Decoding music and nostalgia

by Patty Templeton

If you think, “Dude, music is crap compared to when I was younger,” you’re wrong. There is a glut of gorgeousness out there. Yet, in this age of access and melodious abundance, people reach for the same bands that they’ve ever listened to. What the hell is with this wistful pining for the past? Let’s figure it out.

Why music you grew up with matters to youWhen I was 16, I adored a band called Wrong Direction, gawky local dudes slinging Operation Ivy covers and originals. I have good memories of all of the garage, basement, and backyard shows of my youth. In psychoanalysis, this is called a “screen memory.” It ain’t what really happened. A screen memory smushes together a crap-ton of different memories – but only the good bits. In the mashup, negative emotions are filtered out. On a casual think-back, I’m left with a generally positive view of these younger years … rather than remembering the time I tripped down a staircase at a show or how I was usually too shy to say hello to anyone but my two pals.

Nostalgia doesn’t necessarily mean being too lazy to find new music. Dr. Arthur C. Jones, professor of music, culture, and psychology at the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver says, “Everybody wants to feel that their place in the universe and the geographical region that they live in is significant … To have music that honors specific experiences, that recognizes that those experiences happened, and that a person was part of it – is really important. People get upset when they feel like everything that they’ve experienced has been forgotten.” If you go back to your childhood home and it’s a parking lot, it causes a feeling of erasure. Your experience is no longer there. Your existence is harder to prove. The same goes for music. When you find a music friend who acknowledges a scene or song, suddenly there is more reality to your own experience.

Why young folks are nostalgic to music that came beforeThe easy answer here is that music is effing awesome and can connect to anyone, anytime. Sam Cooke, Iggy Pop, and Camille Saint-Saëns are as important now as ever. But there’s more.

Jones says, “People want to be a part of generational continuity. They want to feel like they have some sense of those that came before them.” Besides being a killer album, a person might play Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” because they heard their ma spin it. Maybe their ma died, but before she did, she talked about seeing Gaye live. Listening to “What’s Going On” becomes a living connection to a deceased relative. Additionally, ma’s Marvin Gaye stories convert into a part of the younger individual’s own narrative, thus making their own life story richer.

Nostalgia can be a regional experienceDurango is obsessed with ska. This suits me fine. Ska is a thriving, dance party of a genre. Most of America thinks of ska as a late ’90s, early aughts thing. It’s an example of an obsessive population that refuses to let go of a good thing. It’s also an example of nostalgic reaching as regional experience. “I think that there’s a natural experience that happens in music-making that is geographical,” Jones says. “If you are in Durango, this beautiful western slope of Colorado … there’s going to be a music that speaks to that experience and it is going to be different than the music of someone who lives in Manhattan” Music will survive in an area based on the population’s view of its utility. Having Ska Brewing Co. in town has drastically increased ska’s presence in Durango, lengthened its utility, and deepened our peoples’ memory pool of it.

Nostalgia within music creationThere is an endless amount of musical genres these days – mathcore, psychobilly, brass and grass. Musicians find endless methods of banging together the bones of precedent’s corpse. Jones thinks this can have both positive and negative effects. “When people think something is creative it is because someone has taken something that is from before and made it into something fresh … In a way, what you and I are calling nostalgia – that’s what has come before. You need that to create something new. But if you get totally stuck and don’t see possibilities, start to follow a formula – then it is a problem.”

It is not about creators thinking that older music is better than its contemporary counterpart. Dr. Charissa Chiaravalloti, assistant professor of music at Fort Lewis College, says it’s about old times being remembered fondly. “When we hear certain old songs, they trigger an emotional reaction in our brains as the memories come flooding back,” Chiaravalloti says. “Most people enjoy this experience, as it makes us feel as though we can relive those moments.” When a musician reaches for an old-time instrument, beat pattern, or genre, they are not only vibing with the vintage melodies, but the emotional content. Their own music can then evoke, to an extent, that disposition. It’s a built-in level of authenticity due to the memories people associate with that style of music. For example, Amy Winehouse drew from the musical traditions of soul, R&B, and jazz. She equally belonged in a smoky, 1950s lounge as she did in front of a rock ’n’ roll crowd. She summoned up old-school and surrounded it with modern.

It’s not a new thing, either. Technology has made nostalgic reaching more accessible for decades. “With the growth of record stores in the latter half of the 20th century, most people could find and enjoy music from the past,” Chiaravalloti says. “I also think that with each passing invention, from records to tapes to CDs, nostalgic reaching increased.”

Which leads us to this: It’s all good – so long as all your get-down isn’t only in the gone-by.


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