem in this equation: “Linoleum” was not being sung by NOFX, but rather by Thomas Kalnocky and his 99 Songs of the Revolution project. Yet the same feelings, memories and emotions came back to me as if the original version were being played.
You could account that to Kalnocky and company doing a really good job with the cover; or you could account it to the fallibility of nostalgia as an idea and component of music. Either way it calls into question the very face of nostalgia: corruptor veiled as liberator? The answer is certainly not apodictic and the question itself may seem a tad pedantic, but try to think of the problem from a metanarrative standpoint. Upon individual cases, nostalgia may bring a certain warmth of age to a particular song, band, or album; but what of the issues we have already encountered? We have already seen the ability for nostalgia to counterfeit—to mirror itself as memory’s heterocosm, where the imaginary world edges out the periphery of the past. In this sense, if we look at music in a nostalgic tense, do we curb its greater effect in both a critical and purely enjoyment-based idiom? In so many words the question is really basic: does the treatment of nostalgia aid or suppress the enjoyment of music? Your own answer to this question ultimately relies on what point of the line you place your own memory. If you side closer to a faith in the actuality of your memory then nostalgia ultimately aids your enjoyment of music. But if you are more cynically minded and you believe, as Borges does, that memory is a malleable abstraction, then nostalgia mires the enjoyment of music. Things to think about the next time you pop on your favourite album from five, ten, fifteen years ago.