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20 ways of thinking about nostalgia from a year of backward listening

Our musical memories help us know who we are. So how do we keep Memory Lane from torquing into a Mobius loop?

(Paul Garland/for The Washington Post)

1. Music nostalgia now

Back in February, Tobi Vail, drummer of Bikini Kill — an essential band of my punky adolescence whose reunion tour had been postponed due to the pandemic — captioned an old snapshot of the band on Instagram in a way that forecast my year as a listener: “At this point, it feels like memories are all we have.” That sounded exactly right, even if it wasn’t exactly true. Exciting new artists dropped exciting new albums this year. I even caught a few concerts between variant surges. But throughout 2021, everything new in music kept getting blotted out by an oversupply of reissued recordings, throwback styles, sentimental music documentaries and nonstop reminders of the anniversaries of fabled concerts and legendary album releases. Nostalgia became a default listening mode — and for me, the cumulative oldness felt distressingly new. The old problem with nostalgia was that it made it harder to imagine the future. The new problem with nostalgia was that it made it harder to experience the present.

2. Nostalgia, my enemy

I’ve spent nearly all of my listening life fighting the nostalgic impulse. Surrounded by so many listeners who refuse to believe that pop music will ever surpass whatever perfumed the air when they were in high school, too much flashback-listening makes me feel claustrophobic, or even pre-dead, like some kind of inverse zombie pseudo-muso. I want new music to tell me new things, which means I want to love Playboi Carti in 2021 as much as I loved Public Enemy in 1991. But I’ve also had to reconcile that nostalgia is a fundamental and necessary part of our listening experience. Our musical memories help us know who we are. With that in mind, I try not to linger. I’m afraid that Memory Lane will torque into a Mobius loop.

3. Neuroscience, schmeuroscience

In many ways, fighting nostalgia means fighting your brain. Music is one of our strongest memory triggers, plus, scientists say that our brains experience something called a “reminiscence bump” that allows us to better remember things that took place between adolescence and our early 20s. The Internet is brimming with articles eager to cite these facts in order to explain why our nostalgia prevents us from escaping our formative musical tastes, but to me, they all feel like pats on the head for when I feel bad about falling into a reverie with Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” for the umpteen-hundredth time. Just because my neurochemistry works a certain way doesn’t mean I want it to.

4. The history of nostalgia

You might already know that “nostalgia” combines the Greek words for “homecoming” and “pain,” and that it was coined as a medical affliction in a 1688 dissertation about displaced Swiss soldiers who longed for home. Then, over the centuries (and especially in the 20th), nostalgia became less about longing for homeland and more about longing for home-time — for something static and irretrievable. This kind of nostalgia is almost universal among us. No matter where we live on this planet, time displaces us from our younger selves.

5. YouTube as nostalgia supercollider

Music isn’t television, but we have to talk about that scene from “Mad Men” where Don Draper decides to call the Kodak slide projector “The Carousel.” His spiel about how this new nostalgia machine “takes us to a place where we ache to go again … to a place where we know we are loved” really hits the mark. On YouTube — our one true supercollider of pop culture nostalgia (as well as our most widely used music streaming service) — someone posted the “Mad Men” clip and gave it the title “Don Draper Explains ’90s Nostalgia,” then swapped out the slides of postwar domestic bliss with stills from “Saved by the Bell” and “Twin Peaks.” Photos of Janet Jackson and Pearl Jam would have totally worked, too.

6. YouTube youth

“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner once famously wrote. “It’s not even past.” That feels true in a streaming era when decades of music can get flattened into a listening experience in which the illusion of endlessness can generate a sensation of timelessness. Whenever I talk to teens who grew up on YouTube, I’m amazed to find that they think of the music of, say, Journey, a band of power-balladeers circa 1981, and any pop star circa now, as part of the same time-is-a-flat-circle-ish continuity we call “music.” It eventually led me to a nostalgia-positive maxim that I try to keep in my pocket: All music is contemporary music so long as it’s shaking the air.

7. Nostalgia for times we didn’t live through

It’s called “historical nostalgia,” and in their 2019 book “Music, Nostalgia and Memory,” scholars Sandra Garrido and Jane W. Davidson define it in terms of music’s ability to “remind people of a previous age or a different cultural context and stir longing for ideals and lifestyles that have come to be associated with those times and places in popular memory.” Historical nostalgia felt prevalent in plenty of new music this year, but especially in the antiseptic neo-funk of Silk Sonic, a supergroup featuring Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak that sounds like a “Soul Train” episode that aired before they were born.

8. The future is hard to imagine

In this disorienting information age, where all of our future-machines help us go backward, it’s much easier to revisit what’s happened than it is to envision what’s coming. In this light, nostalgia can feel like a failure of the imagination, or even a cowardice. In the political realm, its effects can be dangerous. In her 2007 essay, “Nostalgia and Its Discontents,” the cultural theorist Svetlana Boym writes: “The danger of nostalgia is that it tends to confuse the actual home and the imaginary one. In extreme cases it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters. Yet the sentiment itself, the mourning of displacement and temporal irreversibility, is at the very core of the modern condition.” This might help explain why listening to “Donda,” the inert new album by Kanye West — a pathfinder whose music once signaled possibility and progress, but who more recently wore a MAGA hat, an emblem of America in retrograde — may have caused you to feel both completely furious and deeply sad.

9. Back to utopia?

“The twentieth century began with utopia and ended with nostalgia,” Boym writes at the outset of her essay. “Optimistic belief in the future became outmoded, while nostalgia, for better or worse, never went out of fashion, remaining uncannily contemporary.” Will the 21st century begin with nostalgia and end in dystopia? Last year’s presidential election offered a choice between two very different visions of back-to-normal. President Donald Trump’s idea of normal sounded a lot like Jim Crow. Candidate Joe Biden’s idea of normal was a failing neoliberalism. If government leaders can’t imagine the future, other leaders will have to — and while certain musicians are most certainly doing it at this very moment, we’ll have to discover them and listen to them with the same attention we gave to the Beatles, Prince, Aaliyah, Bjork, Young Thug and any other pop-futurist who ever used music to try to nudge our brains toward paradise.

10. Back to the future

It almost seems unfair to ask today’s musicians to put forth new visions of the future when their audiences seem so fixated on the sounds of the past.

11. Every day is the 20th anniversary of something

Scheduled nostalgia is the worst. When Proust bit into his madeleine, it wasn’t because he had the anniversary of his first cookie-nosh jotted down on the calendar. Yet, before and during the pandemic, music criticism has been rotten with prefab anniversary pieces, many of which settle for slathering a fresh layer of glaze onto our consensus ideas of what makes good music good. Or else they do the exact opposite in the form of the normie-contrarian reconsideration essays that ask us to entertain the idea that Sublime and Phish and Dave Matthews Band may have actually left artful, meaningful marks on popular culture. Does it have to be this way? Instead of squinting for silver linings in so much middling old music, couldn’t we strive to achieve a fuller and more nuanced understanding of its lingering whatever-ness? Reconsideration doesn’t have to be rehabilitation.

12. I wanna hold your hand forever

The Beatles will never have to be revived so long as we refuse to let them go. I was reminded of this after writing a review of Peter Jackson’s 468-minute Beatles band practice documentary “Get Back” in which I called the band “overrated.” To be clear: I love the Beatles. But I worry that we love them too much, and at the expense of paying close attention to the musical right-now that their tremendous influence supposedly made possible. The Beatles helped us imagine a better tomorrow. We honor them by listening for it. If they can never be eclipsed, what was the point?

13. Caution: Documentaries ahead

“Get Back” was just one in a steady sluice of music documentaries released this year. Netflix introduced its erratic “This Is Pop” series, with uneven takes on T-Pain and the Oasis/Blur rivalry, while HBO rolled out its slightly higher-quality “Music Box” series — produced by Bill Simmons, whose Ringer site rules the normie-rehab music-crit sector — with similarly mixed results. (One “Music Box” film about the strange ascent of Kenny G surprisingly hit all the right notes, while another about the disastrous Woodstock ′99 festival seemed fixated on images of women in states of undress, capitalizing on the violence and depravity the film was ostensibly critiquing.) More documentaries are coming. Some of them might even be edifying. Be careful how much life you surrender to them.

14. Old music doing new things

On the face of it, making our musical heroes compete for our amusement seems indecent, but what’s really happened over the past two years with Verzuz — a webcast series where two artists or groups use their respective back catalogues to clash in a virtual DJ battle — is fantastic. For instance, when Dipset and the Lox faced off inside Madison Square Garden back in August, the real battle wasn’t between two factions of New York rap royalty, but between the memories inside our heads. Like at any Verzuz blowout, some songs sounded way better than we remembered while others sounded far worse. The format makes the past feel flexible, allowing familiar music to take you by surprise.

15. Old music literally doing new things

After the master recordings of her first six albums were sold to an investment firm for an estimated $300 million last year, Taylor Swift continued to try to regain control over her songbook in 2021 by rerecording her old stuff. In November, she released “Red (Taylor’s Version),” a re-creation of her 2012 album “Red,” as well as an expansion of it: She added some bonus tracks and stretched her beloved ballad “All Too Well” into a 10-minute heartbreak odyssey. And so Swift has discovered a place where metaphysical and financial opportunities conjoin — a way to change the past and make money from it.

16. Nostalgia, my new friend

Far from impervious to this year’s nostalgic gravity, I plunged down my own semiprivate rabbit hole in 2021, purchasing an obscene amount of used hardcore punk records on the collector site Discogs. I think I felt more comfortable with this type of nostalgic listening because I was the one controlling it, but it still felt unseemly at times, like I was buying all the toys I didn’t get for Christmas as a child. It also just felt nice to get something in the mail every few days. There was a real world out there — a world that was looking after the past, but wasn’t hoarding it.

17. Hardcore quarantine

When I was a teenager, hardcore punk helped me forge a sense of identity. It spoke to my powerlessness, my outrage over that powerlessness, and my desire to belong — dynamics that I only recently became fully aware of after experiencing them anew as a 42-year-old who’s barely left the house in 22 months. I desperately want to belong to the present, but the pandemic has robbed us of that — so I buy old seven-inch vinyl singles by Discharge, and Die Kreuzen, and Project X, and Chain of Strength, an absolutely blazing California band whose entire discography was compiled on an album that I ignored in 1995 because I didn’t like the fonts on the cover. I listen to these records alone in my basement, usually late at night, posting pictures of the record covers on Instagram in hopes that my friends from the punk scene might respond with stories about what they remember. The music burns my ears in ecstatic ways, but I still need to hear it alongside others for it to feel real.

18. Reliving the past vs. completing the self

Another thing I eventually figured out about the hardcore revival in my head: I wasn’t exactly trying to relive my past. Instead, I was mostly listening to bands I had missed or dismissed back when I was an insecure teen with hyper-discriminating taste. Yes, I was attempting to recapture the feelings of excitement and possibility that permeated my youth, but through songs I’d never heard before. Maybe, instead of returning to the familiarity of my younger self, I was trying to complete an incompleteness.

19. Nostalgia as an all-ages scene

Or maybe it was this: Nostalgia suggests a desire to go back, but remember Faulkner and the YouTube youth? Is there a way to manifest that idea of past-is-present inside ourselves? Instead of listening to our formative faves and wishing we were young again, can we use old music to better summon our most hopeful, fearless, empathetic, curious, idealistic selves as we face the unyielding cruelty of an ugly new century?

20. The hardest future to imagine, but it’s coming

We will feel nostalgic for this pandemic someday, and we will want to remember what it sounded like. I don’t want it to sound like the Beatles, or Taylor Swift, or Silk Sonic, or Chain of Strength, or any other memory-of-a-memory. The present deserves to sound like itself. It deserves to be remembered that way, too.

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