In Defense of Nostalgia, Again

Last month I wrote a couple of things about nostalgia in a discussion on NewMusicBox. Today I was looking back at them wistfully, and I missed the good old days of June 2013 so much that I thought I’d reproduce what I wrote here.

First, in response to Isaac Schankler’s remark that “there’s also a palpable strain of melancholy that runs through [Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories], something that suggests suggests that this kind of nostalgia may be more sinister than it first appears,” I wrote:

A lot of the music of the early 80s itself has a palpable strain of melancholy running through it. Just listen to Thomas Dolby’s achingly lonely first album, The Golden Age of Wireless — whose title is itself nostalgic for an earlier era: the 50s and 60s, when Vladimir Ussachevsky wrote Wireless Fantasy, a piece that looks back nostalgically to an early 20th-century radio broadcast of the Prelude from Parsifal — and of course Parsifal takes place in an imaginary past that already sees itself as corrupted and fallen in comparison to some impossibly distant, inaccessible golden age. “Man hands on misery to man / It deepens like a coastal shelf…”

Then a bit later:

People love to talk about how music, language and culture are degenerating. But the thing is, people keep saying it, year after year, generation after generation. If everyone who’d ever grumbled about “kids these days” were right, we’d all be grunting and throwing poop at each other by now.

Here’s a passage I ran into recently while researching sound logos:
“It seems that everyone has climbed on the ‘nostalgia’ bandwagon. We have Gatsby clothing styles, films about the ‘olden days,’ books and articles with nostalgic plots, a revival of Scott Joplin ragtime due to the film ‘Sting’ and now even an attempt to try to cash in on the old ‘Hit Parade’ which has been dead since 1958.”
—Harry Sosnik, “Nostalgia! Nostalgia! But Where’s Originality?”, Variety, 1975.

The mid-70s was a period when Hollywood filmmaking was at its most creative and daring, when punk rock was on the verge of exploding, when minimalist composers were throwing out a decades-old story about ever-increasing complexity, when novelists were glorying in a wild new type of countercultural maximalism. But Harry Sosnik managed to look around and say “Nothing is original anymore.” Why? Because that’s what he expected to see. Confirmation bias is a powerful thing.

There has always been nostalgic art, and there has always been radically innovative art. Those things aren’t going away. If you look around you and only see one, you’re either not looking very far, or not making a good-faith effort to understand what you see when you do. And anyone who’s convinced that the past was that much better than the present should probably reconsider their opposition to nostalgia.

By the way, I also recently found this remark while searching Google Books. See if you can guess when it was written.

“How often we hear it said that there is now no longer any originality in thought, and that about all that has been done for ages has been the repetition, or rehabilitation, of the thought of the olden time. No originality in thought? Then no originality in action; no new achievements in art, literature or science; no progress of the world to-day, and none to be expected in the future.”

(The answer is 1897.)