Wednesday, September 29, 2010


I have been experiencing, for nearly a week now, the first real attack of nostalgia in my young life. It was set off, hilariously, by Smashing Pumpkins. Remember them? I guess they exist again, but, whatever -- nobody liked that album, and especially nobody liked the way every goddamn retail outlet on the planet had their own version with its own bonus tracks. It was Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, I was in a bar playing pool. I felt lonely the way I do in any gathering of friends (especially men [I am the official gay friend of several ladies on campus, this is not surprising to me at all]) and it felt good to hear a song from the old, bad days.

I did not like being a child, a tween, a teen, or a putative adult. I did enjoy some music while I was doing those things. Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was -- be prepared to be staggered at my disgusting youth -- the first really good album I ever heard. I think I was seven. From the beginning I knew there was a lot of crap on those twin CD's (which we called, in my household, Happy Baby and Sad Baby respectively), especially the latter. I also knew, from the very beginning, how utterly absurd were the lyrics to "Bullet with Butterfly Wings." I didn't understand instinctively what a douchebag Billy Corgan probably was. That took seeing his clothes. None of it mattered. If you're going to wallow -- and teenagers will, and so will I -- it might as well be to something pretty. And if right-thinking individuals find songs like "Bullet..." ridiculous, they should at least be able to admit the simple joys of "Tonight, Tonight," "Jellybelly," "An Ode to No One," and even the equally ridiculous "Zero." ("Emptiness is loneliness and loneliness is cleanliness and cleanliness is godliness and God is empty, just like me." [LoL!])

I was surprised to feel nostalgia not so much because I haven't enjoyed most of my life as because I see nostalgia as essentially a form of identification; identification with a phenomenon or a fan base, identification with a past self. I am not very good at identifying with anything. My admiration for certain writers is the closest I get, and usually I try to keep them at arm's length so I can go on liking them (people tend to piss me off, especially artists, when I actually know how and what they think/believe). I don't identify with my MFA class or program very well, sometimes because they (like everybody) piss me off but mostly because I assume they wouldn't want me as one of them. I don't identify with any movements of writers (I assume they don't want me either) or social circles, or, well, much of anything. I have a vague sense of identification with other atheists (we're embattled!) and with the Democratic party (not because I'm proud of them, but because I feel like now that I'm a party-line voter and apologist I've got to own up, take responsibility, live in shame, etc.).

Since this attack of nostalgia began, I've dug out my Nirvana albums as well, and proven nostalgia transferable by somehow branching out from there to the collected works of Led Zeppelin. (I don't know either. But "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" is a really great song.) Nirvana's unplugged album is my favorite of theirs, in part because I just really love the way the production sounds and in part, no doubt, because it was the first album I actually owned (a Christmas gift, I think, from my Grandma). My brothers and I used to sing "Lake of Fire" pretty often.

This post has a lot of parantheticals. I could be happier with that but I'm not going to change it.

What makes you nostalgic? Is it like identification for you, or another feeling? Does it make you happy? It actually mostly makes me sad, but a good kind of sad.


  1. I hypothesize that the primary role of popular music is to make us nostalgic. The reason we listen to popular music today is so that we can feel nostalgic about it ten years from now. Really successful popular music, like Led Zeppelin, can inspire instant nostalgia even in one who has no previous experience with the music. Also Neil Young.

    Recently I felt nostalgic about Nine Inch Nails. I wasn't even listening to it, it just came to mind for some reason and I felt nostalgic.

  2. Probably there's some truth in that. In a post a few days back I suggested (what I think is the fairly banal point that) pop music is mainly designed to create the desire to hear pop music: not enjoyment, but the need to consume.

    Which isn't, strictly speaking, a problem for me: examined closely, a lot of art works like this, for fairly obvious reasons; the important thing is that the art occasionally pays off with real pleasure or catharsis. Bands like those I listed above do that for me, though of course the question is always whether I would feel that way if I were hearing them for the first time. (Nirvana: yes, Smashing Pumpkins: Not so sure. Certainly a few songs, but maybe not nearly so many as do now.)

  3. Well, and as I meant to say in the comment above, I think your formulation is about three inches from mine -- very similar. I like the idea that we're saving up experiences for future pleasure. "I don't really feel that great about Greenday's 'The Time of Your Life' right now, but man am I gonna get teary-eyed for this in five or ten years!"

  4. Sports, football. My family's life still mostly revolves around sports and I've moved on. Sometimes I catch myself geeking out on it again out of nostalgia. . . still compulsively check the stats and scores and roster-changes of certain leagues, even though I've stopped watching.

  5. nine inch nails has never caused me to feel nostalgic- but I have never stopped listening to them! I'm not sure why but the downward spiral still feels as fresh to me today as it did in 94.

  6. Honestly, Anonymous, no one is sure why you feel that way.